Mel Miller tills his privately owned land in Mapleton and harvests fresh produce from his assortment of zucchini, squash, tomatoes, raspberries and other seasonal foods. He is one among many farmers in Utah who sell their produce to local restaurants, grocery stores or farmers markets for use.
Buying local food is an honored tradition. Before the invention of refrigeration and preservatives (salt excluded), buying local food was the only option. However, with modern-day corporate merchants building national grocery chains and restaurants, buying local food may not even cross consumers’ minds while they search for low prices.
Industrial fever and financial statistics could be local merchants’ worst enemies. When big companies play the numbers-game, they look to save money through volume. The more product they can sell, the cheaper they can afford to make the price tag. In fact some stores, like Walmart or Target, get so enthusiastic about having the lowest prices they even match competitors’ ads, ensuring that their shoppers get the lowest price in the community on any given item. They can continue this strategy thanks to the volume of units they sell.
Chris Neidiger is the general manager at Communal, a local restaurant that concentrates on buying local produce to fuel their menu.
“It is a bit more challenging in some ways to buy local,” Neidiger said. “It’s more of a challenge seasonally to find the product you want. Every other month we change our menu significantly because of the items our local merchants can provide. Other restaurants buy from bigger companies because the price can be lower, but for us it’s a fun challenge to take on.”
Communal’s strategy is a stark contrast to national chains. McDonalds, Wendy’s and similar fast food restaurants engage in seemingly endless competition to match their competitors’ dollar-menus. When food prices fluctuate from restaurant to restaurant it begs the question: what are consumers paying for?
Unfortunately, the price of food and its quality are not always correlative. Men’s Health did a survey of the “worst foods in America.” They found the majority of these unhealthy foods in national restaurant chains. Even foods on the healthy menu at places like Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Applebee’s and IHOP can have surprising nutritional facts. In fact, an order of large fries at Five Guys Burgers and Fries has nearly 1,500 calories on its own.
According to Neidiger, local food has a health advantage. Since it is grown and delivered locally, there is no need to inject the food with unseemly amounts of hormones and preservatives. Since the food is more fresh, it also retains its flavor more effectively.
“I would argue the quality of product we receive by buying local is better than what other restaurants get,” Neidiger said. “Sometimes when you buy from large companies you don’t know if the things you’re using to start off with are very good. There’s not much you can do to make the end product really good if you start with bad ingredients. The end product is only as good as the sum of its parts.”
Many restaurants will not compromise when it comes to good-quality ingredients. Ernesto Lo Russo owns the local restaurant Terra Mia and seems convinced that grease is quality food’s worst nightmare.
“This pizza at Terra Mia, this whole pizza has less calories than one slice of Costco pizza,” Lo Russo said. “I’d rather eat a whole pizza every day than just one slice. It’s all the grease, when you eat the pizza and feel sick afterwards, (it’s) about the grease.”
Discovering local, healthy food can be a very refreshing experience. Mallory Everton had such an experience when she started eating at Mountain West Burrito, another Provo restaurant that focuses on using fresh, local ingredients.
“Local food is better than corporate food because people trust what’s around them,” Everton said. “You also know it hasn’t been packaged and stored in a dirty truck for weeks. I like Mountain West Burrito because I felt like the people behind the counter cared about the business more. The guy that owned it worked the cashier for the first while after it opened. I felt like I invested in the people and the business. Everything tasted fresh. It just tastes better for your body, and your body knows it.”
Sam Oteo, the owner of Tortilla Bar in Orem, takes his approach to freshness to an extreme. Ninety-five percent of the food in his restaurant comes from local farmers.
“I don’t create anything new,” Oteo said. “The people that do the magic are the farmers around here. They are the ones who put the work in; I just change it a little bit. We use all organic local stuff, beef from grass-fed cows and fresh produce.”
Ironically enough, buying local food, though sometimes more expensive than corporate options, could be a smart economic choice. Buy Local First, a Utah organization, estimates that if each household were to spend just ten dollars a week on local merchants, it would inject Utah’s economy with 11 million additional dollars each year. In terms of food, it means that if a family eats out at a local restaurant instead of a corporate chain any given week, they are helping Utah bolster its own economy. If people do even a portion of their grocery shopping at a local grocery store, they can help accomplish the same objective.
Neidiger is happy that Communal is one of the restaurants that buy local to help stimulate the state’s economy.
“Seventy to 80 percent of the food we use is purchased locally,” Neidiger said. “Since Communal opened, it’s tried to support the community. Obviously business can’t succeed without local support, and we feel it’s our obligation to give back. Our friends and neighbors come in to eat, and in turn we keep the money in the community.”