Could entirely traceable menus be the future for restaurants?

Fresh produce supplier Natoora has launched a cafe where each ingredient can be sourced back to the grower as it aims to wake up consumers to the impact they can have on supply chains and farming.

26 June 2019

Fresh produce supplier and retailer Natoora has launched what it claims is a revolutionary cafe concept: a menu that is entirely traceable.

Using ingredients sourced from its supply chain, the Californian-inspired menu at its new Notting Hill store is based on the seasons and is mainly made up of salad bowls and open-faced sandwiches, along with snacks. Consumers can take away food in compostable packaging and also purchase fresh produce from the store.

Each ingredient can be traced back to an individual grower, with the information on the menu itself and through message boards next to products throughout the store.

The cafe menu includes Tomato Toast, a seasonal alternative to avocado toast, which comes with bull's heart tomato from Natoora’s grower outside Naples and is served on Little Bread Pedlar sourdough with olive oil, dukkah and herbs. There’s also a Grilled Trombetta Courgette Bowl with courgettes from Liguria, Suffolk quinoa from Hodmedods and house-made labneh. For breakfast, diners can munch on an Overnight Oat Bowl with cherries from a grower in Montauban, France.

The idea behind the cafe is to encourage consumers to ask where their food comes from and to understand the impact they can have on the way food is being farmed and supplied. It supplies 800 chefs in London and also operates stores in Chiswick, Bermondsey, Fulham Road and Sloane Square.

Food Spark spoke to Natoora’s CEO and founder Franco Fubini about the new initiative.

Why have you introduced a fully traceable menu?

Most cafes rely on processed ingredients sourced blindly from different distributors. We have spent the past 14 years sourcing produce direct from farmers and as a result our supply chain is completely bespoke – there is nothing like it in Europe. This places us in a unique position: unlike other cafes, we don't rely on anyone else to source produce for us. We have complete visibility over what goes into the food that we serve, because we are the ones doing the sourcing as well as the cooking. 

Can you explain how the menu is fully traceable. How does your supply chain work?

The way we source is logistically complex. Rather than using pre-existing distribution routes, we go out of our way to find people who share our ethos of flavour, seasonality and sustainability.

Most wholesalers will buy from large markets and don't see the produce they've ordered until it comes into their warehouse – they don't have the same connection and kinship to their produce as we do. Cafes then order and use this produce, making them one step removed from a process that is already incredibly murky.

We work closely with our growers and often invest in their infrastructure to enable them to produce at scale and encourage them towards farming practices and varieties that we believe in. This enables us to give independent producers a market rather than relying on industrial, large-scale producers who don't necessarily care about flavour or seasonality.

We've also invested in putting our own people on the ground in hubs at strategic points throughout our supply chain. This gives both us and our customers complete visibility from start to finish.

How could a fully traceable menu dramatically improve the way food is being farmed and supplied?

If consumers question the practices behind what they eat, there is an opportunity to shift the system towards a more sustainable model. Rather than sustaining industrial models of agriculture and relying on year-round intensively grown crops, greater transparency means restoring plant and wildlife biodiversity through a wider variety of seeds and varietals; improved soil health by valuing farmers who rotate crops or only use pesticides when truly necessary; preserving traditional agricultural methods that favour flavour over yield; and encouraging the production of seasonal crops that are nutritionally denser than those that are grown all year round or out of soil.

There is still a long way to go to get consumers to engage fully with their impact on the food system as a whole, but there has been a very positive shift towards understanding provenance better in recent years. This is especially true when it comes to meat, dairy and fish – consumers are very rightfully concerned about their footprint as well as what they are putting into their bodies. We need this attitude to filter through to fresh produce and prepared foods too.

Sadly, there is still an expectation that fresh fruit and vegetables should be incredibly cheap, but this has resulted in monocultures – a limited range of intensively grown varieties – that are devoid of flavour and have little nutritional value.

Our mission is to show consumers how incredible fresh produce can taste when it's in season and has been farmed correctly. Collectively becoming more aware of where your food comes from is an immensely powerful tool for change.

How will your changing menu deal with issues like food waste?

We work with the same produce until it goes out of season so food waste is not an issue – we use up the stock that we have and then switch that ingredient for new produce that has come into season.

So for example we launched last week with English asparagus on the menu. Its season ended, so we are now using golden beetroots from our growing project Cornwall in its place. We can also use the produce we sell loose on the shop floor in our dishes, which minimises food waste as well.

Can you see more restaurants taking on this initiative in the future?

Changes to the way food is currently being farmed and supplied have to happen at a consumer level: if the average consumer starts questioning where their produce comes from and how it grows, begins to demand produce with flavour and takes on a radically seasonal approach to eating, they will create demand that will spark change in the bigger players and this will reshape the entire system.

As we have seen with the recent consumer shift away from single use plastic in recent months, consumer demand can have a powerful knock-on effect.

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