The restaurant industry has being riding the “foodie-craze” by using farm-to-table buzzwords like local, organic, grass-fed and sustainable. However, according to a recent NPR news article, some restaurants are not being truthful in their claims — especially if the price is just too good to be true! Even though most of us are willing to pay a somewhat higher price for farm-to-table menu items, the true costs to obtain these ingredients are often too high to result in a profit margin for the restaurant.

According to Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, saving money on food by using factory farm-raised ingredients goes against European culture. Most Europeans know that good quality food costs more, and spend well over 10 percent of their incomes on food. As a comparison, France spends 14 percent and Americans spend 6 percent of household expenditures on food. [i]In fact, according to the Gates Foundation, Americans spend a lower percentage of expenditures on food than any other country in the world.

In the restaurant industry, the term farm-to-table means the use of fresh, local and high-quality ingredients, procured by chefs so that patrons can feel better about what they are eating. Yes, it is true that fresh and local ingredients taste better, have more nutrition and are better for the environment. They get to your table sooner, are less processed, and not bred to withstand shipping, long shelf-life or other economic variables. Local and higher quality food requires more cost to produce and Americans are just not willing to dole out the dough.

I recently met with an owner of a restaurant in Florida who used the word “farm” in the title of his restaurant’s name. When I asked if the produce was organic or locally sourced, he muttered that it was impossible to get farmers to deliver produce to the restaurant.

Don’t get me wrong, there are fine chefs — typically who own their own restaurants — that are truly committed to the cause and don’t cut corners. They may even contract with local farms to grow specialty seasonal items. However choosing ingredients is not always in the hands of the chef. A non-chef owner or operations manager looks for ways to increase the bottom line. The easiest way is to spend less on ingredients. Raising menu prices is not feasible when there is stiff competition and Americans are not used to spending much when eating out.

Let’s face it, a menu is a marketing tool and can be misused to bring in business. The description of offerings entices you into the restaurant. This is where farm-to-table terms come into play on the menu (but maybe not in the kitchen). Examples include:

How can this be? There are no third party organizations checking to see that menu ingredients are cross-referenced on the restaurant’s invoices. The only way to check is to review invoices from the restaurant’s purveyors. Recently, a food critic uncovered the problem when she was dubbed into believing that more and more farm-to-table restaurants were sprouting up in her community. She had menu items analyzed in a lab and found out they utilized inferior ingredients to what was stated on the menu.

What can you do? Research the restaurant and find out who is responsible for sourcing ingredients. Contact that person but not during service hours. Question the wait staff when menu items claim to be farm-to-table and ask for a confirmation from the kitchen. You cannot know for sure unless you ask for invoices and that might be uncomfortable. The bottom line is:

  • Eat at home more often and choose your own ingredients.
  • Patronize chefs and restaurants that you trust.

To learn more about choosing the best ingredients, eating out wisely and being bold when dining-out, pick up a copy of my book Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy.

[i] World Bank 2009, US Department of Agriculture 2009, Euromonitor International