How To Build Relationships With Food Suppliers

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Good supplier-operator relationships can make a restaurant’s food-buying process richer, more efficient and even more economical.

Have respect for one another. Be honest and loyal. Make an effort to truly understand each other. While this may sound like typical advice for newlyweds, such tips are also integral to an operator’s relationship with his suppliers.

“Build a relationship based on trust — it works really, really well,” says Bill Dover, chairman of FsStrategy Inc., a Toronto-based foodservice consulting group. “When you have a good relationship with a company, they’ll give you the deal you should be getting for the volume you’re purchasing.”

Ryan Smolkin, owner of Ajax, Ont.-based quick-service poutine chain Smoke’s Poutinerie, agrees wholeheartedly: “We have to value these suppliers as much as they value us as customers,” he says.

To build a good relationship, foodservice operators should visit suppliers in their element — whether that means a large manufacturing or processing facility or a small local farmer’s field. Smolkin and his vice-president of Operations, Glenn Mori, have done just that. “[We] have been up to our knees in mud with our potato farmers. We go right down to the grassroots.” These types of visits lead to a certain respect, says Smolkin, “that you’re only going to get if you’re out there in the field with these farmers.” Visiting with your suppliers and truly getting to know them — and letting them get to know you, as well — not only leads to mutual respect, but it can also go a long way toward strengthening the service levels you’ll get from them. For example, Smoke’s potatoes must be grown in a very particular way, and the sizes have to be consistent for its poutine to be made properly. “So if they know us really well and appreciate our passion and what we’re doing, they’ll likely be more careful with potato size, for instance,” explains Smolkin.

Executive chef Justin Leboe of Model Milk, an upscale restaurant in Calgary, concurs. “Go visit [your suppliers] and see what they do. I can’t stress that enough,” he says. “It’s one thing to watch some guy show up at your restaurant’s back door, stocking lamb every week; it’s another thing to go out to his farm and meet his children and his wife. It puts context to it.”

Building these relationships can lead to interesting menu opportunities, and a casual sharing of ideas can foster inspiration. “I’ll give you an example of something that’s been on and off the menu here a few times at Model Milk,” says Leboe. “One of the local pork farmers here, Broek Pork Acres, will clean the fore shanks off the hogs, so they look like lamb shanks but a little bit smaller. It’s not something that’s widely produced, but it’s something where they thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a market for this?’ And they showed it to us and we said, ‘Absolutely, we’ll take those.’” These pork shanks have now become a recurring menu item at Model Milk, whether as a short-term special or a fixture for a few months. “We smoke them and then braise them, and serve them very simply with crushed celery root, wilted pea shoots and baby turnips,” says Leboe, noting that this dish will run for about $26 to $27.

Daniel Frankel, owner of Daniel Hospitality Group, which operates six patio-centric restaurants in Vancouver, finds a similar benefit to good supplier relationships. When a menu was being developed for his newest concept, Tap & Barrel, he asked his local producers to offer ideas on how to make a locally inspired pizza. The result was a local wild mushroom pizza ($15). “It features four different kinds of local wild mushrooms, all from the island, all local, all outstanding,” enthuses the restaurateur.

Frankel is careful to add, however, that he will usually put such a call out to a number of producers. “We like to consider ourselves loyal to our suppliers, but we’re loyal to all of them. So we’ll give them an equal chance. We’ll say, ‘Look, these are some of the items we’re looking at doing,’ and we’ll put out some conceptual menus for them, and ask, ‘Which of these items can you supply us, and what products can you recommend?’” he explains. But the key, he adds, is to be upfront about the fact that you’re talking to several suppliers. “Everybody knows you’re shopping, and they respect you for that because you have to. It’s not just about price point, but it’s also about quality and consistency. You’ve got to keep testing what’s out there. You’ve got to see what’s new — that’s an important part of the game.”

While every restaurant has its own processes for food purchasing, there are some common approaches. For example, many operators rely heavily on a specific distributor to deal with all its distribution needs. Often the distributor will go to the operator and try to make an exclusive deal in which they are doing the bulk of the distribution for the operation. This is something consultant Dover strongly advises. “You’re better off negotiating a deal with a broadband distributor, and getting most of your stuff from that one distributor. It’s not common in the industry, only in the large advanced chains. People tend to want to get on the phone and shop, but there’s far better things you can do with your time if you’ve built a good relationship with your distributor.”

When using a major distributor to bring supplies to restaurants, an operator can either peruse the list of what’s offered and order from it, or they can shop around to different producers and manufacturers and ask a distributor to supply a particular item. This will likely work if you have a good relationship with your distributor and the producer in question is reliable. Daniel Group’s Frankel offers an example: “Our distributor didn’t have a good bun for us, and we were getting very frustrated,” he explains. “So, we finally found a bakery that made great buns for us, and we ended up getting [our distributor] to take them on and deliver them for us.”

In general, larger organizations will be able to negotiate lower prices, since they can guarantee the purchase of high quantities at a consistent rate. That said, smaller operations do have the option of joining buying groups to improve buying power. Compass Group Canada’s Foodbuy division, for instance, offers a range of procurement services to its clients, including the ability to benefit from negotiated contracts that Compass Group — which provides foodservices for a range of institutions and organizations, including schools and hospitals — has with its suppliers. “The real benefit is we’re really leveraging a group spend that includes Compass Group as well as all the members [of Foodbuy],” says Ian Bullock, VP of Purchasing, Foodbuy, for Mississauga, Ont.-based Compass Group Canada. “Because of that, it gives them access to such a breadth of products and services and innovation and suppliers that want to work with them, so unless they had a significant purchasing resource on their own, they would be hard-pressed to garner a similar approach. It gives smaller organizations access to something just beyond their reach.”

When describing how her company develops menus and buys food, Margaret Dowell, VP of Purchasing for Burlington, Ont.-based SIR Corp., says there are two primary methods. First, the culinary teams do research by going to other restaurants, travelling to other cities and visiting food shows to get inspired by new menu ideas, and then coming to SIR’s purchasing team and asking them to source the ingredients. Then there’s the reverse approach — where vendors approach them with menu ideas. “We do ideation sessions with them and the culinary team,” says Dowell. “Then the culinary team goes away with those new ideas and tries to do development based on what they’ve been presented with.” For example, one of its vendors presented a slider bun that must be proofed and baked in-house. Impressed, the team decided to use it at SIR Corp’s Canyon Creek chain by introducing “Prime Rib Sliders” — described as “shaved prime rib, freshly baked buns, served with Cabernet jus and horseradish cream sauce” ($12.95) —  as an appetizer this past summer.

Scott McDeivitte, senior foodservice advisor for distributor GFS Canada, does what Dowell describes. He presents foodservice operators with ideas and advice on menu development, as well as cost controls, food-safety regulations, staff training and culinary support. One major area of concern these days is rising food costs, says McDeivitte, and his department prides itself on its ability to offer guidance on how to deal with this. “With margins being so tight for customers, we’re trying to find ways we can provide options for different cuts of proteins, for instance, without substituting for quality; we try to find inventive ways to go to market with alternative options. So you might have a customer who usually buys a striploin steak for a steak sandwich. But maybe he can buy a flatiron steak instead, which is typically a little less expensive but doesn’t have to make the sandwich go down in quality,” he explains. “We can advise them on alternatives to see how we can save them a little money.”

Like the foodservice operators who insist on visiting their suppliers, McDeivitte says the same is true from a supplier perspective: it’s crucial to visit clients’ actual restaurants before offering advice. “We will do culinary presentations for customers, but we’ll never have a customer who we don’t physically go and see first,” he stresses. “We would never recommend or advise anything without seeing their operations first.”

David Russell, corporate chef for Unilever Food Solutions, echoes a similar philosophy when it comes to building relationships with the manufacturer’s restaurant clients. “Two things are important — certainly as suppliers we need to know the products very well, but we also need to do our homework from the back-of-the-house perspective [and find out] what type of equipment  the restaurant has, what’s the skill level of its staff, how many units do they have, and what are they trying to accomplish?” he says. “Let’s say that, for example, you find out a customer has very limited freezer space. Are you going to try to sell them frozen soup? Or are you going to try to sell them a dry soup that doesn’t require freezer space? You wouldn’t know about that unless you asked the right questions, went and visited, understood, and really looked at the operation from a back-of-the-house perspective instead of just saying, ‘Hi, I want to sell you this.’”

And, in the end, that’s really what leads to an optimal relationship between supplier and operator — a solid understanding of what makes the other function.

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