(an opinion piece)

Well, it has come to roost as they say – if you leave the opportunity for something to go wrong, it likely will.  Murphy’s Law has been tested time and again and it seems that in most cases Murphy’s Law wins.  What is ironic is in most cases we can see it coming, but even our gut feelings get put aside in favor of chance.  One of the most vivid examples involves supply chain challenges and the minimalization of competition in the American marketplace. 

“Murphy’s Law (If anything can go wrong, it will) was born at Edwards Air Force Base – in 1949.  It was named after Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer working on an Air Force project. “

As an example, we are all aware of the serious supply issue of infant baby formula in the wealthiest nation on earth – the United States.  How could this happen?  Fingers are aggressively pointing at the manufacturer of baby formula (one of only four companies that control the market) who shut down its plant.  This manufacturer, purportedly, did so in response to health and safety violations.  I’m sure that we would all support the temporary shutdown if their process was deemed unsafe for consumers.  Some, point fingers at the current administration in Washington for not responding quickly enough as supplies began to evaporate, yet few are addressing the most significant cause – monopolies.  As companies grew larger, consuming many of the smaller producers, the control of this product wound up in the hands of a few, making it much more vulnerable.  The same is true with the slowdown in auto manufacturing because computer chips made overseas by a small number of producers is in short supply, or the current shortage of dog food.  When a commodity is placed in the hands of a few, then eventually Murphy’s Law rears up its ugly head.  Can you imagine what would happen in the marketplace if Amazon were to suddenly fail?

In the restaurant business we are subject to similar supply chain faults.  Only a handful of wholesalers control the restaurant supply market, you can count the number of meatpackers on one hand, large scale farms focus on growing one or two crops to maximize yield and control price, and even equipment manufacturers have become fat while chewing up smaller producers over the past few decades.  It is easy to see how a challenge posed to any one of these large-scale suppliers can raise havoc within the restaurant world.  And such is the case right now.

As companies grow, so too does their focus on efficiency – some for the better, and some simply to find ways to stretch profit margins and stockholder incentives.  Real service is replaced with call centers and on-line ordering.  Special effort to ensure that a restaurant has what it needs is replaced with stricter minimum orders or reduced service days, and that vendor who always went the extra mile for you finds it too difficult to continue to try and compete.  If one of those large vendors or producers should fail, then the snowball impact is quite serious. 

There are many altruistic reasons for buying local or regional, but to my way of thinking, it simply makes better business sense.  Those regional vendors need and want your business, they have a real interest in providing exceptional service, and they need to listen to your concerns.  Oftentimes they face the chef or the food and beverage director to take an order, so there is no escaping the reality of any problem that may exist.  The local producer and vendor wants you to succeed!  They need you to succeed and as such they will do what they can to ensure that this happens.  When was the last time you were able to call a salesman at 4:00 on a Friday asking he or she to “find me a particular product tonight – I’m running short”?  When was the last time you were able to ask for a few extra weeks of extended credit from a vendor because business is slow this month?  It is the “time of need” that truly defines great service – something that the big guys just can’t afford to do (at least according to their accountants). 

There is another piece of the supply chain puzzle that has made us dependent on the larger producers – we have become accustomed to having whatever we want, whenever we want it, with the convenience of having it delivered to our door under one invoice.  One-stop buying of ingredients is the hallmark of the size of limited sellers.  They simply find ways to keep the marketplace filled with products from various parts of the world.  Strawberries in February – no problem we’ll get them from Mexico (white inside and tasteless).  You want to save time cleaning that parsley or peeling garlic? Well, we’ll find a source to do that for you.  Fresh halibut from the coast of Alaska?  No problem, we’ll fly it in overnight.  Great service- right?  Great service, until the product doesn’t show up and we lash out at the vendor when the problem starts with us and how we view menus. What about quality, maturity, price, or carbon footprint?  When restaurants and consumers expect everything, all the time, without question – then the local guy can’t compete at the same level as a larger player. 

So, buy local or regional because you want quality, are concerned about the integrity of the source, or it makes sense to be a good neighbor, or at the very least – support them because it makes good business sense.  Unless the federal government decides to actually enforce Anti-Trust rules, then the only way to challenge Murphy’s Law and do our part to rectify supply chain issues is to think about our menus, focus on seasonality, let the real production cycle drive how we buy, and support those regional producers and vendors.  These recent examples of supply chain problems were predictable – Murphy’s law was just waiting for the right moment.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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