Introducing Foragers

November 05, 2010

Buying food from local producers has become an important way to support small-scale agriculture and contribute to the development of regional food economies.

Buying food from local producers has become an important way to support small-scale agriculture and contribute to the development of regional food economies. However, while the growing desire for local food inspires consumers to shop accordingly, few seek out local food beyond their neighborhood retailer or farmer’s market, thus limiting their selection. 

Now, food service provider Bon Appétit Management Company is hoping to improve consumer access to lesser-known local producers by creating a “forager” position within the company, the first of its kind for a national food service operation. The new program is part of Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork goal of partnering with 1,000 local farmers or suppliers by 2011.

Foragers, who are existing Bon Appétit chefs and managers, are charged with the task of finding yet-to-be-discovered food producers, and hidden gems from local farms. With 15 distinct forager positions in each region of operations, even the smallest regional supplier will have the opportunity to be discovered.

The goal of the foragers, says Maisie Greenawalt, Vice President of Bon Appétit, is to connect their chefs with new, small-scale farms and artisans. The forager’s job is to seek out unusual products and find synergies between the needs of multiple chefs.
“Up until now, if a small producer wanted to sell their wares to multiple Bon Appétit chefs, he or she had to contact each chef individually,” says Greenawalt. “The foragers share information with multiple chefs in their region making it easier for small farms to connect with more buyers.”  

Foragers in different regions have focused on solving different problems. For example, in Southern California, where there is already a well-established steady supply of fresh, local produce, forager Dennis Lofland is working on a partnership with a local ranch to bring pastured beef (delivered by a bio-fueled truck and run by Bon Appétit’s used fry-oil) to the cafes in the area. In New England, on the other hand, finding small scale producers of specialty crops hasn’t been as simple. Forager John O’Neil is putting his mind to finding the chefs a wide variety of products. O’Neil has already signed up 20 new producers.
Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program, says Greenawalt, is a company-wide commitment to buy at least 20% of their food from farmers or artisans that are small scale, owner-operated and within 150 miles of the café. They made this promise in 1999 and have since bought tens of millions of dollars in local food and are supporting almost 1,000 small producers. In addition to the direct benefit of their purchases, their Farm to Fork program is proving that a national company can successfully make local purchases, thus raising the bar for other food service and restaurant companies.

“When we started Farm to Fork in 1999, customers immediately noticed the difference in taste. We began getting compliments on the raw spinach on the salad bar for example. At that time, people weren’t focused on where the food came from, just that it was full of flavor. In the ensuing decade we’ve seen a huge growth in interest in foods’ provenance and we’re happy to be able to give our guests answers about what we buy,” says Greenawalt.

Bon Appétit Management Company ( is an onsite restaurant company offering full food service management to corporations, universities and specialty venues. Their Farm to Fork Program has worked to both support the local economy and track down high quality ingredients for more than 400 Bon Appétit cafés around the country, including eBay, the University of Pennsylvania and the Getty Center.

“First and foremost, our Farm to Fork program is about flavor. Local food simply tastes better. It can be picked at the peak of ripeness and eaten quickly. Farm to Fork is also about supporting the local economy, ensuring green space in our communities and continuing the rural traditions of our country,” Greenawalt adds.