Farm to Fable: What does it mean when a fast food or chain restaurant tells you it's 'local'?

Charles M. Muranaka, executive vice president and owner, and Marcelino Covarrubias, director of operations at Muranaka Farm, which supplies produce to P.F. Chang's restaurants. Photo courtesy of P.F. Chang's.
Charles M. Muranaka, executive vice president and owner, and Marcelino Covarrubias, director of operations at Muranaka Farm, which supplies produce to P.F. Chang's restaurants. Photo courtesy of P.F. Chang's.
Published Sept. 2, 2016

The professionally trained chef cracked eight eggs into rings on the griddle, delicately piercing the yolks. She toasted muffins, sizzled rounds of Canadian bacon and added careful squirts of real butter and squares of melty American cheese.

White chef's jacket pristine, Jessica Foust, McDonald's Corporation's director of culinary innovation, was demonstrating how to make an Egg McMuffin. Debuted in 1972, it's a sandwich shrouded in urban myths: The eggs are fake! They're made in a 3-D egg printer!

At corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. in August, Foust and McDonald's executives spoke to journalists and bloggers. They spoke of antibiotic-free chicken, certified sustainable wild-caught Alaskan pollock, Rainforest Alliance certified coffee and "farm-fresh eggs."

McDonald's is just one of many restaurant giants, fast food and sit down chains alike, buying the farm. No, they're not dying, although wobbly sales may partially explain what is happening.

Wendy's in August bought a multimedia post on the New York Times website called "Fresh Food Fast from Farm to Fork." P.F. Chang's in August unveiled a new Farm to Wok program. And during the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics in August, Subway debuted a commercial called Clean Slate. A voice-over said: "Every day we're finding new ways to serve fresh, locally sourced produce and food free of artificial preservatives whenever possible."

With thousands of locations, complicated infrastructure and long histories of serving cheap commodity foods, it will take a lot of elbow grease for chain giants to get that slate clean. And yet, nearly simultaneously, major players have adopted the tenets and trappings of the farm-to-table movement.

At least, their marketing executives are spinning things that way.

READ THE FARM TO FABLE SERIES: At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants, you're being fed fiction

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Market experts are predicting a "restaurant recession." Restaurant stock prices have slipped and reports have shown falling sales in three of the last six months. But those numbers are based largely on sales at major fast-casual restaurant chains. It is more complicated to track independents.

This is the real issue: For millennials' love and dollars, chains are losing out to independents. Independents, many with a farm-to-table aesthetics and claims of sustainability, fit with millennials' tendency toward ethical eating.

Sensing a paradigm shift, nearly every major chain has begun to embrace the idea that it's good business to do good.

As long as customers know about it.

"Millennial consumers have an interest in the provenance of the food itself. So it's about telling our food story," said Liliana Esposito, chief communications officer for Wendy's. "The campaign we started earlier this year was to tell that story again. It's beef sourced so close to home that it doesn't have to be frozen."

The fresh beef has always been a clear differentiator between Wendy's and other fast-food giants, said Esposito, "but it's a story we've maybe taken for granted. We have a new generation of consumers coming to this brand. We have to lean into that story."

But here's the interesting thing. That paid New York Times post isn't about fresh beef, and it isn't about the company's decision to shift to cage-free eggs by 2020. It isn't about the fact that there are no preservatives in the salad dressings nor high-fructose corn syrup in the sodas.

It's about John and Peter Navarro, blackberry farmers in Watsonville, Calif.

Because Wendy's supply chain evolved to deliver fresh beef multiple times a week, the narrative goes, it enables its more than 5,500 restaurants in the United States to traffic in fresh romaine, iceberg, tomatoes and berries at the same time.

Okay, but who is going to Wendy's because the blackberries are extra fresh? Maybe that question is moot.

"You bring customers into your brand by sharing the attributes you think will be most interesting," said Esposito.

At P.F. Chang's, what chief marketing officer Dwayne Chambers and other executives think is most interesting are green onions. In August, they debuted a 3-minute video about the Muranaka family, the third-generation farmers in Oxnard, Calif. who grow about half of the green onions for the company's 211 domestic locations. Their onions are prized because they have a short white shank and 15 inches of green. P.F. Chang's uses a lot of green.

"Behind every ingredient there is intention, purpose, a story," intones the video voice-over.

"When we talk about farm to wok, what we're talking about is that our food is made from scratch every day in this kitchen," Chambers said. "It means we're not buying processed food and that we bring in everything whole and cut it every day. Our sauces and soups are all made every day in the restaurant."

While laudable, that's not how most diners have come to understand the concept of "farm to table." The company claims to source up to 22 percent of its ingredients from within 500 miles of a restaurant. Dig a little on their proteins and it's a different story.

P.F. Chang's flank steak is sourced from JBS, the largest beef processing company in the world; their chicken comes from Mountaire, the fourth largest poultry processor in the country, on a scale like Purdue or Tyson; and shrimp is farmed in India, Thailand and Vietnam.

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Restaurant giants shine a spotlight on a particular producer (the green onion farm, which happens to be the largest shipper of bunch green onions in the country, hardly a boutique mom-and-pop). It creates the perception that the rest of the ingredients are locally or sustainably sourced. It's called the Halo Effect.

"I give you a beautiful dress and I tell you that it was made in your town," said Douglas Gayeton, author of Lexicon of Sustainability. "But then it turns out that, upon examination, only the thread used to sew the buttons on the cuffs was from your town.

"Large food companies have learned that there's profit to be made by coopting and highjacking terms that the public has a passing understanding of."

A recent paid Facebook post from Bonefish Grill, owned by Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands, reads: "Our grouper is caught fresh off the coast of Madeira Beach, Fl. and brought to your table." It includes a 27-second video following Donzi fishing boat accompanied by a plucky soundtrack.

Gib Migliano, president of Save On Seafood, confirms that he sells grouper, along with snapper, haddock and Norwegian farmed salmon to all of the Florida Bonefish locations. Is the grouper all caught fresh off the coast of Madeira Beach?

"We try to give as much domestic grouper as we can," Migliano said. "But you know the situation out there now. When we can't get domestic, we get them Mexican."

When asked for clarification, Cathie Koch, vice president of communications and government relations for Bloomin' Brands wrote in an e-mail, "A lot of our marketing material notes our grouper is from the Gulf of Mexico. The Facebook ad probably should have focused more broadly as well. It is now corrected."

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Last year, Gayeton saw a McDonald's commercial for the Egg White Delight McMuffin, "nestled in Northern California in the quaint town of Petaluma." The short spot ended with the tagline, "Lovin' is local."

Gayeton went to that McDonald's in Petaluma, a town famous for eggs and poultry, and dumpster dove to extract an egg box. Petaluma's Delights? Made of eggs from Iowa, he said the box revealed. That's some lovin' that's not local.

Aside from dumpster divers, no one is checking much. Federal and state governments have been loath to define terms, unwilling to enforce transparency in menu claims and slow to enact more stringent regulations. in the areas of sustainability, humane animal husbandry and food additives. In many ways, the food industry is moving ahead of legislation, making changes and self-policing.

This was part of the message Rachel Dreskin had in August for a room full of hog farmers, pork distributors and pork enthusiasts at Niman Ranch's 18th annual Hog Farmer Appreciation weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

A representative from Compassion in World Farming, she applauded McDonald's. In 2015, McDonald's announced a commitment to switching to 100 percent cage-free laying hens over the next ten years. For a company that uses 2 billion eggs annually from caged chickens, this shift will improve the lives of approximately 8 million chickens.

The news prompted more restaurants to follow suit.

"It was absolutely momentous," she said. "That led to 175 corporate commitments to do away with cages in less than a year."

Serving 25 million meals daily at more than 14,000 locations, what McDonald's does matters.

"We're continuing to shape how food is sourced," said Marion Gross, McDonald's senior vice president of supply chain. "We can use our size and scale not only to bring value but also to do good as well .… Sustainable sourcing has always been a part of who we are. We've been doing it for years."

At that corporate headquarters media event, McDonald's executives announced that, among other things, artificial preservatives had been removed from the iconic Chicken McNuggets and high-fructose corn syrup had been removed from hamburger buns.

But here's where to read between the spin.

The buns are now free of high-fructose corn syrup, but they still have artificial preservatives. And while those have been removed from the nuggets, the nuggets still contain dextrose, also a simple sugar made from corn.

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The mania for local sourcing has led to sleight of hand and exercises in misdirection akin to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Last year Fast Company published a long piece on how California Pizza Kitchen is sourcing locally. When the Tampa Bay Times asked for the facts, public relations director Kathleen Bush had to do some digging.

She said olive oil comes from California Olive Ranch. With more than 2,200 acres and 1.3 million trees, this is the largest U.S. producer of extra virgin. It recently bought Italian giant Lucini Italia — hardly boutique, and scarcely local for diners enjoying a pizza at Tampa's International Plaza.

She also said the restaurant group uses Nueske's bacon from Wisconsin and unidentified "USDA choice ribeye" and "local and regional sources when available" for produce and dairy. The company didn't provide more specifics about meat, tomatoes, other produce and dairy.

"Big used to be respected and now it's bad," said Roxie Beck of the Center for Food Integrity. The center does market research for mega-brands like ConAgra, Tyson Foods, Monsanto and DuPont. Some of what the center does is help big companies think like small ones.

Her advice for food companies:

"Don't abandon the facts but lead with shared values."

For a gigantic company like Subway, with 30,000 plus restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, a "Clean Slate" might not be merely wishful thinking.

Subway launched a Homegrown Produce initiative in 2010, according to Elizabeth Stewart, the company's director of corporate social responsibility. Franchisees must purchase from a network of vendors and suppliers, including hundreds of family farms across the U.S. and Canada that meet Subway's specifications and audits.

They get red onions from Dalena Farms in California (one of only two onion farmers Subway uses), tomatoes grown by Triple M Farms in Ashley County, Arkansas and cucumbers and bell peppers from Carter & Sons in Lake Park, Georgia.

"The franchisees love when we can have a program like this, when they can show that they are contributing to the environment they service," says Stewart. She says interest in the program varies by region. In Canada, for instance, there's a push to move to all Canadian sourcing.

A commitment of that sort takes time, but efforts seem to be paying off: In June, Subway was recognized by the GreenBelt Fund and Ontario government for efforts to serve Ontario-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions in local sandwich shops during the harvest season.

And in Florida, where state farms produce more than 44,335 tons of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and leafy vegetables for Subway, the company is poised for another honor. On Sept. 29, the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association will recognize Subway with the customer of the year award for promoting and marketing Florida produce.

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Obviously, food marketing is about knowing your audience.

While other chain giants are doing a little "farm-vertising," Taco Bell is taking the opportunity to make fun of the entire foodie farm-to-table aesthetic.

In a recent ad, hipsters hunker around a "gorgonzola, gruyere medley" fondue, with handlebar mustaches, hats and ironic glasses. One T-shirt-wearing outlier tucks into a fat Taco Bell treat.

"The best way to serve melted cheese," the voice-over says, "is in the center of a beefy burrito."

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.