Earlier this year, a friend texted me from a restaurant in San Diego, where she was vacationing. It offered both a gorgeous ocean view and "local" ingredients, but the beach was ultimately the only offer the restaurant could fulfill. "There's barely anything 'local' at all on the menu here," my friend wrote. "Even the oysters are from the Gulf. LOL" When she asked her server what was local on the menu, he stumbled momentarily and finally replied, "The avocados?"
San Diego may be the avocado capital of the world, but does offering one local item on the menu give the restaurant a right to call its cuisine "farm-to-table" or sell itself as a destination for locavores (which was added to the New Oxford American Dictionary as a word in 2007, so we more or less have to make peace with it at some point)? At one point is a restaurant truly local or simply jumping on the increasingly saturated "local foods" bandwagon?
Unlike "locavore," no single definition of "local" exists when it comes to food. This means it's up to consumers to decide what's truly local for them, says Reed Shelger, the Houston entrepreneur who recently created a website called LocalLocal. And how can those consumers best decide? By having access to total transparency and cold, hard facts.
That's been Shelger's aim with LocalLocal, the idea for which he came up with after a double-dose of reality in the form of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc. Shelger, who holds an MBA from Rice University, previously worked as a management consultant for Kroger, PepsiCo and ConAgra Foods, read Michael Pollen's famous critique of the American way of eating last year. The impact was such that it quickly compelled Shelger to follow up Pollen's book with a viewing of Food Inc., the Robert Kenner documentary Pollen narrated that examines how corporate farming is destroying the American agriculture industry and, by proxy, the health of our bodies and our land.
"I saw a lot of concerns in the food industry," Shelger says over coffee one morning at a quiet bakery selling fresh baguettes and croissants. It was all a bit shocking for someone who'd worked in big ag and big grocery for years. "And I thought, there’s an opportunity here to do something." He left his job as a management consultant in January and began work on launching LocalLocal.
His idea? "Let’s make a site where each restaurant can list their ingredients," or where they're getting their "local" products from—whether it be local bakers or kombucha-makers, an egg house in Cypress, a cattle rancher in Cameron, or a farmer in Spring. Before the restaurant can list those products, however, they have to go through a vetting process with LocalLocal, in which Shelger and his team verify with the bakers, ranchers and/or farmers that the restaurant really is purchasing their food.
Users can leave reviews of restaurants on LocalLocal and are encouraged to upload photos and offer additional guidance to other diners. LocalLocal also allows users to search restaurants by keywords, such as "organic" or "vegetarian," as well as area farmers markets.
More than just a platform for local-friendly restaurants, however, LocalLocal functions as a B2B service as well, providing information on ranchers, farmers and other local producers for restaurants who are looking to expand their own repertoires of local ingredients. It's on these business pages where LocalLocal really sets itself apart, offering detailed information such as a ranch's size, its growing practices, its housing for livestock, its feed type, and even its antibiotic and hormone usage. A handy list on the side of each business page also shows where users can purchase, say, eggs or spinach or steak, as well as which Houston-area restaurants use those ingredients in their dishes.
For now, LocalLocal only includes restaurants in the Houston market (and producers throughout Texas that serve the Houston market), but Shelger hopes to eventually expand LocalLocal throughout the nation, improving access to this sort of information and hopefully encouraging more locavorism across the board.
For Shelger and his team, it's not about "local" as a buzzword or a marketing technique to get diners into your restaurant. Educating consumers about eating local on a large scale, he says, is better for everyone in the end—us, our animals, our crops and our land. "The underlying appeal of local is that it’s more sustainable and involves ethical treatment of animals," he says.
"When you’re on a smaller scale and you’re not a concentrated animal feeding operation you're more likely to demonstrate better husbandry and better treatment of the land and animals."