How to Find the Right Restaurant Food Suppliers

So you’ve got an idea for a great new restaurant, but you’re not sure how to source the right ingredients for your menu. The options may seem overwhelming or you may not even know where to start. To help you, we’ve listed the different types of food vendors you might encounter, considerations to make when evaluating your options, and steps to take to find the perfect vendor for your restaurant.

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Types of Food Suppliers

There are many types of food vendors that cater to many different catering requirements. Understanding what makes each type unique will help you make more informed decisions when signing a contract with a specific vendor.

National wholesalers

The most important type of food supplier that you are likely to encounter are domestic wholesalers. Distributors like Sysco, Restaurant Depot and US Foods are known for the variety of products they offer.

You can get pretty much anything you need from these vendors: meat, dry goods, fresh produce, cleaning supplies, paper goods – you name it, they’ve got it. However, large suppliers often prioritize deliveries to their best customers, so smaller restaurants like yours may only receive deliveries once a week.

Local farmers

At the other end of the spectrum, it may be in your interest to work directly with local farmers in your area. Farmers’ markets are great places to meet local farmers and sample their produce.

You’ll likely receive much more personal attention from these suppliers than from national distributors, and it’s much easier to receive deliveries more frequently and at the peak of freshness. Although a local farmer may not be able to supply all products you may need, working with these independent vendors gives you the added benefit of supporting other business owners in your community.

Discount clubs

If you’re in an area with a nearby Sam’s Club or Costco, you might want to consider opening an account at one of these discount clubs. For an annual fee, you can get discounts on a wide variety of bulk products for your restaurant.

These stores are perhaps the most convenient sources for last-minute deliveries if you’re in a rush. Most of them allow you to place orders online for curbside pickup or even delivery in some cases. Buyer beware, though: Not all products in these markets are better deals than what you’ll find at regular grocery stores. Do some research before checking out to make sure you’re actually getting the best price.

Local specialty shops

There may be a specific part of your menu that is a bit outside of your forte. In this case, it may be interesting to get closer to specialized shops in your area that could meet this need. Local businesses such as bakeries, cafes, breweries and ice cream parlors often have strong ties to the community. Adding their products to your menu can therefore create a sense of familiarity for new customers.

Plus, these vendors are often highly skilled in their specialty, so you can bring the best of both worlds together by partnering with them. The only downside to working with local shops is that you rely entirely on them for an entire portion of your menu, so assume that risk with caution.

Food Supplier Considerations

When evaluating an individual food supplier, there are a few key considerations that are important to keep in mind.

Variety and consistency of products

Product consistency and variety are at the top of the list because these factors have the biggest impact on your bottom line. If a supplier is unable to deliver the ingredients you need or if those ingredients do not meet your quality standards, this could mean that you cannot fulfill certain orders, resulting in disappointed customers and a loss of income.

Replacement Availability

Along the same lines, the availability of substitutes can be a deciding factor if you’re torn between two food vendors. It’s unrealistic to expect your suppliers to be able to supply you with exactly what you need every time, especially when ingredient shortages can impact nationwide or even world. However, what they can delivering when the unexpected happens can make all the difference. Look for suppliers who have at least one suitable alternative for the key ingredients you source from them.

Specialized needs

Your food supplier’s decisions may also be influenced by your particular ingredient, cookware, or dishware needs. There may be a limited number of providers that have what you need, but that doesn’t mean you should use one provider for everything. Perhaps you have one supplier for all your meat products and another for your products. Don’t forget the minimum requirements of each provider.

Delivery frequency

The final overriding consideration when looking at food suppliers is how often they deliver. If you have limited storage space, more frequent deliveries are ideal. Larger distributors are generally not able to deliver as frequently as smaller local suppliers, but local suppliers do not have as much variety. This means you’ll likely have more suppliers to juggle if you need to prioritize frequent deliveries.

How to find the ideal supplier

Now that you know the differences between the different types of food suppliers and the important considerations to keep in mind, the process of finding the perfect supplier is quite simple.

  1. Plan your menu. Quantify the exact amount of ingredients you need for all your dishes as well as all the other supplies you need to run your restaurant. Consider the number of customers you plan to have in a given week and the most popular items on your menu.
  2. Categorize your products. Sorting your list of ingredients and supplies into larger categories will help you identify the types of suppliers you need. Broad groups like dairy, produce, meat, dry goods, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, paper products, and cleaning products will help ensure that all of your bases are covered.
  3. Determine how much you can buy in bulk. You may not have enough storage space to purchase a month’s worth of pantry staples at a time, which may influence the supplier you choose and the size of orders you pass.
  4. Identify local and national suppliers. Once you know how many you need, make a list of all the national distributors and local suppliers that service your area.
  5. Ask for samples, prices and payment terms. Before engaging with vendors, make sure you understand their requirements and get a sample of the products you can expect to receive in your orders.
  6. Opening an account. This often involves a credit check and providing information about your restaurant, including tax ID, bank details, and contact information for your management team.

Many of the tools you use to run your catering business can help you manage your food vendors. A POS tool designed for restaurants like Toast or Aloha should have inventory management features that can alert you if a particular ingredient or product is out of stock. Some of these software solutions also offer accounting features, but you can choose to use a separate accounting platform like QuickBooks or FreshBooks to manage your vendor invoices.

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About Vivian J. Smith

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