Saturday, July 21, 2012

Annie Smithers interview

Annie Smithers is a restaurateur from Australia. What makes her interesting is that she works hard to locally source her supplies--including running her own farm. I recommend reading the whole transcript in The Australian (and thanks to Milkwood Permaculture for the link), but I'll include a few choice quotes here.
There are a lot of producers out there who will tell you that a restaurant has bought something from them once and then listed it on their menu for 18 months. It happens and people do it because it’s about survival. This industry is full of lies - we have to tell lies. It's whether we're lying or just not quite up with their paperwork! The reality of the restaurant industry is that you can be here today and gone tomorrow,  and it's full of small businesses chasing their tails. It's not easy. Even though you might think something's lovely it might be 33-50 per cent more than a stock standard product so you might think "oh well" and never change the status. It's a really tough question.

[...] when you take it to the producer level you run into the problem of constancy of supply. If a supplier doesn't get enough orders they don’t take the animals to the abattoir so all of a sudden you can have two weeks without it. How do you communicate that to your staff and customers? It's quite difficult. There's constant supply of some products, we know their seasonal fluctuations and we know what's good and when, but it's pretty testy. It takes a lot of work.

Producers don’t necessarily come to us. It all comes down to business margins. If someone is producing on a small scale sometimes it's more profitable to sell direct to the consumer via the farmers market because at some point we [restaurateurs] have to pay less for it. So there's a lot of small producers who are now bypassing restaurant land and going direct to the consumer because of the increasing conscience of the eating public. 

This last quote, " there's a lot of small producers who are now bypassing restaurant land and going direct to the consumer," is something I've felt confident about for a long time. When we sold fresh veg at market, we got supermarket or better prices. When I hear producers complaining about not getting a price per pound for animals, or not enough for what they produce, all I can think is "We did better. But we sold direct." There are artificial barricades put up to keep farmers from selling direct--like the BC ban on on-farm killing, where I cannot buy a lamb from a producer and then slaughter it on their land. I can do it at home, but not a lot of neighbours want me to do so. And if I'm a newbie, I might need some direction on best practices--which the producer could give me if I was allowed to slaughter on site.

The other opportunity for producers to cut out the middle man is via the web. This goes to the heart of the whole conversation about supermarkets in the supply chain and the boutique versus mass produced. Take, for example, a family citrus farm that's been beaten up by the big supermarkets for years. The young savvy family members that are coming in to the business say, "Oh bugger this, it's stupid. I'm not going to let them pay $x per kg and for them to sell it at $y. I'll put it online and sell it at a price somewhere in the middle. It'll cost us half as much and earn us four times what it used to”. 

It costs me $85,000 a year to run the garden.  That would be the equivalent to spending about $1200 per week on vegetables. My vegetable bill here should be about $600 a week. I am lucky that I have a restaurant that is able to support that initiative. The only way it's affordable is that everything we sell is value added because we're not selling a carrot for $2 - we're selling a main course for $36.  

$85,000/yr to run the garden seems a bit high to me, but somehow she's making it work. Anyway, have a read, it's good stuff.

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