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Food Monoculture, Broadline food distributors, friend or foe?

jmikey Mar 1, 2007 09:41 PM

Just read an article on Slate about Sysco. Here's the link,

I was saddened but not dismayed by this article. I am sure the author did not know better as he is not in the business. The biggest question to ask is whether or not Sysco will help to elevate the quality of food available to all of us? I am sure every Chowhound out there has a favorite local restaurant that enjoy without realizing how broadline distributors stack the cards against them. First, independent restaurants generally pay more for product then do the chains. This is due to bargaining power and the fact that chains will concentrate their business with one distributor. Plus the chains are sophisticated enough to know that cost has no meaning. Distributors make most of their money from what is called billbacks or sheltered income and marketing funds. Sorry I don't mean to be a bore, If there is interest, I will continue. jmikey

  1. clamscasino Mar 3, 2007 09:09 AM

    "The restaurants Sysco caters to are the ones where there are no real chefs, just kitchen workers who can heat up and assemble meals that won't offend you or thrill you."

    Have to respectfully disagree. I too see the Sysco truck all over town, and most of the resaturants they are delivering to, do have real chefs. Some of them even get mentioned on Chowhound (in a good way).

    Sysco has a huge variety of products and from their website, it looks like "quality" comes in different gradations. So whether you're getting something good or bad from them probably depends on who is doing the buying. ...and the cooking...or not....

    3 Replies
    1. re: clamscasino
      jmikey Mar 27, 2007 08:29 PM

      The key to the above is your comment that Sysco sells various gradations of products. The sad fact is that most chef's bonus plans are based on Food Cost. Which means they are driven by their paychecks to buy the cheapest products they can find. Which means the salesperson will try to sell the products that are sponsored by a subsidized marketing program which pays them extra. Sorry Jmikey.

      1. re: jmikey
        aeneas01 Apr 4, 2007 03:35 AM

        sysco operates as any other business interested in making a profit - it offers items that are in demand. if one needs any proof, just look at the explosion of mexican and asian food products sysco now offers compared to 15 years ago.

        it's the consumer (diners), not the big food distributors, that dictate the quality of food provided by sysco and the like - but the bleak reality is most consumers are perfectly happy (or at least indifferent) with crappy food and, as such, many eateries have no incentive to seek out higher priced, higher quality items. but this is changing and changing fast - a good example is rice oil (no transfats). sysco jumped on this in a heartbeat and made it immediately available.

        when the consumer demands better quality, eateries will demand better quality and the sysco's of the world will listen - or lose out to those willing to meet the demand.

        fwiw i have been in the business for 25+ years - 15 with hotels and resorts (four seasons and westin) and 10+ owning my own restaurant.

        1. re: aeneas01
          Sam Fujisaka Apr 4, 2007 02:34 PM

          I'm glad that people like aeneas01 and hotoy noodle (and others) responded to this thread. Clear headed and with sufficient experience, to put the issue to rest.

    2. k
      kyhound Mar 3, 2007 08:24 AM

      Sysco is the foodservice equivalent of Wal-Mart. They squeeze their supplier and packers for all they can. If there is a independent distributor Sysco will either buy it up or just put it out of business. Sysco rarely buys from local producers in their service area. Any natural or organic products they handle surely come form the giants in the industry.
      The restaurants Sysco caters to are the ones where there are no real chefs, just kitchen workers who can heat up and assemble meals that won't offend you or thrill you.

      2 Replies
      1. re: kyhound
        hotoynoodle Mar 3, 2007 09:38 AM

        >The restaurants Sysco caters to are the ones where there are no real chefs, just kitchen workers who can heat up and assemble meals that won't offend you or thrill you.<

        this is patently untrue, since the majority of restaurants in this country (about 70%) are independently owned. sysco sells 1000s of products, from mops to plastic wrap to demi-glace. it's a giant supermarket that delivers, and what's done with their product on the receiving end has nothing to do with them.

        and yes, as i mentioned above, it is all about economies of scale. but that's the nature of the beast in american business -- eat or be eaten.

        1. re: hotoynoodle
          luchabuena Apr 4, 2007 02:19 PM

          "Sysco has a huge variety.....whether you're getting something good or bad depends on....."

          I have encountered several buyers who feel that because they only buy certain products from SYSCO that they are not compromising their integrity. It is my position that it doesnt matter what you are specifically buying, but what is more important is who you are buying it from. I fully understand the need to cut food costs and to source cheaper ingredients but I dont feel that it is worth supporting an organization that prides itself on supplying schools and hospitals with "food" that is devoid of any nutritional content. As a society we seem to be moving towards an understanding that food should be cheap. IT is this concept that has made farming a dying industry and farmers and their families struggling to make ends meet.
          It is time that we reinvest in our sense of values and reconnect with our local growers and producers with the understanding that supporting sustainability extends to the sustainability of the people trying to make an honest living. It is everyones duty to scrutinize the ethics and politics of your food suppliers, but it is particularly important for food establishments to do this for the customer and to translate the importance of these decisions to those who dont regularly take it into consideration.

      2. babette feasts Mar 3, 2007 06:39 AM

        'The biggest question to ask is whether or not Sysco will help to elevate the quality of food available to all of us?'

        So far, amongst my peer group, Sysco equals cheap, Sysco does not equal quality. If they were focused on quality, they certainly could be a big influence on the industry.

        In my experience, the smaller independent chef owned restaurants are more likely to use smaller independent purveyors (and aren't buying preared food beyond tomato paste and olive oil anyway) - just one more reason to stay away from chains and corporate mediocrity. And, I am shocked that Thomas Keller uses frozen frites at Bouchon, I thought he stood for something more.

        1. Aromatherapy Mar 2, 2007 08:39 AM

          I'm interested. What really bothers me is the price pressure on little guys who want to cook from scratch. Please do go on. I found the Slate article informative but then I'm starting pretty much from scratch myself on this topic.

          1. g
            Gnu23 Mar 2, 2007 08:39 AM

            Oh, I am very interested in this! In fact, I wish there was more discourse about this on these boards because it seems like there is a slowly turning tide of awareness that's seeping into the general consciousness. More and more people are caring about where their food comes from: Wal-Mart now carries organic produce. Whole Foods is expanding all over the country. Books like Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma are bestsellers. It's encouraging to me to think that more and more people are taking an interest in the production, procurement and overall Industry that is the food we eat.

            I live in NYC and I regularly see the Sysco trucks unloading all over the place. Before reading the article I just assumed they were delivering aluminum foil and cooking oil. It's frustrating as a very frequent restaurant patron to now know that many of the things I'm enjoying are just another SKU from some corporate behemoth.

            On a related note, there is a great organization called Sustainable Table that has a ton of info regarding the politics of modern food.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Gnu23
              hotoynoodle Mar 3, 2007 08:12 AM

              the politics of organic, as well as the creep and sprawl of whole foods, plus its recent slide into something other than its original concept (see wednesday's ny times) are beyond the scope of this op. a hot button of mine, but let's not digress.

              restaurants are a business and make a million decisions daily about effective cost measures, both for product and labor. it's much easier to buy from a few purveyors rather than 10. it's much faster to put away a few orders rather than waste all day receiving. it's much more efficient to buy a case of hellman's mayo (or brand "x" if you're really cheaping out) rather than having a prep guy make mayonaise every day.

              economies of scale matter. if a chef can get a better price on san marzano tomatoes from sysco than from another wholesaler, he's not going to suck it up simply to support "the little guy." if he can work a better deal with sysco by ordering $1000 a day from them with subsequent discounts, he will. he can also choose whether to buy generic ketchup or heinz. if a company has 15 units or 1 restaurant, the purchaser or chef still has to decide what's the best deal, both in terms of quality and price.

              it's romantic to think everything in a restaurant kitchen comes from scratch, but that's rarely the case.the higher up you go on the food chain, yes. still not everything. i've worked for 3 james beard winners, and there was always hellman's in dry storage.

              1. re: Gnu23
                jmikey Mar 27, 2007 08:09 PM

                Well, each distributor has what it calls it's Marketing Plan rollout. That means each manufacturerer is invited to a get together where they are asked for funds to promote their products. It is understood that enough funds must be spent to satisfy their principle, the rest goes to each companies bottom line. What this means to the independent operator is that the manufacturer rep has to grow enough business to justify the $25,000 to $100,000 given to the distributor to get the business. The chains get what is called "deviated pricing ", which means they receive a rebate to offset the cost of the marketing funds. Independent restaurants are supposed to make up the difference in marketing expenses. So the independents subsidize the chains. Jmikey

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