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I remember a fantastic television ad years ago for a company that escapes me at the moment. The owner of the company assembled his key sales people together and said that they had a problem: many of their old, established clients had told him that they no longer felt like they knew his company, no longer felt like he was in touch with their needs. He paused and then said that they were going to change and go back to the company that they use to be. He passed out plane tickets to everyone and said they were to go back to building those personal relationships with their clients, listening to them and responding to their needs. To me, this was one of the most important commercials of the past 20 years. It pointed to a problem that exists in so many industries, and in this case – the food service business. Vendors have lost touch with the client. They do not understand their needs, are more concerned with moving product rather than constantly earning the respect and trust from their clients and serving as a partner in their business success.

Running a kitchen and a restaurant is incredibly hard. The amount of daily detail is mind numbing and creates a stressful environment that can easily detract from the primary mission of making customers happy. The centerpiece of every restaurant is the food; the differentiated product is service. Customers have come to expect excellent food as the price of admission for restaurants: “of course the food is good; that is what they should be all about”. To provide excellent food on the plate, the restaurant depends on vendors to deliver superior raw materials that are fresh, appropriate to the specifications of the restaurant, and cost effective.

It is in the best interest of the vendor to work with restaurants that are financially viable. To this end, the vendor should be a partner/advisor that is focused on helping the chef and the restaurateur set the stage for profitability. The best vendors know their product inside and out, understand their clients and the menus that they offer, are great listeners and most importantly are expeditors who will do what ever they can to insure that every client has what they need, when they need it, at the quality that they expect, and at a price that will allow the restaurant to make money.

Some may say that this is asking too much. I don’t think so. Think about those small, personal vendors who have focused on building relationships before they dedicate themselves to make a sale. The fishmonger who has a breadth of knowledge about the product that far exceeds the knowledge of the chef, but never flaunts that knowledge in front of their business partner. Rather than promote their knowledge they use it to build a systematic program of educating the chef and being a resource for information that creates a strong bond between the two. The cheese maker who brings in new cheeses for the chef to taste in an effort to enhance the restaurants ability to attract a certain customer profile and shows the operation how to maximize shelf life and flavor. This was the norm not too long ago and thankfully in some areas still exists.

What kind of relationship do you have with your vendors? How well versed are your sales people with the product that they sell? Do your sales reps understand the issues that plague you all the time: shelf life, yield, freshness, flavor profile, sustainability, integrity of the producer, and of course plate cost? Do your vendors bring ideas to the table when you are preparing to change your menu? Do they take the time to understand your needs, your food philosophy, and your restaurant image? Do you feel that this is beyond the scope of the vendor’s job or is this something that you crave but cannot seem to find?

Purveyors were like this not too long ago. Sales people were knowledgeable about their products and in many cases were experienced restaurant people who knew how to work with the ingredients they sold. Not too long ago a chef could call up their salespeople when they were running out of product on a weekend and know that their business partner would help to bail them out – somehow. It was not too long ago that salespeople would call the chef an hour before order time was about to close just to see if there were any last minute adjustments. It was not too long ago that a chef could call the vendor for research information or simply to ask them to seek out something currently absent from their product list. It was not too long ago that a conscientious restaurant that normally paid their bills on time but was in a seasonal slump could ask the vendor to carry them for a little bit longer until they were in season. It was not too long ago that salespeople did business face-to-face on the chef’s schedule rather than simply requiring chefs to punch in order codes on their computer.

Some may think that this vendor/chef relationship of old is not in tune with our modern, technology driven work environment and somewhat backward. I believe that most would stop and relish the relationship that the company owner referred to in the beginning of this article was trying to re-create. Successful business is all about building strong relationships: relationships with customers, employees, the media, investors, and yes: vendors.

There is no question that restaurants can take great raw materials and screw them up, but it is nearly impossible to take inferior raw materials and turn them into great finished menu items. Wolfgang Puck once said that his formula for success is to “buy the best raw materials and try not to screw them up”. At the core of this formula is the relationship built with the vendor.

Last week SYSCO purchased U.S. Foods, who had recently purchased Quandts. If I were a stockholder of SYSCO shares I would be thrilled. I just hope that SYSCO finds a way to use this merger to bring back those relationships between their salespeople and chefs across the country. I am going to trust that this merger will result in more intensive training of salespeople to insure that they truly know the product they sell. I am going to trust that these same salespeople will take it upon themselves to study their clients, their menus, their philosophy, their issues and work to build a partnership that will insure long-term support of each other and business success for the restaurant.

I have been fortunate to work with quite a few companies that were tuned in and salespeople who were responsive to the needs of the chef and the restaurant. The salesperson is the vendor they represent. Salespeople can make things happen if they truly have the restaurants success in mind. Salespeople can cut through the red tape when they know how important it is to the chef. These are the people I want to work with. People like Nancy Matheson-Burns at Dole and Bailey, Cindy Greer at Florida’s Finest Seafood, or Eamon Lee from Maines; they believe in “customer first”.