“Local Ingredients” are popping up a lot on menus and in groceries stores across the country, and in Pittsburgh. And that’s a great thing. But why? Why does “local” matter?
What Counts as Local Ingredients?
Western PA has a rich farm heritage and it continues to carry on that tradition, and even build on it. When you think of Pittsburgh, you may think of glowing furnaces, burning coal, and industry. Greenery might not be the first thing to pop into your mind. But Urbanites dreaming of the countryside have brought farming into the city in some exciting ways. Community gardens, restaurant gardens, and personal gardens have (literally) flourished in the last few years. Reminiscent of the Victory Gardens of World War II, people have returned to gardening in droves, and the interest isn’t just limited to gardeners.
But what counts as “local” exactly? Does it mean in-state? In-county? Or even in-neighborhood? “Local” isn’t a definite phrase, and distance from farm to table varies. Whether you’re buying within your state, or from an urban garden down the street, you are still purchasing meat, dairy, and produce locally. However, the closer to your location you can buy, the more directly you benefit the community around you.
Why Go Local?
Buying local benefits the entire community. Not only are you putting money directly back into the community (to people who will then spend their money inside the community), but by purchasing locally, you are creating relationships between your restaurant and farmers in your region.
When you purchase close to home, your restaurant is responsible for lesser energy consumption for packaging, shipping, and delivery of your ingredients used. And because the food you’re purchasing takes less time to travel to you, it’s fresher and can taste better than food shipped further or food packaged/frozen for shipping.
There’s value in “local” to your customers as well. Millennial customers especially are drawn to restaurants who grow or buy local produce and use them heavily in their menu. Not only is purchasing local beneficial for the community, it’s a marketing standpoint that does very well with younger, and more green-minded customer bases.
Buying local–in the case of honey–can even improve your health. Local honey contains more localized pollen than imported honey, which can help to build an immunity to the allergens in your region. Supporting local apiaries also puts support back into local farms, whose crops are pollinated by bees within the area.
Purchasing within your region creates a domino effect of economic opportunity, broadens your network, and connects your cooking staff and customers directly to the source of their food.
Isn’t Buying Local Expensive?
If “going green” isn’t convincing you to go local, take into consideration the economic benefits.
Products with the catchphrases of “organic”, “local”, and “natural” have gained an expensive reputation thanks to boutique-style grocery stores touting “pure foods”, and diet kicks peddling the latest superfood. But when you buy in-season, and buy to the strengths of your region, purchasing local can be the same price or cheaper than buying abroad.
Buying in-season means purchasing products within their prime season when they’re more plentiful and at their cheapest. This varies region to region. Having a rotating, seasonal, and limited menu can help your restaurant maintain a lower food cost and offer more options over time, which will bring in new and repeat customers to try different dishes.
You may even want to consider creating a personal garden to experiment with new dishes, or start a rooftop garden for your establishment (if you’ve got the room and are allowed to under local zoning laws).
Local produce doesn’t have to be limited to the kitchen, either. Fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables, and even dairy items can be used behind the bar as well. If you have extra basil or cucumbers left over from the kitchen, recycle them into a cocktail special. Using up food which would otherwise go to waste can help make up for over-purchasing. Plus, an in-season basil cucumber martini in the middle of summer sounds amazing.
Where Can I Eat Local?
The Vandal in Lawrenceville is a hyper-seasonal restaurant, staffed by head chef Csilla Thackray, whose rotating menu highlights local ingredients in their peak season. The variety of Vandal’s limited menu (which changes every couple weeks) encourages customers to revisit the restaurant to try their new dishes.
Dinette in East Liberty has been a proponent of sustainability for years now, becoming the only restaurant to be certified a “Sustainable Restaurant” by Sustainable Pittsburgh in 2015, then earning the Platinum Plate award in 2017. Dinette grows produce for the restaurant on their rooftop, boasting a 75 container garden that produces from May to November for their kitchen.
Bitter Ends, which just opened up a Luncheonette in Bloomfield, grows most of their produce in their Verona garden, minutes outside Lawrenceville. In addition to baking their own bread, doughnuts, and selection of pastries, they serve up vegetables grown in their garden as the stars of their sandwiches.
Even breweries are purchasing locally. We talked about Helltown Brewing previously in our article on Favorite Local Breweries. Helltown buys equipment locally, then donates their spent grains to farmers in the region.
A small sampling of restaurants who use local ingredients in significant amounts include Coca Café (Lawrenceville), The Vandal (Lawrenceville), Dinette (East Liberty), Bitter Ends Luncheonette (Bloomfield), Legume / Butterjoint (Oakland), Spoon (East Liberty), Stagioni (South Side), Avenue B (Friendship), Eighty Acres Kitchen & Bar (Plum), Cure (Lawrenceville), Six Penn Kitchen (Downtown), and Whitfield of The Ace Hotel (East Liberty). There are more and more restaurants in the city that are serving up dishes with local ingredients, and it’s a trend that benefits the entire community of Pittsburgh.
If you’re dubious about switching your food purchases over to local growers, try a few of the options around town first.
What Can I Buy Local?
Access to local products in Pittsburgh is much easier than you’d think if you know where to look.
In our temperate climate, Pittsburgh has access to a wide variety of local vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat products, as well as honey, herbs, mushrooms, and flowers. Our growing season for most crops lasts from April to November (with some exceptions) giving you a long period of time to experiment with what regional food choices are a good fit for your establishment.
Reap Food Group, an organization based in Wisconsin that helps restaurants and farmers connect, has created a fantastic guide to help restauranteurs take the first steps into buying locally for their establishments, complete with an in-season guide and suggestions of where to start looking for connections with your local farmers.
Purchasing within the region certainly doesn’t limit your options, and it’s possible to find a local producer for any restaurant’s need. If you’re looking to open up your own restaurant garden, there’s even a Vermiculture (that’s a fancy word for “worm farm”) in Shadyside that exchanges compostable waste for rich worm casting fertilizer to their customers, which was recently featured in Thrillist.
Keep an open mind when seeking out local options, and you’ll find there’s plenty of benefits to reap from Pittsburgh’s soil.