Just entering the restaurant business and wondering how to find the best food and beverage vendors? Good question. It’s no easy feat. Establishing relationships and getting great prices while demanding high quality food takes a lot of research and plenty of negotiation.
Particularly in the modern dining environment, where diners are more source-savvy than ever. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2020 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, "76 percent of adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced food."
So how do you do it? We’ve created a guide to the various national and regional restaurant food and beverage purveyors—from big wholesale businesses to small organic farms—and detail how to work with them.
Here’s how to find the right restaurant food suppliers for you.
In the United States, the food supply chain is extremely complex. Sure, farmers still grow the food and raise the livestock, but from there, food sold directly from farmer to consumer is but a tiny segment of the market.
Commodities often move on to first-line handlers—think companies like fruit packing plants—that process and aggregate them before they get shipped to manufacturers or wholesalers.
From there, wholesale food suppliers may shift foods to warehouses before distributing them to retail outlets like grocery stores, cafeterias, and restaurants via intricate transportation infrastructure where they eventually land in the consumers’ hands. Different restaurants are best served by different supply chain models, so understanding how they function is important as you consider your options!
A national wholesale supplier is your go-to for any all necessary restaurant goods. From meat to produce, cheese to kitchenwares, these companies source from farms and smaller suppliers across the country then deliver via truck with ordering capabilities provided by online and by phone.
They’re an attractive option for many reasons—buying in bulk offers restaurant managers better prices, they can get seasonal produce year-round thanks to sourcing across the continent, and they have a huge selection.
If you’re near, say, cattle country, sourcing meat directly from local farmers may be the best option. But it will likely cost you more than a larger company that sources through a network of multiple farms. With a small farm relationship, you may not only get to know the purveyor but might actually know the animals you purchase and have a say in how they’re raised, fed, and slaughtered, which may be important to you depending on your business' values.
Sourcing produce, much like meat, requires a restaurant owner or manager to consider exactly what a restaurant is promising customers. If you’re a plant-based lunch spot, then customers are going to demand the best organic, fresh produce. But that doesn’t mean everything must be locally sourced. Often restaurants find their produce needs require a combination of purchasing from small farms and big suppliers, and sometimes even area farmers markets.
There are pros and cons to each. Small farmers give restaurateurs the option to see the growing conditions, and get down and dirty, as it were, in regards to planting practices and pesticide use. That said, a big produce vendor comes with the benefit of sourcing from numerous farms and operating under standardized protocols that ensure quality and consistency, important factors when determining costs.
Unlike individual farmers who can only sell limited options or whole food suppliers who offer mass quantities of food from dozens of vendors, the local farmers market is attractive for its mix of both: quality and quantity. At a good local farmers market, you’ll have the choice of many local farms, a bonus for restaurants looking to promote the “eat local” movement. And shopping regularly from farmers market vendors is a great opportunity to develop relationships with your favorite purveyors. But prepare to pay the price. These small businesses naturally have to charge more, which you’ll need to consider when determining your menu costs.
Buying organic might bring to mind a trip to a hidden valley oasis free from antibiotics and industrial chemicals, but just because you want to buy organic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to think small. Many big wholesale suppliers sell organic meats and produce which might be more affordable than buying from small producers. Environmentally speaking, shelling out for organic could also be necessary to your business model.
Sourcing fresh cuts of meat directly from a butcher has the advantage of not having to build relationships with meat purveyors yourself. It can also provide an educational service by helping you learn about cuts and breeds you may want to put on your menu in the future. But buying from a lower-volume operator, especially one with a retail component, will be more costly. If showcasing the finest T-bone isn’t central to your restaurant, then opting for a wholesaler might be a more financially smart decision for your restaurant.
There are more home-grown wine suppliers than ever these days and with that comes a lot more opportunities to buy the exact varietals to best fit your cuisine. And if you’re anxious about your wine knowledge, work with a sommelier to help select the best bottles for your restaurant. Shop around for a supplier you feel comfortable with. As the industry grows, there’s more competition and a greater chance to negotiate for the best wine prices possible.
You can’t be a great brewpub without exceptional craft beer, so developing relationships with brewers is essential. They’re not the only means of supplying a great assortment of beer options, however. There are also larger wholesale beer suppliers that offer a catalog of options from niche breweries to domestic brands. But note, not all state beer laws for distribution are the same. Check out the Brewers Association for a state by state guide of beer distributors.
Once you’ve sorted through the various vendor options, it’s time to start thinking about making contact with suppliers. This is where the relationship-building begins. Here are some steps to make it as smooth as possible:
Whatever supply chain you choose to source your food and beverages, remember, it all boils down to that final tip: building relationships. The more you get to know your supplier, the more you’ll establish trust, the better your businesses will work together to put great food on your restaurant plates.
[Photo: Pixabay via Pixels]