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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Day

Smart Food Sourcing for Restaurants

You are well on your way to owning your restaurant. Congratulations!

You have created a unique, exciting, and flavorful menu. Now, where in the heck do you purchase all your food? Should you visit the local grocery store, farmers market, or a specialty vendor? What about those big trucks that deliver almost everything to other restaurants?

We will break down the options of the various food sourcing, and you can choose what works best for you and your restaurant:

Grocery Store – Great for quick pick-up items or fresh produce

Specialty Vendors – Focuses on one particular category of food: produce, protein, specialty flours for a bakery (Ex, UNFI, GFI, Specialty Foods)

Broad-Liner – Those big trucks that deliver almost everything.  They might not have the one spice you had on a trip overseas or that specialty to-go box you saw once in New York.  However, they have 90% of your restaurant's needs, from produce, proteins, chemicals, paper goods, and dry food products. (Ex, Ben E Keith, PFG, Sysco)

Let's be honest: every restauranteur wants to have the best food at the best price and make a profit while running their business.  And who can blame them? That’s why anyone starts a business  –  to make money.  Let's look at these scenarios below to see what is in the business's best interest. But sometimes, cutting corners and going cheap could be very costly.

Malted Grains burger and homefries

Scenario 1:  Small Mom & Pop Burger Joint

This small restaurant wants to pay cash for all its supplies and doesn’t mind going to the store a few times a week to pick up supplies.  Because of their size and storage capabilities, they do not have enough refrigeration within their establishment to hold a large delivery from a broad-liner. So, on the way to work, they stop at the local grocery store and pick up fresh burger buns, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and potatoes. They then make a quick trip to pick up a few other items from a different store because it will also save some money.  

They arrive at the restaurant and begin prepping for the day's business.  Unknowingly, the grocery store bagger put the raw hamburger meat and lettuce in the same bag. Now you have cross-contamination and the possibility of a foodborne Illness.  What about the customer who picked up tomatoes yesterday and added them to their cart with raw chicken?  Later, realizing they didn’t want those tomatoes, they put them back in the bin, and you, inherently, picked them up. Now, there is cross-contamination with possible salmonella.  What if it’s the middle of summer, and your vehicle is hot on the drive to the restaurant?  You have now introduced time/heat to your raw food products, which reduces shelf life.

Each of these “what ifs” are real issues.  You may tell yourself that you wash your produce and take great care when transporting your food, using a pre-cooled cooler, and making quick local trips to the store.  Saving money is very important to your bottom line, and again, you need to make a profit.  The problem is that you could make someone sick or, even worse, have a major outbreak that takes the life of an employee, customer, family, or friend. How much were those savings really worth?  You now have to deal with the guilt, lawsuits and lost reputation.  Not to scare you, but these issues happen every year within the food service business.

Scenario 2: Large Buffet Restaurant in a Small Town

buffet with various foods

In this scenario, this local favorite has been in business for 25 years and is a community staple.  Debbie and John have been using the same distributor for the last 15 years and like the relationship they have fostered with their sales rep. Every Sunday after church, the place fills up, and there is a hustle and bustle that everyone enjoys.  Cooks are busy making great food, and servers are making great tips because the experience is so great and consistent. However, food costs have recently increased with inflation, and they have started to feel the financial pinch. They do not want to raise prices and upset loyal customers, but they cannot continue to absorb the increase in product cost.  

After much thought, John looks for another vendor to help lower costs.  A friend from their church suggests they meet Ricky, a new church member. He is in the food business, and they want to help him grow. Ricky can get chicken at such a reduced cost that it would be insane not to use this guy.  John decides that since they are helping business and a new church member, what could possibly go wrong?

John immediately notices that Ricky brings in his product nicely and early, puts it away in the cooler, and always places the invoice on his desk, just like he asked.  He’s saving so much money that he allows Ricky to find him some new product.  But eventually, he notices that despite the dollar savings, he seems to be running out of chicken weekly.  

John counts the boxes daily, and Ricky delivers the requested amount of product: 5 cases twice a week, which equals 80 lbs of chicken. Eventually, one of your cooks has to move some product around in the cooler, and he feels the cases are a bit light in weight. What should be 40-lb cases are, in reality, 32-lb cases, so John decides to check his security cameras to see exactly what Ricky is bringing.  

When he first sees Ricky bringing the chicken in the back of his pickup truck without refrigeration, John realizes something is wrong. Upon further investigation, he uncovers that Ricky has a friend who works at the local chicken processor plant and buys chicken using their employee discount. He takes empty boxes and re-fills them with chicken. 

Instead of receiving a 40-lb case of chicken twice a week, John is receiving a 32-lb case twice a week, which is a loss of 16 lbs of chicken each week.  

He is being robbed by a “friend” he was helping out and possibly introducing health issues.

Burger and chips

Scenario 3:  Local Family-Friendly Bar and Grill

You bought an established business that has been operating for several years and is making great profits.

As you learn about this business, you see they have two broad-liners and a specialty vendor that delivers weekly.  The broad-liners do not have everything you need, so you keep the specialty vendor around for the few items you want on your menu.  You soon realize that each sales rep at the broad-liner comes to see you often and always wants to help grow your business. The previous owner has built a great relationship with the Reps, introduced you to them, and explained how each company does excellent with its service. 

You love the canned jalapenos from the company Preston represents. Currently, you only purchase his jalapenos.  After a few months, a National Out Cry for a case of botulism was linked to these jalapenos.  Preston informs you immediately that your last order was involved based on the product's lot number and manufacture date.  He gives you a full refund and instructions that if anyone has symptoms, let him know immediately so they can remedy the medical expense, meaning you will not be liable. Luckily, none of your customers experienced side effects, and all is right in your culinary world again.  

As time passes, Preston asks for more business and says he can help reduce some of your costs.  He can reduce overall prices by having more products on your order.  Kim, the other sales rep, has not been as forthcoming with asking for additional business, and her prices start to creep up over the next year to account for her lost revenue. You eventually decide to move to Preston and give him 80% of your business. Is this the right decision?

Each scenario above is based on real-life happenings. Names have been changed to protect the stupid.

In the following newsletters, we will discuss Scenario Three and answer the questions about giving more support to just one broad-liner.


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