Even the big guys are getting into farm-to-fork.

Once the province of food activists and culinary cognoscenti with a granola bent, the locavore movement is gaining ground as a business strategy with larger restaurants. The term “farm-to-table” used to be attached predominantly to smaller, chef-driven restaurants where local farmers' freshest determined the night's menu.

Lately, seasonal and sustainable food is finding its way to the menus of chain restaurants. According to Nation's Restaurant News, farm-to-table is one of today's fastest-growing foodservice trends.

And, while more and more Americans care about the zip code of their food, they want their so-called “elite meat” at less-elite prices.

Tender Greens, a fast-casual chain founded in Los Angeles in 2006, has eight locations, with five more opening in the next year. Each location is devoted to a certain foodie-level consciousness, offering local-lettuce salads and biodegradable plastic-ware. Still, even in the heart of Hollywood, only one item on the menu costs more than $11. Even so, sales at the restaurant's collective locations were projected to reach $26 million last year.

Paul Martin's American Grill is another California-based chain whose owners' business plan called for leveraging the farm-to-table concept in an area where it's particularly popular. The upper-tier chain touts local spinach and pasture-raised meats like the Pitman Family Farms bird, which the restaurant uses in its signature brick-chicken dish.Paul Martin's works with more than 40 other regional purveyors.

According to the grill’s PR director, Candice Uyloan, co-founders Paul Fleming and Brian Bennett saw a need for restaurants serving “classic dishes made with peak-of-the-season ingredients at accessible prices." Those prices are approachable on a relative scale — dishes can reach $22 on the upper end of the menu.

Fleming and Bennett’s gamble on conscious consuming seems to have paid off; the restaurant will open its fifth location this year after just five years of business.

The farm-to-table boom isn’t limited to the West Coast. Farm Burger, an Atlanta-based farm-to-table burger restaurant, is thriving.

Farm burger and sweet potato fries

Atlanta-based Farm Burger serves locally sourced, grass-fed beef.

George Frangos opened the first Farm Burger three years ago and is building his fourth restaurant in Asheville, N.C. That's tremendous growth for an independent eatery still in its fledgling stages, but Farm Burger's business — locally sourced and humanely raised grass-fed beef burgers — has mass appeal.

Farm Burger is accessible and boasts an ethic that today's brand of conscious-buying (and cost-conscious) consumer can get behind. “It taps into something the general public is looking for more and more these days,” Frangos says. “Not just in quick-service restaurants, but also in their fine-dining concepts and throughout.”

Frangos, who isn't trying to hit a fine-dining market, eschews expensive tablecloths and fancy flatware so he can devote his capital to buying lettuce from local farms.

“There are lots more areas where we can shave dollars and be economical and, in turn, that's just more dollars we can put into the local food system,” he says. “For us, in each different market, it's about really connecting, building relationships and incorporating them into our business.”

John Ko owns The Local Taco, a Tex-Mex restaurant with a local bent and Southern flair. He opened his first restaurant in Nashville, Tenn., and now owns five locations throughout the Southeast. Ko sources locally for each of his restaurants, which means each location has a slightly different menu.

“The food's not going to be exactly the same, but I want to get away from the chain restaurant mentality where everything has to be cookie-cutter and you have to order in bulk everywhere,” he says. “I want every restaurant to feel different, like it's part of the town.”

Like Frangos, Ko can't source everything locally, and sometimes his tomatoes aren't heirloom. “From a business perspective, we can't get everything locally and still charge $2.75 a taco,” he says.

Local Taco food
The Local Taco builds relationships with community farmers in each of its five markets.

Still, Ko and his partners visit local markets and build relationships with local farmers. They join CSAs, a trendy acronym among locavores that stands for “community supported agriculture.” In other words, farmers get paid up front before the season and deliver boxes of produce as it becomes available. CSA members have little or no control over what ends up in the box, and a restaurant such as Ko’s can’t shift to an all-turnip format in the winter.

“But we try to push the envelope on what we can put in a taco,” Ko says. “If we can buy something locally or in season, we try to buy from that farmer.”

For Frangos of Farm Burger, farm-to-table is simply part of his makeup. In the late '90s, he managed Restaurant Nora, a pioneer of the sustainable food movement on the East Coast and the first certified organic restaurant in the country. “It was organic and biodynamic before anyone knew what those terms meant,” Frangos says.

And it was well before the rise of farm-to-table as fad.

“Everyone's definition of farm-to-table can be different,” he says. “(And) there's a lot of what people are calling 'greenwashing.' It's hot and it's popular, so people might apply it to what they do, but they might not have the passion for it,” he says.

Earlier this month, Frangos was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Farmer-Chef Connection Conference in Portland, where he addressed the faddish-ness of farm-to-table — and how to keep it real while keeping prices down.

"Everyone does it and everyone gets it at this point,” Frangos says. “Now, it's about moving beyond the label and making it more successful.” And making it more successful these days means making it affordable.