Why On-Farm Dinners Cost So Much
Farm dinners hosted by farmers are soaring in popularity. If the farm is in the right location (within 30 minutes of a city), many farmers’ dinners are sold out a year in advanced, even when tickets cost up to $150 or $175 per person.
There has been some backlash on the prices. Minnesota Monthly ran an article with the headline, “Dinner On A Farm For $150? Really?” Writer Jason Derusha writes about how the first time he ate at Star Thrower Farm, he had five courses with wine pairings, all for $85. He was blown away by how inexpensive it was, then discovered the farm could only swing that price by getting a lot of volunteer help.
When the farm decided it was time to cover all legitimate costs, it raised its price to $150, sparking the article.
That creates a dilemma for farm marketers wanting to get into on-farm dinners. What is a price that justifies the time and effort these dinners require and that stays true to the spirit of the farm?
To answer that question, I spoke to several growers and farmers about what costs they must cover and how they arrive at the price they charge.
What Costs You Need To Cover For A Farm Dinner
Here’s a quick lists of costs categories to you’ll need to cover with the price:
- Food and Food Prep. This is something many farms overlook. Yes, you are a farm. But even your own produce or livestock is not free. If you weren’t using your vegetables, meat, or dairy for an on-farm dinner, you’d be selling it to one of your usual channels. Some farms sell the produce to the chef who will be cooking the dinner, others work it into their budgets as they would for any other sale.
- Service Staff. One of the biggest expenses will be hiring enough staff to adequately serve guests. Too few, and you have guests waiting a long time between courses and beginning to complain. Too many, and you’ve lost any potential profit. Churchview Farm outside of Pittsburg, PA, hires two servers, two food runners, dish washers, and a coordinator/host. The chef determines how many people work in the kitchen, says Churchview Farm owner Tara Rockacy.
- Chef. There seem to be as many payment structures for chefs as there are farm dinners. Some chefs jump at the chance to volunteer their time so they can cook meals that might not make sense in a regular restaurant setting or to build a loyal following. Others need to be paid. Sietsema Orchards outside Grand Rapids has a novel approach. The chef sets the price and covers costs, while giving $15 of each ticket to the orchard.
- Drinks. Another major expense can be alcohol, although many farms find creative ways to handle the cost. Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, which hosts two dinners at its remote farm per year, often works with wineries and breweries who will donate their wine and beer in exchange for the chance to meet guests and have their names included in the considerable marketing Tangletown does for the event.
- Tables, Dishes, Linens, etc. Whether you invest in your own inventory or need to rent the equipment, you will need to account for the expense. If you own, you will need to cover the initial expense, as well as account for be regularly maintain, updating and replacing the pieces. Rental costs are more straight forward, but in the long run will be more expensive if you host dinners regularly.
- Cooking Equipment. If a chef is cooking on site, you will need to either rent cooking equipment, or you will take on the considerable expense of building a kitchen. “We have a giant 6-foot grill on a trailer,” says Tangletown’s Dean Englemann. Churchview, which hosts dozens of events per year, invested in an outdoor kitchen.
- Entertainment. Most farm dinners include tours and live music. These events are part high-end dinner and part tourist attraction for urban dwellers.
- Licenses, Certifications, And Insurance. Depending on your community’s zoning rules and county and state laws, you will need to make sure you protect yourself and your guests by meeting regulation requirements. “The health department, inspections, getting kitchen certified, getting anyone handing food certified, and the laundry list of inspections is quite long,” says Heritage Prairie Farm’s Nate Sumner.
- Time Spent Preparing. This is another expense many first time hosts overlook. “People don’t think about those costs. I’ll spend all day with an inspector, and if you don’t value your time, and calculate your time into the cost, you lose money,” says Sumner.
- Other Infrastructure Costs. Will you have water plumbed to the service area? Will you run electricity so you can add lighting after dark? As you continue to host dinners, you will find a need for continuing investments. Churchview Farms, which passionately promotes sustainable living, will soon install a composting toilet for guests. Aesthetics matter, too, and improving the appearance of the farm to match the experience you are offering can cost money.
So What Are Farms Charging?
Among the six farms I spoke to, prices ranged from $65 at Sietsema Orchards to $150 Tangletown has charged in the past, although it anticipates a less expensive dinner this time.
So farms are looking for more affordable offerings. Churchview Farms, which has had to raise it’s prices each year to the 2016 price of $115, decided to begin hosting happy hours for $40, and yoga classes for $20. Happy Hours includes the alcohol, chef-prepared hors d’oeuvres, and a couple of popular local vendors: craft beer and ice cream.
Tangletown, which sees these dinners more as a marketing tool, hosts a family picnic on the farm each year and charges only $10 per person.
Farm dinners are a powerful way to bridge the gap between farm and dinner, as Churchview’s Rockacy likes to say. It helps those who have never been on a farm gain an appreciation of how food is grown, and it builds community ties. But it also costs a lot of money.
High end restaurants are serving dinner every night, helping spread the costs involved over many more meals. But on-farm dinners are not only a gourmet experience, they’re also a way farmers can win loyalty. Farm dinners are a viable income source for many small and medium farms. But make sure you charge what is necessary to cover costs even as you exceed the expectations of your guests.