Hotels see staying power in locally sourced food

When an independent restaurant buys from local farmers, it sends an important message to the community about the quality and value of locally grown foods. But when large hotel companies start allowing—or even encouraging—their chefs to source locally, then you can be sure something big is happening.

Such changes made on a corporate level represent a shift in companies’ attitudes, a significant revision of purchasing and accounting procedures, and a sea change in the dining preferences of their customers.

When executive chef Thomas McKeown joined the Grand Hyatt Atlanta last October, he was concerned that he would not be able to continue the same level of support for local food that he had established at the eco-friendly Ellis Hotel in downtown Atlanta, where 80 percent of his food budget went to local producers. But what he discovered is that even a small percentage of his total expenditures makes a huge difference to local farmers.

“I’ve given more back to the local growers than I ever could before,” McKeown says. “I’m really happy I’m able to support them in a larger way.”

Last month, McKeown called to tell me that Hyatt Hotels & Resorts had switched to serving only cage-free eggs in its restaurant and room service operations nationwide. That decision amounts to 2.4 million eggs per year. In addition, McKeown has been switching to local vendors whenever possible and finding new ways to use locally sourced foods—such as turning AtlantaFresh yogurts into yummy frozen desserts.

Such changes don’t come easily, though. The sheer volume of food purchased by hotels would be overwhelming to most small farms. And hotel chefs must follow standards set by their corporations, which often include instructions to use contracted suppliers or even to follow a menu set by the home office.

Now, some big hotel companies like Hyatt are relaxing those reins, enabling individual chefs to buy from local sources and write some or all of their menus.

“Ruth Benjamin, our general manager, was very open when I said, ‘Could we support a local farm?’ She said, ‘Go for it,’” McKeown recalls. He now buys two farm-subscription shares a week from Sun Dog Farm in that other Buckhead: Buckhead, Ga. He also buys sausage from Spotted Trotter (Atlanta), mushrooms from Flat Creek Lodge (Swainsboro), and cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy (Thomasville).

“It’s a bold statement for us,” says Adam Noyes, the hotel’s sales director. “Our staff are very passionate about fresh, local and seasonal.”

For years, the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta has garnered praise for its rooftop garden, although executive chef Robert Gerstenecker admits that it provides more symbolism than sustenance.

“The garden for us represents more of a commitment to do more as a company,” he says. “The Four Seasons itself has a very large commitment to being more green.” The rooftop planters do provide most of the hotel’s mint and parsley, however, he says, saving thousands of dollars each year.

The company gives him leeway to negotiate outside the corporate purchasing agreement, but still, many small farms don’t have the means to deal with corporate contracts or 60-day pay cycles, Gerstenecker says. And he doesn’t have the time to accommodate a parade of deliveries from local growers—a crate of tomatoes here, a box of melons there.  So he works with regional distributors like Destiny Organics that include local farmers among their suppliers.

Other signs of change:
•    Last year, Marriott International launched a sustainable seafood program, encouraging its 780 full-service hotels to source at least half of their seafood from certified sustainable fisheries and farms.
•    DoubleTree and Carlson hotels require the use of cage-free eggs for guests’ meals, nationwide.
•    Hotel Indigo‘s 683 Midtown Bar & Bistro uses local vendors such as Sweetgrass Dairy, the Local Farmstand (Atlanta) and Wild Georgia Shrimp (Darien).
•    The Hyatt Regency Atlanta’s executive chef Martin Pfefferkorn not only purchases Georgia vegetables, chicken, fish, bacon and sausage, but he also incorporates local beers into the menu of the hotel’s new lounge bar, Twenty-Two Storys.
•    Ellis Hotel continues to source most of its restaurant ingredients from local producers. And Chef Jon Wolf offers guests a Saturday morning tour of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, followed by a special lunch using the ingredients purchased, for $49 per person.
Hotel companies are making changes, Gerstenecker says, because it makes good economic sense to do so. Hotel guests are demanding changes.

“I think we’re all realizing and appreciating the fact that it’s not a trend anymore,” he says. “I think the food industry and the corporate world has gotten a wakeup call in the past two or three years. They’ve become aware that we need to be pushing for a better understanding of health and wellness and offering a better choice for our customers. It makes better business sense to do that, and it’s really customer driven.”

Images: Farmer Darby McCrea Weaver delivers produce to Grand Hyatt Atlanta executive chef Thomas McKeown; Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta executive chef Robert Gerstenecker tends to his rooftop garden.