Ed Hill grows turkey red wheat in Ohio, which is milled locally and used to bake breads sold in nearby Dorothy Lane stores.
“Local” has been a buzz word in the food industry for so long, you’d think it might be starting to lose some of its buzz.

You’d be wrong. Local is here to stay, industry insiders say, because of the other things it conjures in consumers’ minds: taste, freshness, health, value, community.  Better.  

While local’s popularity hasn’t waned — in most instances, it’s grown —the definition of it, and consumers’ expectations concerning it, have evolved. And instore deli, bakery and prepared foods departments and their suppliers have evolved right along with it.

Local has always meant most at the retail grocery level when it refers to fresh produce, says Neil Stern, a consultant with Chicago-based McMillan Doolittle.

But produce is far from the only department to feel its influence. “It has relevance in each department, often for different reasons,” Stern says. “In deli, bakery and prepared foods, it signals fresher product  —less distance to travel —and, critically, local brand recognition and a sensitivity to tastes and preferences of the neighborhood.”

Creating successful local programs for non-produce departments can, however, be tricky, Stern says.  “They face unique challenges. Quality control is absolutely critical as is integrating into the supply chain. And merchandising the cases in deli/prepared is not always as easy as departments like produce, where you can create clearer signing.”

The definition of “local” has been evolving as companies seek to better identify what it means, Stern says. “It went from regional to state to mileage-based to footsteps in some cases,” he says, referring to Whole Foods putting a greenhouse on top of a store in Brooklyn, New York.

Even today, local still requires a “clean definition” and demands that several questions concerning be answered, Stern says. Is it really fresher? Is it good for the community? What exactly is its clear benefit? “Simply being local is not enough anymore,” he says.

That said, “local” as a trend hasn’t peaked yet, Stern says, though it is facing new hurdles. “How do you ensure quality control? Does it go against efficiencies? Whole Foods has made it tougher for smaller and local suppliers to get on the shelf as it looks to become more efficient.”

Red Hen Baking Co. partners with local growers and millers on many of its artisan breads.
Getting the word out

As the local trend as evolved, Dayton,  Ohio-based grocery retailer Dorothy Lane Market and its customers have become better at articulating just what “local” means, says Carrie Walters, Dorothy Lane’s corporate chef.

“Most of our customers are a little more serious now,” Walters says. “Five years ago, they didn’t really understand what was meant by local. And we had to define it. It used to be more fluid, now it’s more specific.”

Did foods need to be grown or sourced in Ohio for Dorothy Lane to count them as local, or did suppliers just over the state line in Indiana also make the cut? The company settled on a three-hour radius —basically, if a food leaves its production source in the morning and can be on a consumer’s plate by lunch, it’s local. As a result, Dorothy Lane can now promote the offerings of one of its favorite chocolatiers for bakery products, who’s based in Indiana, as “local.”

For Dorothy Lane, which has always sourced locally, the opening of a Whole Foods Market near one of it stores was a wake-up call from a marketing standpoint, Walters says. “We realized we needed to toot our own horn. We had taken it for granted. Whole Foods isn’t local at all, and we’ve been doing it for 50 years. The presumption, though, was that Whole Foods was more local.”

On the marketing and merchandising side, Dorothy Lane spends considerable time drawing attention to the local farmers and other businesses that supply so much of its foods, particularly in the summer, and showing shoppers where those suppliers are with the use of maps — physical ones in stores, digital ones on the company’s social media pages. Dorothy Lane also puts up billboards on the sides of its stores promoting its local grower and supplier partners.

As is the case for most retailers, fresh produce is the department at Dorothy Lane where consumers typically feel the impact of local the most. But Dorothy Lane also spotlights local in its prepared food offerings whenever possible, Walters says. Early in the summer, for instance, you can find Ohio-grown zucchini on the chain’s Naples-style pizza. By August, other pizzas are made using heirloom tomatoes from the Buckeye State.

In the deli case, meanwhile, consumers can find fresh corn salad made with Ohio corn and an heirloom tomato salad made with locally grown tomatoes. Pumpkin, squash, ramps and knob onions are among the other locally grown items Dorothy Lane uses in its seasonal dishes, and the list keeps growing every year, Walters says.

Sometimes, unfortunately, “local” can mean “limited,” Walters says. Ramps and knob onions are two examples. “Sometimes we’re limited by supply and have to pick and choose based on volume.”

Dorothy Lane produces many of the items for its instore bakeries in its stores, but the company also relies on local supplier partners for product. In addition to the Indiana chocolatier, Dorothy Lane sources cupcakes and other baked goods from two local vegan bakers and cupcakes, fudge and other products from other local suppliers.

In the summer Dorothy Lane stores lure customers with cookouts that feature roasted corn, smoked pulled turkey, hot dogs, beef and bison burgers and other seasonal favorites —all made from locally grown or raised foods.

To celebrate its commitment to local, each fall Dorothy Lane holds a Local Harvest Dinner for its farmer supplier partners. Half of the tickets for the event, which is slated for Sept. 20 this year, go to farmers, half to customers who are randomly selected. This will be the company’s seventh year hosting the event.

|||READ MORE: Committed customers|||

Working with local farmers can be challenging, but rewarding. 
Committed customers

Since 2000, Middlesex, Vermont-based artisan bakery Red Hen Baking Co. has sourced a significant amount of whole wheat and bolted flour from a local farmer, says Randy George, Red Hen’s baker/owner. In recent years weekly volumes reached 1,500 pounds. “Usage went way up a few years ago after he put a bolter in to sift out the bran,” George says.

This year, however, the farmer announced his retirement, which drove home to George and Red Hen one of the potential pitfalls of relying on local supplies. “One of the challenges of working with local farmers is that, because they’re so small, a lot can depend on one individual.”

That said, Red Hen began working with an Ithaca, New York-based grower this summer to help replace some of that lost production, and sourcing locally will remain a priority, George says, going forward. Red Hen currently gets about 80 percent of its flour from a farmer in Quebec. Forget state — that’s another country. But it’s still just 150 miles from Middlesex.

Randy George

Once again, it all comes back to your definition of “local.”

Not only can it be a challenge to get the volumes you need when you source locally, George says —it’s also often a battle to get the word out. “I find that you really have to announce it boldly,” he says. “Just saying that it’s local on your ingredients list captures just a fraction of consumers.”

There also can be an educational curve, George says, when it comes to educating people about local specifically as it relates to bread. “Baking is different,” he says. “Where the wheat comes from — that matters to people if it’s made locally. Flour, though, is a little more abstract. You need to educate people and you only have a few words and seconds to do it.”

One big local success for Red Hen has been its Cyrus Pringle bread, named for a famous Vermont wheat breeder. In addition to the name, “there’s a whole story that goes along with it,” George says. “It’s great for marketing.” With the loss of some of its Vermont production, however, Red Hen recently had to  amend the Cyrus Pringle label and marketing materials to reflect that some of the wheat used to make it came from Quebec. In its place is language about Cyrus Pringle being made “in honor of” a great Vermont baker.

“It’s really important that you not make any false claims,” he says. “And your marketing has to be nimble enough to keep up with the changes that are going to happen.”

Just as Red Hen reaps the rewards of sourcing locally, so do grocery retailers benefit from buying bread from local artisan bakers like Red Hen. “Vermont is amazing about having a customer base that’s committed to local food,” he says.

Taste, freshness, community

It’s not always practical to source locally — particularly fruits and vegetables —when you live in a part of the country where all four seasons have meaning, but companies like Kansas City, Kansas-based retailer Balls Food Stores Inc. still do as much as they can to tap into the power of local.

Balls, which operates the Price Chopper and Hen House banners, sources fruits and vegetables from Kansas, Missouri and other regional growing areas as soon as spring arrives, says Mike Tilden, the company’s director of deli and bakery. Much of that produce goes into the chain’s salad bars and other fresh deli offerings.

“Local —and I mean truly local —is very important to us and to our customers,” Tilden says. “We hear and see lots of claims of being or supporting local because we recognize that it’s important to our customers and can influence their shopping choices. Local is and should always be better, and it’s something  the big box retailers cannot replicate —though claims of such are often made.”

Customers see local on two fronts, Tilden says. One, they want  to support their local merchants.  Two, local signifies the freshest product available, which equates to a better eating experience and longer life. “It adds a new level of freshness and taste that our customers love.”

In addition to those two drivers, there’s also a practical dimension to local, Tilden says. “Local is quality and freshness at a value — much to do with it being closer to market rather than across the country, and that is important to everyone.”

A commitment to local runs deep at Balls Foods, Tilden says. “It goes back to our beginnings, when our founder traveled into the countryside looking for and picking up locally grown produce and eggs to take back to his markets in the city.”

Balls Foods’ largest local supplier is its own Tippins division, which prepares and supplies Hen House and Price Chopper delis with a variety of fresh soups, dips, dressings and quiche and pot pie fillings. 

But where Tippins really shines is in Balls’ instore bakeries. “We can’t say enough about our Tippins pies, which are made right here in our own pie plant and sold across the country to other discerning retail customers who also want to offer their customers the very best.” Tippins also makes a full line of croissants, tea breads and bagels that meet strict kosher standards.

Another jewel in Balls’ instore bakery crown is its partnership with Farm to Market Bread Co. (FTM), a Kansas City, Missouri-based bakery that delivers daily to local Hen Houses and Price Choppers.  “FTM uses locally grown wheat and their ingredient label is as clean as if you had made it yourself,” Tilden says. “We are very proud of our FTM bread because we believe it’s as close to what you would get to shopping for bread in Europe.”

Sourcing locally also plays a big role at North Kansas City, Missouri-based Walker’s Fresh Foods, which makes deli-case and branded packaged deli salads and other foods for local and regional clients, says Mike Stinson, the company’s president and CEO. “There is a lot of interest in locally sourced product at the wholesale level, and I have to believe that trickles down to customers,” he says.

Walker’s belongs to Share KC, a group of local businesses that pools their resources to purchase local products effectively. Walker’s also participates in one of its retail partner’s buy local programs. The retailer ships  fresh produce to Walker’s in season, which Walker’s uses to make salads sold behind the case in the retailer’s stores.

Walker’s also sources Missouri cucumbers, potatoes from Kansas, tomatoes and onions for its pico de gallo and salsa from local growers and ingredients for its coleslaw from the St. Joseph, Missouri, area, Stinson says. For Walker’s, “local” typically means grown or sourced in Kansas or Missouri.

Today’s retail customer is a keen reader of ingredient statements and other information about the products they buy, and if what they’re reading shouts “local,” all the better, Stinson says. And Kansas City-area retailers are good about getting the word out that Walker’s itself is local, whether it’s signage, hang tags or other marketing or merchandising choices.