The channel is ripe with opportunities for makers who can fulfill unmet needs.
For specialty food makers, getting a product onto a restaurant’s menu requires following a careful recipe.
The first step is to study the restaurant brand’s existing offerings and its position in the market to ensure that the product fits the concept’s mission and ethos. “Doing due diligence is an absolute necessity,” says Angel McGowan, senior director of procurement for Newk’s Eatery, a 100-unit salad-and-sandwich chain based in Jackson, Mississippi, which is focused on fresh, healthy fare.
McGowan cited as an example, suppliers who have pitched the restaurant with a product that needs to be deep-fried, even though the chain has no fryers in any of its restaurants. “Our chefs are looking for things that fit our brand, and our menu as well,” she says.
Sometimes suppliers who understand Newk’s menu and food philosophy can pitch products that will further advance the restaurant brand’s mission to offer fresh, wholesome food. “We have had some vendors come to us with a fix for an operational, service, or a flavor issue that we didn’t know we had,” says McGowan.
A supplier might have a food product that uses a natural starch instead of a gum, for example, which the culinary team can consider as a potential improvement to the menu.
Distribution Is Key
Distribution capabilities are also critical. Suppliers need to either have access to distribution through a wholesaler, or have the financial capacity to ship product themselves, which can be expensive.
“[Small artisanal] products are very special to come across, but sometimes there are problems in distribution and consistency,” says Linda Hampsten Fox, chef/owner of The Bindery in Denver. “I don't want to put a product on my menu and find out the next week that I can't get it.”
Hampsten Fox seeks out new products by reading about the industry when she has the time—she’s at her restaurant about 16 hours per day at minimum—and by attending exhibitions. “Go to trade shows and have people taste what you are about!” she suggests as advice for specialty food makers seeking restaurant distribution. “I often find great products at shows, like recently, a coffee-covered cheese to die for.”
Provide Supporting Data
McGowan of Newk’s says suppliers also should be prepared to present data and insights that support their product, such as by showing how the product fits in with a hot or emerging trend. “If they have some trend information, case studies, or Technomic data, those are things that might justify us looking with our culinary team at a new product,” she adds.
Suppliers should come with a well-rounded approach that goes beyond seeking to make the sale and includes efforts to ensure that the product works in the restaurant, McGowan says.
Although suppliers might want to work collaboratively with chefs to develop menu items, that’s generally not something that would happen in a Newk’s Eatery test kitchen. “Vendors would love to come and work with our culinary team, but it honestly happens few and far between,” says McGowan. “They would need to be able to come on our platform, and their time is lean. We also usually work with multiple vendors to ensure we are getting the best deal, or the best flavor, and to ensure it’s not skewed by vendor input, so our process is closed to vendors.”
For that reason, suppliers seeking to gain restaurant distribution should come armed with supporting information about how the item should be best prepared, along with how it is sourced or produced, and the competitive advantages it offers. Those advantages could be operational—a partially prepared product that saves labor, for example—or related to quality or other attributes.
If a supplier has what they feel is the right product, however, they should not be afraid to pitch it, according to McGowan. “We want to see what’s new, and what’s coming up,” she says. “It could be an operational opportunity, an efficiency solution, or it could be a better product, with better ingredients or a better flavor.”
Other considerations producers should bear in mind include packaging—many kitchens seek to avoid glass packaging if possible, and container materials should be approved for contact with food preparation surfaces. Package sizes will also likely need to be consistent, and larger than those offered at retail.
Ride the ‘Local’ Wave
Pitching products to local restaurants can also allow suppliers to position themselves as locally sourced, and business associations may have programs to promote local sourcing that suppliers can use as a resource.
According to a website offering advice for small businesses from the Houston Chronicle, suppliers can register with a local cooperative extension agency. These agencies often receive requests for local producers, and provide restaurateurs lists of local suppliers.
“Join a cooperative that sells a host of local products in bulk to restaurants; they can peddle the food, market the products and make collections so you can concentrate on your core business—creating the food,” the newspaper suggests on its website, https://smallbusiness.chron.com/
Other advice from the site includes:
- Invite the chef, owner, or manager of the restaurant to visit your kitchen or production facilities.
- Offer a freshness guarantee, especially if it is your first time working with that restaurant.
- Be mindful of the restaurant’s schedule when setting appointments or making follow-up calls—avoid contacting the chef during the lunch or dinner rush, for example.
Hampsten Fox of The Bindery says as culinary creatives themselves, chefs have an affinity for small, specialty producers. “When you work with farmers, food artisans, cheese makers or any individual who spends their days creating incredible products, it's because they have a passion for what they are making,” she says. “As a chef we have the same ‘jam’ — the same ideas and values drive us. I look for individuals that are creative, thoughtful, and pushing the edge just the right amount.”
Mark Hamstra is a regular contributor to Specialty Food.