They get by with a little help from their suppliers
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 local eateries 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 efficiently.
Few things are more annoying to restaurant people (and yes, restaurant writers) than uninformed “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 …].” A more educated look reveals that the quality of ingredients and the trucks in which they’re shipped are not at all related.
Guy Weber works for US Foods in Bridgeport, N.J. He started his career at Draper King Cole foods, which used to occupy 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 18 years ago Guy moved to Rehoboth Beach as the district manager for US Foods. After a successful stint with Gordon Foods, he returned to US Foods and is now the territory manager.
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 from Amazon. 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.
All the major purveyors provide value-added services too. For example, US Foods employs kitchen professionals who present 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 a real-time look at the most popular dishes sold, and whether the dishes actually contributed to the profits of the business.
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 (1 slice? 2 slices?), pickle slices (3? 4?), 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 harder than ever to find and keep. Leading-edge food purveyors work to provide restaurants with ingredients that are easier to prepare and require less hands-on time. 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 chef. But the vagaries of seasonal 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 15-plus 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.