It's Monday, the only day chef Ferrell Alvarez takes off each week from working at his Harbor Island restaurant Café Dufrain.
But instead of sleeping late or relaxing at home, he's spending the morning picking produce for this week's menu from the rows of vertical planters at Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm off Linebaugh Avenue in Tampa.
The extra effort to use as much local produce as possible pays off in more nutritious food that tastes fresher and travels shorter distances to the table than comparable ingredients from a commercial distributor, Alvarez says.
Customers, in turn, despite the higher cost, are patronizing Café Dufrain because of Alvarez's emphasis on locally grown food.
But the time he invests doing research and picking up his own orders signals a disconnect between two business interests that should be a natural fit: independent restaurants who increasingly want to feature local food and farmers growing small crops who need a steady stream of customers to stay afloat in a difficult economy.
Agriculture is Florida's second-largest industry, behind tourism. The state is fourth in the country for agricultural production, but very little of it is sold directly to restaurants within its borders.
Meanwhile, states such as California and New York enjoy elaborate farm-to-table networks and food-buying co-ops.
One of the biggest obstacles locally is logistics, says Greg Baker, chef and co-owner at The Refinery in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood.
"They grow food, we cook food," Baker says. "Transporting it from place to place is not really a specialty of either of ours. Ferrell can take a day to do that. I'm not there yet."
The difference between access to local farms in Florida and other areas of the country comes down to mindset, Baker said.
People in other states demand a local product, creating a sustainable market for farmers. The demand from customers is not nearly as strong in Tampa and the rest of Florida.
"It's great to be able to want to do it, but at end of day, we're all in business," Baker said. "You've got to turn a profit off of it."
In The Refinery's dining room, Baker and his wife Michelle feature a blackboard listing local products used in the restaurant's menu, which changes week to week to feature seasonal foods.
Summer is a difficult time to feature local ingredients. Most farms shut down because the extreme heat and rainy conditions make it difficult to grow.
"I'm in kind of in a wasteland now," Baker says. "Most small farms want to do nothing but grow lettuce. There's only so much I can do with that."
The lack of local buying options is more frustrating for Baker after a recent visit to Asheville, N.C.
"Everyone is doing local meats, local eggs, local produce," he said. "Even breakfast places."
Alvarez of Café Dufrain fills the gap on his own, every time he pays a visit to Urban Oasis.
Alvarez gets a list from owners Dave and Cathy Hume about which vegetables are coming ready and he e-mails back an order each Sunday.
Those tender baby bibb lettuce leaves dangling in the corner?
He'll serve them with some watermelon radish, candy cane-striped beets, a little bit of sherry, drizzles of extra virgin olive oil and a dash of sea salt. For crunchy sweetness, he'll add in some pine nut brittle and fresh, ripe figs on top.
Urban Oasis closed to the public on July 2 for the summer, but continues to grow a few small crops for Alvarez, its most consistent restaurant customer for the past year and a half.
Small farms represent more than 90 percent of all farms in Florida, based on the USDA definition of a small farm as one with up to $250,000 in sales. These farms produce 15 percent of all agricultural sales in Florida.
During a July conference for small farms in Kissimmee, sponsored by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, several farmers lamented that restaurants are hot and cold in their orders.
They fall back instead on their commercial distributors.
"I can't get a consistent supply of restaurant buyers," says Natalie Parkell, who operates Vertical Horizon Farm in Hobe Sound with her husband Kevin Osburn.
"I might be a great farmer, but by May when the weather turns, they're ordering from Sysco again," Parkell said.
The couple started the vertical hydroponic farm in a family backyard four years ago.
Now they lease land from a carnation grower to grow Swiss chard, tomatoes and herbs. The farm is expanding into microgreens, which sell for $50 to $100 a pound..
"Lots of chefs want to source locally," Parkell says. "They get it from a nutrition and quality standpoint. But so many others couldn't care less. Dollars and cents are their concern.
"I think it's a culture," she says. "It's a very different attitude on the East Coast than it is in California. We don't have many small farmers plugged in."
Dealing with fickle restaurants is so frustrating for Bob Braun, of Rest Haven Farms in Geneva, he would rather sell to individual customers at farmer's markets outside Orlando. He sells produce at four markets each week.
At the 14,000-square-foot hydroponic farm he has operated with his wife Laura for 10 years, Braun can produce 200 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes a week and eight types of lettuce. Customers e-mail him on the rare days he misses selling at a farmer's market.
"It's a much more consistent demand than with restaurants," Braun says
Still, Braun has to work as an audio engineer on the side to make ends meet. To boost the farm's bottom line, the couple plans to make their own salsa next tomato season with whatever fruit they don't sell at markets.
"Last year was the first time we actually took cash out of the business," he says. "We're one of the lucky ones."
There are signs that connections between farm and restaurant are beginning to grow, with help from distributors who make them easier. Many on Florida's west coast rely on John Matthews and his Suncoast Food Alliance.
Matthews started the company three years ago after working in Sarasota County with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. When his job as a farm facilitator was cut, he began the alliance by modeling it on farm-to-restaurant operations he had seen in California, Michigan and North Carolina.
He now works with 22 restaurants from Land O' Lakes in the north to Venice in the south. They are supplied by 16 farms from Manatee, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties.
"In the morning I'm in the fields with farmers and at night I'm in the restaurants with chefs," he says. "I have the best job."
There have been glitches, Matthews says, as he has tried to match supply with demand across such a large geographical area.
He lost money in his first year and a little less in his second. But in his third summer he is turning a profit by using another delivery truck. Investors are approaching him. The goal is to double the size of the business by the end of the year.
Growing public perception – and a new type of restaurant customer – is another goal. More consumers need to realize that food eaten within three days of harvest is the most nutritionally rich you can eat, he says.
"There is a groundswell," Matthews says. "No doubt about it. I'm so excited for this next year, and the farmers are, too."