Los Angeles restaurant owners and chefs argue that the regionally produced or "homegrown" vegetables increasingly found on their menus taste better.
But they cost more, and the costs get especially steep if the vegetables are certified organic. That is driving restaurants to forge unprecedented alliances with California farmers as both try to convince consumers that closer is better when it comes to fresh produce.
For example, Tender Greens restaurant in Culver City has recently partnered with Scarborough Farms Inc. in Oxnard. The farm owns a minority stake in the restaurant, and provides the restaurant, known for its salads, with all of its lettuce.
"We had never partnered with a restaurant before, but I knew the owners from when they worked at One Pico and we'd built a relationship," said Scarborough President Anne Stein, who runs the farm with her sons.
Stein said she's doubled her planting area in the last decade, to 150 acres in Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Maria, to keep up with the restaurant's demand.
Some distributors are also feeling the benefits.
Rick Fisher, regional sales manager of LA & SF Specialty Inc., said that chefs insisting on supporting small farmers who have higher quality and higher priced produce has helped increase his business 20 percent annually over the last decade. The wholesaler is now a $200 million company. Produce from small growers (often less than $200,000 in annual sales) costs between 15 percent and 25 percent more than the average stuff.
"You can buy a commercial mesculin mix for $5 a case but a lot of the local restaurants may want a mix grown locally, not washed with chlorine," he said. "So a lot of the chefs prefer to pay a couple dollars more a case."
The proliferation of farmer's markets in Los Angeles is further heightening Angelenos' appreciation of local produce.
Nathan Lyon has worked at L.A.-area farmer's markets for Fresno farmer Ken Lee for about 10 years. He hosts his own regional food show on Discovery Health after coming in fourth on the Food Network's Next Top Chef reality show.
"Produce in the grocery store has traveled an average of 2,500 miles," he said. "And the varieties are chosen for longevity, not for flavor. There is no way the peaches I sell for Ken Lee will make it to Mississippi. It's going to rot because it's ripe and so full of sugar."
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