Operators say buying flour, tomatoes and cheese from environmentally friendly providers can be time consuming but rewarding
When it comes to sourcing ingredients, the term “sustainable” refers to whether the food was grown or produced in a way that does not deplete natural resources. Pizzeria operators that want to sustainably source ingredients look for certain attributes or labels. For example, they might buy produce that is certified organic, which means the farmer did not use pesticides and followed guidelines related to soil management. Others buy from farmers that use regenerative agriculture, which focuses on the health of the ecosystem.
Then there is the movement to buy local, which the Green Restaurant Association defines as food that is transported 100 miles or less from a farm or orchard, or regional, transported 300 miles or less. Humane Farm Animal Care offers a certification and labeling program for Humanely Raised and Handled for meat, eggs, dairy and poultry. Monterey Bay Aquarium has its Sustainable Seafood list.
Sourcing sustainable ingredients takes research. Take pepperoni for example. “There is more to it than beef and pork and spices,” says Brad Kent, founder and head chef of Blaze Pizza. “How is the factory run? Are they exercising water conservation? Are they using the right packaging?”
Also, the manufacturer should be limiting food waste, but not by extending the shelf life of the food by adding artificial ingredients. “It’s a delicate balancing act,” Kent says. “It requires deep knowledge of your partners.”
While visiting manufacturing plants might be difficult for most restaurant operators, an easier tactic is to source from a local company. When the Pasadena, California-based Blaze Pizza opened its first location in California, the restaurant began buying flour from a company that sourced the wheat in Washington and milled it in Los Angeles. As Blaze Pizza opened more locations throughout the U.S., the flour partner was able to continue to supply the proprietary flour blend, sourcing the wheat from regions close to the other restaurant locations.
“We are reducing our carbon impact by reducing the supply chain distance,” Kent says. That’s true for dairy too, as most of the cheese Blaze Pizza uses comes from two plants that are within 300 miles of the dairy farms. The restaurants also buy pre-cut produce, which saves labor and reduces food waste, as the cores and other trims are used for animal feed instead of going into a landfill.
Another way to source locally is to skip the large distributor and instead shop at farmer’s markets. “These products are either delivered on an 18-wheeler from a broadline distributor or maybe from Mexico or Chile,” says Matthew Lyons, owner of Tribute Pizza in San Diego. “Or maybe they come from a guy who just that morning was loading a van and driving 20 miles to your neighborhood.”
Lyons buys produce from two nearby farmers markets where consumers also shop. The difference is he brings a dolly and buys 100 pounds of tomatoes at a time. Some farmers let him pre-order. “They text us and ask, ‘What do you want tomorrow?’” he says. “They will make sure they are bringing it in and putting it aside for us.” For a fee, some farmers set aside an amount of acreage of, for example, kale or peppers, and Tribute Pizza buys the entire crop.
One drawback to this method of sustainable sourcing is that it’s time consuming to go to a farmer’s market once or twice a week. Also, while some of the farmers have card readers at their booths, others require cash payments. “It’s a different kind of accounting,” Lyons says. “They are not doing invoices.”
Still, he is building relationships with the farmers, which has its advantages. Some farmers offer Lyons a bulk discount. “It’s more cost effective,” he says. “We are cutting out the middleman.” He gets alerts about the week’s crop and makes changes to the menu, such as adding prosciutto and melon when melons come in. There is also a rotating Farmer’s Market Pizza on the menu.
For some, buying from farmers is less convenient but still worthwhile. When Talula’s Pizza opened in Asbury Park, N.J. eight years ago, husband and wife owners Steve and Shanti Mignogna cold-called local farmers and asked if they would deliver. “We did a lot of research,” Shanti Mignogna says. “We were starting from scratch.”
For a few years they sourced ingredients from several farms. Eventually they began working with Harvest Drop, which delivers food from local farms. “That allows us to have access to so many more small family farms that don’t sell direct, and don’t have transportation,” Mignogna says.
Another way to source sustainable ingredients is to prepare items onsite. Instead of buying packages of mozzarella, Talula’s Pizza buys large bricks of curd and makes the cheese in-house. The restaurant also buys large packs of meat and slices it in-house instead of buying packaged sliced meat. While that takes more labor, the quality and flavor are better,
Mignogna says, and it cuts down on packaging. Also there are savings on food costs. “I prefer to put our money in people than buying things pre-made,” she says.
Some operators buy products from long distances but say the sourcing is sustainable because the ingredient is organic. Ambrogio15, part of Milano Five Group, with locations in California and Scottsdale, Arizona, uses Petra Flour from the Molino Quaglia grain mill in Verona, Italy. Fabio Rauscher Bascon, chief marketing officer at Milano Five Group, explains that Molino Quaglia is an agronomic system that limits its environmental impact. The Italian wheat is grown with the minimum usage of fertilizers, pesticides and synthetic substances, and the stone milling technique crushes the grain of wheat while conserving its natural qualities.
“Using stone ground flours made in a sustainable way is critical to our mission and product,” Rauscher Bascon says. “There is a special process to it, but it gives it a better taste, gives it more nutrition, and a nice aroma.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.