One of the most profitable ways to sell fresh fruits and vegetables is to a specialty restaurant chef that uses the highest quality produce available. This type of marketing takes a lot of legwork to be successful because it involves visiting the chef several times during the season to check on their needs. The following tips are from a retired restaurant chef, Frank Asaro, who talked about them at a specialty crops school in North Carolina a few years ago.

Here is an outline of what a grower needs to do to be successful in selling to restaurant chefs:

Make Yourself Known

Call on prospective buyers door to door. This has to be done in the off-season, when you are not involved in the daily chores of your operation. During the winter months, you have plenty of time to visit prospective buyers to let them know about your operation and to learn about the chef’s place of business. This gives you a chance to make a list of produce the chef wants you to grow. Remember that you don’t grow what you like to grow – you grow what the chef wants to buy from you.

Hand out a written product list (see below). This will be handy for the chef to see what you’re offering. Offer free samples to the buyer. This is important for them to experience the quality you’ll provide. Expound on the details of your operation, letting them know you’ll go the “extra mile” to bring them the best quality available. This would include your location and size; the cultural practices you follow; quantities available to sell; and your harvest and delivery schedule.

As for the chef’s schedule, find out the days they order produce and when they want it delivered. Plan your next visit with free samples. Establish at least the “ball park” needs of the chef. Review and leave a list of your products. And make sure to return all of the chef’s phone calls.

Written Product List

List your items that you have for sale. List your harvest dates and when produce will be approximately available.

Discuss how you package your produce with the chef; be flexible. List your prices.

Inform the chef of your business name, a contact person, an address, phone numbers, email addresses and the best times to call.

Follow Up With the Chef

Be persistent! Remember that you’re competing with many other conventional suppliers and produce wholesalers. Call on a regular basis; remember, you call them for an order, not vice versa.

Call the chef with your availability and updates three to four days prior to normal delivery. This gives the chef time to plan for your specialty. If you find the chef not ordering, re-visit with more samples.

Update your product list with dates throughout the season.

Also, be consistent! Follow a routine. Maintain your quality – let the chef know why you might be offering inferior quality due to something beyond your control; otherwise, you’ll be remembered for offering substandard quality.

At the end of the season, give the chef notice one to two weeks prior to the end of the season. Ask the chef for requests for produce for next season. Make sure to visit the chef three weeks before and again one week before the start of the new season.

Additionally, patronize the chef’s establishment. Become a familiar face by supporting their business. Let them know when you are there. Extend an invitation to them to visit your farm to let them know what is involved in growing fruits and vegetables.

A bunch of white asparagus ready for sale.
Photo by Carl Cantaluppi

Growing White Asparagus to Sell to a Restaurant Chef

White asparagus is green asparagus grown in the absence of sunlight. Restaurant chefs will pay two to three times the price for white asparagus since it’s considered a delicacy. How do you grow white asparagus? It’s easy. Use food-grade, clean, opaque, black plastic 55-gallon drums sawed in half longitudinally. Do not use drums that previously contained chemicals. The halves are then placed over the row and butted up against each other.

When harvesting, the half-drum can be lifted off the row very easily and then put back in place when finished. When harvest is over, remove the drums and let the spears turn green and produce ferns, just like when growing green asparagus.