Jim Switzenberg, a partner at John Wright Restaurant in Wrightsville, can tell horror stories about the downsides of the farm-to-table trend among restaurants.
One of his chefs, he said, quit another restaurant in the region over an argument with its owner about what constitutes “farm-to-table,” or “farm-to-fork,” a movement associated with using locally sourced foods in menu items.
“The chef questioned the local origins of some vegetables it was serving under the farm-to-table name, and the owner told him, ‘Well, it had to grow on a farm somewhere,’” Switzenberg said. “He quit, and we hired him.”
Although it may be hard to define, the concept of farm-to-table has become one of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry. In response to customer demand, restaurants across the country and in Central Pennsylvania are rebranding themselves as specialists in the new format.
According to a survey of chefs by the National Restaurant Association, locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and environmental sustainability are the top three table-service menu trends for 2015. Natural ingredients rank fifth. Hyper-local sourcing — harvesting food from farms or gardens planted at a restaurant — ranked seventh, while sustainable seafood ranked eighth.
Restaurants equipped to handle the demand from customers stand to be successful, said Annika Stensson, director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association.
“As far as focusing a restaurant concept on local sourcing, that can certainly pay off with consumers,” she said. “In fact, seven in 10 consumers say they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced food items.”
The farm-to-table trend has hit Central Pennsylvania, as can be seen in new restaurant openings and transformations of existing eateries.
In Harrisburg’s Midtown, The Millworks opened in the winter as a farm-to-table venture, and Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar took the place of Fox and Hound Sports Bar at The Shoppes at Susquehanna in Susquehanna Township.
There is no industry standard for farm-to-table, and not even a true definition of what constitutes “local” in locally sourced food, Stensson said. The more local the food is, she said, the more likely food costs will rise for the restaurant, a cost that could be passed on to the consumer. In addition, menu options could be limited in the winter.