Locally sourced ingredients have never been in higher demand. Sixty-two per cent of consumers are more likely to buy food and beverages described as local, and 57% seek out restaurants offering locally sourced products, according to Technomic, Inc., Chicago. More than half of consumers say local foods taste better, and nearly as many agree local foods are higher in quality and less processed.

But what does local mean, exactly?

“It’s one of those fuzzy terms,” said Jackie Dulen Rodriguez, senior manager of Technomic, during a presentation for restaurant operators attending Technomic’s Restaurants Trends & Directions Conference on June 24 in Chicago. “There is no standard or legal definition of ‘local.’ What we can do is use that to our advantage, but of course we have to start somewhere.”

Seventy-five per cent of consumers believe local means “from my city,” Ms. Rodriguez said. Chipotle Mexican Grill defines local within a 350-mile radius of its restaurants. School programs define local as within the state. For Chicago-based wholesale distributor Local Foods, the whole Midwest region is considered local.

The ambiguity isn’t lost on consumers. Seventy-two per cent say they understand what “locally sourced” means in restaurants, down from 86% in 2012.

The feel-good food lexicon is crowded with descriptors gaining greater favor among consumers. Words like “natural,” “unprocessed,” “organic” and “premium” describing poultry are perceived by consumers as healthier and tastier than a chicken described as “local.” Consumers are more willing to pay more for beef described as “premium,” “hormone-free,” “steroid-free,” “domestically raised” or “grass-fed” than for beef described as “locally raised.”

But that doesn’t mean consumers aren’t willing to pay more for local foods — “and the closer it is, the more they are willing to pay,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

Thirty-seven per cent of consumers surveyed said they would pay up to 5% more for food from the same city, which compared with 34% who would pay more for food within 100 miles, 29% who would pay more for food from the same state, 25% who would pay more for food from the same region, and 22% who would pay more for food from any specific location.

Mentions of local are rising across meal parts, up 82% in appetizers over the past five years, up 137% in entrees, up 150% in up desserts and up 367% in non-alcoholic beverages.

For consumers who visit restaurants that market locally-sourced products, more than 60% seek local produce, 56% want local dairy, more than 51% choose local baked goods, more than 40% prefer local proteins.

“The biggest barriers right now in operators’ minds are probably no surprise — inconsistent product,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “The smaller the producer, the less able they may be to deliver consistent product.”

Higher food costs are another factor. Silver Diner, a 14-unit restaurant chain based in Rockville, Md., spent $1 million more in food costs after switching to locally sourced ingredients. However, the bump in food costs was only 0.5%, and the restaurant’s customers were willing to pay 25c to 75c more for menu items they perceived as higher in quality, even during the recession, Ms. Rodriguez said.

Distribution channels are responding to the demand for local. Farm-to-school programs grew 430% from 2007 through the 2011-12 school year. Between 2007 and 2014, regional food hubs increased 288%, and farmers’ markets grew 180%.

Large broadliners also are tapping into the local trend, providing training to local suppliers and connecting family farms with processors. Sysco has expanded local initiatives in several states, Ms. Rodriguez said.

While local may not be clearly defined or understood by consumers, restaurant operators and food manufacturers may benefit from the obscurity of the term.

“The key is making it a consistent message for your customer,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “It’s an open field right now. The key is to define it for yourself and be able to execute on it.”