Skilled chefs make the best use of the ingredients they buy
There’s so much that happens behind the scenes in this business of eating. We all know that healthy competition can result in better food, service and prices for customers. But what many people don’t know is how much food purveyors - the suppliers/trucking companies from whom restaurants purchase their ingredients - compete for restaurants’ business. And while the restaurants strive to make themselves more appealing to the diner, the purveyors are doing the same thing, using programs and procedures to encourage restaurants to use their products in the most efficient way possible.
Few things are more annoying to restaurant people (and yes, restaurant writers) than uninformed online “critics” who vilify a restaurant because of its supplier. I can’t count how many times I’ve received emails that whine, “Well, I don’t eat at restaurants that buy from … [fill in the blank: Sysco, US Foods, Gordon Foods - you name it …].” Sadly, at least some of this ignorance has actually been perpetrated by the occasional bad restaurant that tries to cover up its shortcomings in the kitchen by equating the quality of the food with where it was purchased. However, a more educated look reveals that the two are not as related as they might seem to be.
Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to Guy Weber, the new business manager for US Foods in Bridgeport, N.J. Guy has a long history working and living here at the beach, having started at Draper King Cole foods when it occupied the land that now hosts Dogfish Head Brewery. In 1985, Guy moved on to Atlantic Foods, servicing corporate accounts such as Hyatt Hotels, the Washington, D.C.-based Clyde’s Restaurant Group and Hard Times Cafes. From there he moved into food-service management, supplying college cafeterias, corporate dining rooms, etc. About 16 years ago Guy moved to Rehoboth Beach as the district manager for US Foods. After leaving for a successful stint with Gordon Foods, he returned to US Foods about a year-and-a-half ago. He currently touts their services and products to restaurants up and down the Delmarva Peninsula, including Wilmington, Baltimore, Kent Island and Annapolis. Needless to say, Guy does a lot of driving.
Blaming a food purveyor for the quality of a restaurant’s food is no different from blaming UPS or FedEx for the quality of an item you bought online. In Guy’s words, “We deliver whatever the restaurant orders. What they do with it is their business.” For example, he offers 40 different kinds of ham to his restaurant clients. They can order a $1,000 Iberico ham (yes, you read that right!), or they can order a high-quality, moderately priced product from Boar’s Head. Depending on that restaurant’s price point, a truly skilled chef will use his or her skills to convert either one of those ingredients into a dish the customers will love - while keeping the all-important food costs in check.
Nowadays, selling food to restaurants is a lot more than pulling up in a big refrigerated truck. All the major purveyors provide value-added services too. For example, US Foods employs several high-profile corporate chefs. These kitchen professionals perform at food shows, in-restaurant demonstrations and in US Foods’ own test kitchens.
Though that $1,000 Iberico ham might be delicious, it’s to US Foods’ benefit to train restaurant owners and cooks to use more moderately priced ingredients. The math is simple: If they maintain their costs with careful buying and preparation, they will survive to cook (and buy food) another day.
Guy’s company also makes Business Analytics systems available to its restaurant customers. The software runs in conjunction with the restaurants’ point-of-sale computer system to provide them with a real-time look at the most popular dishes sold, and whether the dishes actually contributed to the profits of the business. In fact, a related system called Chow Now is in use at Bethany Blues in Lewes, providing a comprehensive online/mobile-friendly order/pay system that results in the customer’s food being prepped, bagged and ready to pick up. I have used it myself and it works flawlessly.
Yet another value-added for restaurant clients is Menu Analytics. This system helps the owner and/or chef figure out what to charge for a particular dish based on the cost of its parts. In other words, if the restaurant pays X dollars for those two all-beef patties (how big are they?), special sauce (and what’s used to make it), lettuce (what percentage of a head is used?), cheese (one slice? two slices?), pickle slices (three? four?), onions (what percentage of an onion is used?) - on a sesame seed bun, then does the menu price allow the restaurant to serve a good sandwich at a fair price - and still pay rent, labor, utilities, taxes … the list goes on and on.
It’s no secret that qualified kitchen help is getting harder and harder to find, and leading-edge food purveyors are working to provide restaurants with food that is easier to prepare and requires less “hands-on” involvement. US Foods provides a system called Scoop that assists less-qualified kitchen help in preparing dishes that can keep customers coming back.
Of course, there will never be a substitute for a skilled and seasoned chef. But the seasonal vagaries of resort restaurant operations make it difficult to attract and maintain that sort of talent. In fact, many of our gifted chefs here in the Cape Region are also owners or partners in their own restaurants. For the last 14 or so years, I’ve been writing that “only the strong survive” in this business of eating. Nowhere is that more painfully obvious than here at the beach.