The past decade has seen a slow and steady march toward greater food awareness. Consumers are paying more attention to the ingredients in their meals, as well as where those ingredients come from. This has become especially true in urban areas: we’re seeing it here in Sydney, with an abundance of farmers’ markets and a growing number of community gardens.
We’re also seeing that interest in ingredients play out with most of our customers. Places like Impromptu Dining work with local farmers for all their ingredients, while Gelato Messina went so far as to buy their own dairy farm (and start a hazelnut orchard). The crossover between restaurants and farms is an interesting one, and – over in the US – it’s gotten a lot more interesting.
Community supported restaurants are starting to catch on, and it’s an idea born out of the business model many small forms use – the same small farms they buy from. These farms are run through a model call community supported agriculture (or, CSA), where community members buy shares in the farm and receive “dividends” in the form of fresh produce on a weekly basis. The shares are paid for upfront, giving the farmer the capital she needs to live and work on during the early going. Remember, farmers don’t make money until they sell their produce – and when they do, it’s usually not much. Small-scale farm work growing organic, heirloom, or other specialty vegetables is usually a labour of love, and the CSA model gives farmers the breathing room to pursue it.
The community supported restaurant takes the same form as a CSA: members of the community buy shares in the restaurant. Instead of a box full of produce each week, the dividends come in the form of credits at the restaurant.
What Some Restaurants are Doing
At the Gleanery in Putney, Vermont, members could choose one of three levels of membership, from $500 to $1500. The membership lasts three years and gets investors a bunch of goodies: monthly food and drink credits, baskets of produce, free admission to classes and events, and an invite to the annual member dinner. The restaurant sources its food solely from local farms, often buying produce that the farmers couldn’t sell at the market because it isn’t pretty enough (think: small bruises, misshapen apples, that kind of thing).
Everybody wins here: before opening, the restaurant had attracted 100 members giving them a nice pile of cash to weather the uncertainty of a restaurant’s first year. Farmers were able to make money off the food that would have gone unsold otherwise. And members could show up to for a top notch dining experience once a month and have some (or all) of their bill already taken care of.
A similar concept is employed at Cow & Quince in New Glarus, Wisconsin. Both a restaurant and farm market, Cow & Quince offers two levels of membership, each giving flat rate discounts toward the restaurant menu and market, along with coupons to use for their monthly prix fixe dinners, and invites to the member dinner. Farmers can join, too, by having some of their produce paid for in credit toward meals and groceries (the ones they don’t grow).
In both of these cases, the menu is constantly shifting to accommodate what they have on hand – but this isn’t a prerequisite for a community supported restaurant. Although, even if it were, an unpredictable menu is easier to work with than an unpredictable bank account.
And that’s the point: this model of restaurant opens up the opportunity to be paid in advance for meals – and those meals open up the opportunity for more revenue.
Someone who gets a $25 credit each month is going to show up each month, and they’ll likely show up with someone else and spend more than their credit. The farmers who sell to these restaurants get some stability, too, and a little bit of marketing to the diners who want to know where their food came from.
A hospitality model with heart and cash flow stability
With people so much more interested in eating local, Farm-to-Table style restaurants are popping up everywhere, and this new way of doing things could be the next logical step. But it isn’t just these types of eateries that would benefit from the community supported restaurant model. It can work in any context.
Of course, there’s got to be something to it beyond just discounts or credits – otherwise, it’s just a cynical grab for cash upfront. The community supported restaurant model succeeds when the focus is on that “community” part of the name. For the Gleanery and Cow & Quince, their members get to be part of something more than just a restaurant. They’re helping to sustain multiple businesses (restaurant and farms), and actually joining a community of like-minded people.
For a place where the business isn’t so linked with small farms, they’ll want to figure out some other way to make the membership feel like a community. Cooking or baking classes is something that’s already a popular engagement technique for restaurants, and they become more desirable when they’re “Members Only.”
Hosting musicians or artists and making an event of it, or doing special dinners, or even events where members come to help prepare food to donate to those who need it – all of these things help to build a business that customers are happy to support. The community supported restaurant model gives owners the kind of cash flow stability that lets them focus on doing what they love, and turns their business into a place that their members love, too.