50 mile menu

Closing the Loop: The Rise of the 50 Mile Menu

The way we have come to consume food has created a distance between those that produce the food, the labour invested in growing it and what we can do to get the most out of these fresh ingredients. Buying local produce as direct as possible from source is one of the greatest ways to tackle this problem. Whilst the general zeitgeist is moving towards buying British and local, some restaurants and food delivery services are taking it a step further and creating 50 mile or less menus.

At the beginning of this year, Hospitality and Catering   asked the diners of the UK what factors impacted their choice of restaurant – and it turns out we’re a pretty considerate bunch. When choosing a place to eat, 66% think that ethics matter. Furthermore, 24% seek out venues that embrace sustainable practices; in London that percentage jumps to 39%. It’s becoming clear that organisations that plan their menus according to what is available to them from local producers and suppliers can expect to see a rise in custom and sales.

The 50 mile or less menu is an ethos that ensures that the origin of food has been considered and put front and centre of a business, making it attractive to consumers. A welcome trend, we predict that this quiet revolution will continue to grow in popularity. A typical comment from IDC’s supply partners, who have seen in action this rise in interest for local produce, would be: “For our customers, to support local farmers, it makes a good story. All of our customers are looking at food miles and what we all could be doing for the UK, so it’s important with Brexit coming up that we do as much as we can.” In fact, in the UK between 2018 and 2019 there was a 6% increase in demand for British branded products. 

In order to build sustainable agri-food economies, local and organic growers can add more value to their product through ‘value creation’ and ‘value capture’. Value creation is established by differentiating a product from others available on the market. We can see this demonstrated as some of the emotional drivers for buying local produce, such as showing off the identity of an area and sharing the human narrative of growers. Earlier in the ‘Our Voice’  series of articles, we explored how Exmoor Beef does just that – and does it well. Then we have value capture, which denotes the practical drivers transforming our food economy, such as altering supply chain structures to ensure that produce always arrives to customers at its freshest.

“The drivers to buy local produce are both rational and emotional. If you are a wholesaler up in Lincolnshire you are going to go local, likewise in Kent or Wye Valley. Our suppliers will work with smaller growers and farmers and the quality of produce, customers will pay for; it far outweighs the quality in the supermarkets or elsewhere.”

Richard Smith, Fruit and Vegetables expert, IDC

The trend for consumers to seek better produce has seen the rise of Alternative Food Networks  (AFNs). These shorten the food chain through schemes, some of which have become a fruit and veg staple for households; think veg boxes, farmer’s markets, urban agriculture and solidarity-based purchasing groups. For individual small-scale consumption, these systems work exceptionally well. Yet for farmers looking to provide their produce to larger organisations, such as hospitals, schools and care homes, smart suppliers are needed to join the dots. This is called the ‘Nested Markets’  (NMs) approach.

It is estimated  that in the UK there are 2000 supply chain businesses, which focus on local food, contributing £718 million to the economy and providing nearly 34,000 jobs. ‘Local food’ is defined by CPRE  the countryside charity as raw food, such as fruits and vegetables or lightly processed foods, such as yoghurt or sausages. In their words, “ Local food webs are about connections: the interactions between those who buy, sell and produce food, and the relationship between where food is produced and where it’s consumed.” Here at IDC, we choose to work with regional suppliers who work in tune with growers to transform the national food system and ensure that quality food from local growers (as opposed to faceless global food suppliers) reaches the mainstream.

“It’s about human beings and always has been in our business. We don’t work with companies, we don’t work with brands; we buy from people. There’s Dave who supplies our eggs and Rupert down at Conquer. It’s always the people first and the brand second.”

Mark Cribb, owner, Urban Guild restaurant & creator of Humans or Hospitality podcast 

One restaurant that is already achieving an exceptional level of locality in their menus is Through the Woods, London.  They are proving that being in the Big City doesn’t mean you can’t source locally. The small 16-seater restaurant offers one set menu that changes with the seasons. Many of the ingredients that end up on the plate are from the Chef’s own garden or sourced from within 10 miles of the restaurant. An admirable effort, but one that inspires the question: does the ‘50 mile menu’ sit solely within the reach of wealthy ‘foodies’?

One vegetable box scheme,Ten Mile Menu,  debunks this theory with its hyper-local business model. Working in partnership with local farms, subscribers receive vegetables often the day after they’re picked and milk, the day it leaves the udder. To ensure that it truly remains the best option for customers, Ten Mile Menu prices often sit at 20% cheaper than supermarkets, proving that you don’t need to spend the earth to look after it.

Across the planet, we all like to blow our own trumpet  in terms of our own country’s produce, believing that our tomatoes, strawberries, or apples are tastier and healthier than any others. And alongside national pride, knowing where our food comes from has undoubtedly taken on greater levels of importance in recent years. With many of us now turning our green – or not-so-green – fingered hands to gardening, we may need to prepare for an even greater public consciousness around the origins of food. An appreciation for the time, care and heartache it takes to raise a lowly radish from the ground may well muster some musings of the journey from farm to fork. Across the UK, the trend of the 50 mile menu is only just beginning and we for one, look forward to playing our part in consolidating it.