At Legacy Foodservice Alliance’s Marketplace in Richmond, VA, last month, we had the opportunity to speak with its distributor-members about the state of business on the street.
They spoke of common and uncommon challenges that their customers face that affect their businesses. Regardless of the market segment or location, the bottom line is that distributors are best positioned to help commercial and non-commercial operators grow their businesses. Beyond merely providing customers with products in a timely and safe manner, distributors and DSRs are also called upon to demonstrate knowledge, training, information, solutions, dedication and service. Foodservice is still a relationship business, they concurred.
The following are selections of their observations:
Director of Purchasing & Marketing
Foods Galore, Pennsauken, NJ
Operators are looking for a personal touch and feel about how we, distributors, can service their businesses. It’s becoming less about price, price, price, and more about giving operators the items that will help them make more money. They need items that are trending or hit buzzwords like local, organic or natural. Distributors must understand their customers’ ever-changing needs in a culture that’s changing towards healthier alternatives.
Helping operators by giving them those insights is a big deal.
We have to educate our DSRs to provide operators with this kind of information. We have to give them the tools and resources that they need to service their accounts. Obviously, product knowledge is important but not all customers use the same items. Not every customer services the same kind of clientele. Each DSR needs to hone in on that and become an expert on his or her customers, their clientele, what they can do differently and help them make more money.
When operators come to us for help, we can step back and with our manufacturers’ support reevaluate their businesses and suggest new items and specials that they can offer on their menus.
We’re not just taking an order and delivering it to the restaurant on a truck. We need to be a fullservice distributor for our customers, helping them analyze their menus, identify changes in the market, advise when to buy certain products, and when to offer them opportunities to get ahead of changes. That kind of information can help operators with savings and profitability.
I believe that what the distributor provides is the person-to-person touch and customer service that non-traditional services can’t. Online services can’t provide products at a competitive price, information and education that a distributor can. We’re 100% dedicated to providing the best customer service possible.
Independent operators come to us for food products from many sources and we are able to supply them with food from all over the world. We offer similar products from different companies at different price points. Purchasing from our suppliers, bringing it into our warehouse, and delivering to our customers in a timely manner, ensures product freshness. We can provide operators with fresh produce from anywhere in the country, during any season. By being reputable and maintaining food-safety standards, we are able to provide customers with complete assurance that we’re handling the products safely.
Not only do we train our DSRs, but we bring in brokers and manufacturers reps to demonstrate and explain product usage and preparation. Afterward the sales reps can pass that knowledge to their operator-customers, show them new products and answer their questions. For example, our DSRs help operators by demonstrating the benefits of pre-cut produce and meat in order to eliminate waste, inefficiency and injuries in the kitchen.
We provide six-days-a-week service which makes distributors valuable to operators. Nontraditional services such as Amazon can’t do that in the amounts that restaurants need to keep their doors open. If an operator has strong business on a Friday night and needs products for Saturday, do you think Amazon will be able to deliver them in the morning?
Vice President & Assistant General Manager
Butterfield & Vallis
The America’s Cup was awarded to Bermuda in late 2014. The competition was a nine-week affair this past May and June. So Bermuda saw an incredible amount of visitors not only in regards to the teams, some of which were present for two years, but also with more than 100 mega-yachts and overseas spectators. So we experienced 20% growth for April, May and June and it’s carried over to July and August. Tremendous free commercial coverage due to worldwide broadcasts. It bode well for us.
We started preparing our food product needs almost a year in advance. We were able to get a lot of strategic information about the mega-yachts and their food needs. We assigned one sales rep to this project for the entire time. We moved to picking at night about year before the event took place. Trucks had to leave the dock area by 10 am so our trucks were loaded and on the road by 6 am. We were well prepared and increased our inventories. We hired an additional 13 people for that period of time. The race also turned out to be good for the local economy.
Bermuda has been fortunate this season not to be impacted by any hurricane.
Since we’re the only full-line distributor in Bermuda, it’s incumbent upon us to maintain the respect of restaurateurs. We organize food shows for them and quality interactions with customers so we know what they’re looking for. Most of our suppliers from the US and Europe will attend these shows once a year and we introduce them to the customers so they know firsthand what operators are looking for. It’s important for us to be very attached to our customers and communicate with them in order to maintain our position in the industry.
John Ceres, Purchasing Agent
Our distributor forte is service. We believe that we can service our operator-customers better than the larger broadliners. For example, if we deliver an incorrect product, 9 times out of 10, we will fix the problem the same day. If it’s doable, we will definitely do it to make a difference for our end users.
The DSR also continues to be very valuable in the industry. We have 12 sales reps on the street all the time. We feel that it’s a crucial part of our business for them to be out on the street rather than in the office.
I strongly disagree with observations that foodservice distributors are becoming obsolete. I don’t see how you can buy from Amazon and have it provide foodservice products on a daily basis. I can’t imagine how you can expect Amazon to do what we do.
Distributors provide value-added services to operators. That’s what we do. Everyone in our company, in any distributorship, works in food.
Director of Purchasing & Operations
Foodservice distributors can offer the kind of service that Amazon and other similar companies can’t. Our operator-customers need a high level of service. They need to know that they can count on delivery, freshness, punctuality and food safety. The cold chain needs to be in place. With a foodservice distributor they get a sales person that they can call anytime. They can keep the DSR accountable for the product. This is still a face-to-face business.
A distributor is not merely a delivery service. We have to take care of our customers. That’s how we live and breathe. If they’re not happy, we’re not happy.
We deal with schools and childcare systems, so our customers come to us for new ideas. Also, the government is constantly changing requirements so our customers need updates and education. We have to learn what’s going on and then pass it on to our end users and let them know what products meet the new criteria. There is a lot of education that we have to give to our customers that couldn’t be gotten from a delivery service.
Training and education is a round-the-clock task. DSRs also have to be on top of the latest technology even though some information is available on manufacturers’ websites. Yes, they have to know their stuff.
We distribute to grocery store delis which in most cases get products come from a grocery supplier. The delis then come to us for items like gourmet cheeses and specialty soups. The grocery supplier provides what it wants the operator to have not what the operator can use. We try to fill that void with the items that they feel their patrons want.
Our operators are also coming to us for specific flavor profiles so they can offer more selections in their restaurants or delis. We’ll try to find solutions for them. If they’re buying a deli log with limited flavors, we’ll find logs in five or six flavors that they can offer their customers on a daily basis. If we can help them make money, then we’ll be successful.
DSRs are still in demand because personal relationships still matter in the foodservice business. The end user wants to know that when he calls me on a Saturday and says he’s in trouble because he sold out of a particular product the previous day, then it’s my job to find a solution to his problem. If it means that someone will have to come in on a Saturday to help the operator, then we’ll do that.
We will try to help our customers with almost all food and non-food issues. We will help them anyway we can help to make more money, develop their business, and be more successful.
Can non-traditional service providers replace foodservice distributors – expletive deleted. There is no manufacturer or non-food service provider that can do what a foodservice distributor does for operators. There will always be a need for the distributor.