When River & Glen, a small food distributor based in Bucks County, Pa., launched in 2006, its sole purpose was to give small fishermen a market for their seafood.

Now its Local Abundance program is encouraging sustainability and educating staff at top restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. The program, run by Jennifer Hill, River & Glen’s director of sustainability, has no fee other than a commitment to sustainability.

Response to the program has been overwhelming, said Hill, who has visited about six restaurants in the past two weeks and has a waiting list of about 50 more that want to take part in the program.

“[The program] is designed to do two things,” said Hill. “First is to encourage sustainability because we feel restaurants and chefs are the front line of the sustainability movement. Second is to educate. There’s so much misinformation and confusion in the marketplace. Some chefs are intimidated; they want to go sustainable but they don’t know where to begin.

“We take all of the guesswork out,” she added. “The staff loves having another selling point at the table, especially at fine dining when they’re trying to justify the price.”

The program takes recommendations from sources like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the Marine Stewardship Council to educate chefs and servers, at the end of the day the key is feeling confident about sustainable seafood.

“The problem is that there is no set definition [of sustainability],” said Hill. “It’s not like organic where you have a set of regulations. You do get a bit of opinion involved and it can be confusing. It all comes down to trust and traceability.”

After participating in the program, the restaurants also earn the right to display River & Glen’s Local Abundance logo on menus, websites and anything else they chose.

“[The logo] does a couple of things,” said Hill. “It differentiates them from other restaurants but then it also drives customers to those sustainable products. Third — the most important — it elicits questions from customers.

“Restaurants are selling more fish. It’s amazing. We expected a little of that, but, for example, one Philadelphia chef was telling me within the first month of putting our logo on the menu fish sales went up 50 percent and it’s staying there,” noted Hill.

The popularity of the Local Abundance program has also led Hill, along with River & Glen owner James MacKnight, to present a talk on sustainability at the International Boston Seafood Show in March. While the presentation is still being “fine-tuned,” Hill said the thing they really want to drive home is the importance of education.

“It’s all fine and dandy when a restaurant says it’s sustainable or has sustainable items on the menu,” said Hill. “But to really truly make a difference we need to change the way Americans eat and change the way Americans think about their food. The only way to do that is with information and education.”

River & Glen was also featured in the June 2010 issue of SeaFood Business magazine. Click here to view the story.

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