Is There Shame in Sourcing Through Sysco?

Food distribution corporations like Sysco have become unpopular in association with a thriving local chef community.

Is There Shame in Sourcing Through Sysco?

Not long ago, chef-driven restaurants across the United States were hastily editing their menus to include ultramodern power words like organic and green. The “go green” movement was not only successful in publicizing the unsanitary conditions of livestock inside factory farms, it also heightened awareness concerning the possible effects of GMOs and pesticides on produce. Millions of Americans have found themselves immersed in a culinary movement and want to know the origin of their food.

Consequently, multibillion-dollar food distribution corporations like Sysco and US Foods have become unpopular in association with a thriving local chef community. Increased recognition of chef-inspired farm-to-table restaurants has initiated a bitter distaste for products that are not locally grown or humanely raised on sustainable farms. 

Thus, the “eat local” trend places shame on restaurants, hotels, convention centers and other large catering venues exclusively utilizing large factory distribution companies for their needs. More and more high-end farm-to-table operations are beginning to order less from broadline distributors and more from local farmers markets and regional suppliers.

But the process of shifting a menu toward exclusively local sources is not always feasible for every model due to local farm supply and financial restraints. Why should those that don’t have the necessary local resources be branded with an unspoken negative label?

Farm to Table

Steven Satterfield is executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union, one of Atlanta’s top farmstead-inspired restaurants. He is actively involved in the progressive culinary community with programs such as Slow Food Atlanta, Georgia Organics and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Satterfield says he is committed to providing his clientele with a farm-fresh menu highlighting local Georgia produce from nearby farms. His success in creating this true farm-to-table restaurant—which has four separate private event spaces, including a patio for up to 45 guests—has earned him recognition from Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Esquire.

[inlinead align="left"]"A lot of restaurants are starting to look down on big-box distributors. I believe it is the quality of product you choose to order that is important, not the distributor through which you happen to source it.” — Wayne Rheinlander Jr., Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q[/inlinead]

Miller Union prides itself on being free from big-box distributors. “The way in which we operate steers around broadliners because we work with more farm-based foods to build long-term relationships with local farmers,” says Satterfield. “Local produce is in high demand, and the supply is good.”

Many farm-to-table restaurants still use Sysco and other large distributors for their dry goods, but Satterfield has found a way to eliminate them completely from his ordering agenda. “We didn’t want a Sysco truck pulling up to our space,” Satterfield explains. He orders his dry goods from smaller specialty distributors he already relies on for other products, such as gourmet nuts and chocolates. “It may cost us a little bit more, but it is just as convenient as ordering from a broadliner.”

Satterfield utilizes smaller, Atlanta-based distributors known for their quality products, like Buckhead Beef and Gourmet Foods International. Buckhead Beef was established in 1983 with the philosophy to provide the finest-quality products at the best prices for its consumers. Over the course of 10 years, it became a staple for high-quality meats in the Southeast, so much so it caught the eye of a larger food distribution company:  Sysco, which purchased the company in 1999.

“Buckhead Beef supplies us with some of our grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry,” says Satterfield. “They are still the company they set out to be; they just happened to get bought by Sysco.”

A Personal Touch It might be more difficult for chefs and venues to escape Sysco’s presence in the future, as the company continues to expand by purchasing smaller food service companies. This summer, Sysco tried to merge with its largest competitor, US Foods, but the agreement was shot down by a federal judge in U.S. District Court.

Despite the “eat local” movement, food distributors like Sysco and US Foods continue to have their place in today’s market.

At another Atlanta restaurant, the story is quite different.Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q is the brainchild of Texas-born identical twin brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox. The company is known for its variety of house-smoked meats; its menu includes chopped or sliced beef brisket, jumbo chicken wings, pork butt, fall-off-the-bone ribs and a variety of Southern-style sides. Plus, the restaurant runs a large catering operation for everything from private events to citywide festivals like Taste of Atlanta. Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q has been featured on Fox News, HGTV, TLC and Food Network.

To meet its needs, the restaurant relies on big distribution companies, which has practical benefits, explains Wayne Rheinlander Jr., Fox Bros.’ chef de cuisine. “We get all of our pork from Seaboard Foods, which we order through US Foods,” says Rheinlander. “They were the first to offer to trim and peel our spare ribs before distribution, which saves us hours of labor. We wouldn’t be able to find a local farm that could support our volume and provide us with such a consistent product.”

Rheinlander orchestrates the smoking schedules of thousands of pounds of savory meats on a weekly basis. He says he uses the competition between Sysco and US Foods to the restaurant’s advantage by negotiating with both companies for the highest-quality products for the best price.

“You never want to get stalemated with just one major supplier, especially if you are a high-volume restaurant,” says Rheinlander. “A lot of restaurants are starting to look down on big-box distributors. I believe it is the quality of product you choose to order that is important, not the distributor through which you happen to source it.”

Fox Bros. receives shipments from Sysco and US Foods almost daily to sustain its food volume.

The regularity of the deliveries allows the chefs to build a relationship with the drivers, thus creating a smoother delivery process. Representatives from large distribution companies often work hand-in-hand with their clients to create a customer service experience specially tailored to the restaurants’ needs.

“Our Sysco rep has been with Fox Bros. longer than I have. He knows the amount of product our restaurant goes through on a weekly basis, comes into the restaurant two to three times a week and calls me almost every day,” says Rheinlander. “If there is ever an issue with the quality of our meats, I can contact him directly, and he usually comes that same day to take care of it.” 

Unconventional Thinking This overall shift in mindset goes beyond restaurants and catering. Not long ago, convention center menus had very little variation in what types of products their kitchen offered. This is not the case with Cleveland Convention Center, where Matt Del Regno is executive chef. Having been in the large-scale catering industry with Levy Restaurants for almost 17 years, Del Regno is known for his unorthodox approach to convention center dining, one with more focus on locally inspired gourmet cuisine for the masses.

Del Regno has created a revolutionary large-scale culinary program that maneuvers away from big-box distributors to showcase the hard work of local farmers whenever possible. “We were here a year before the convention center opened,” he explains. “We worked with kitchen design, which allowed us to create our own space and take a more restaurant-minded approach to large-scale catering.”

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The state-of-the-art facility, which has 225,000 square feet of exhibit space and more than 90,000 square feet across meeting rooms, houses events for thousands of hungry attendees year-round. Del Regno offers planners an extensive variety of modern menu items that showcase his signature flavors and creative plating styles that you’d expect to find in a small, chef-driven restaurant rather than a huge convention center. After years in the industry, Del Regno knows all too well the limitations of cooking for large groups, but his chef experience and inspiration from Ohio’s local farm scene have prepared him to respond to and exceed these limits with unconventional ideas.

“We are partners with The Chef’s Garden and work with other local farms to provide us with the majority of our specialty produce,” says Del Regno. “We also have a microfarm on-site where we grow vegetables and herbs, keep chickens and collect honey from our beehive. This allows us to take a break from the busy kitchen and reconnect with where our food comes from.” 

Del Regno is well aware of the growing stigma of Sysco and the other billion-dollar distribution providers. He says he realizes the important role these companies have in the current market and doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with restaurants that choose to order solely from big-box distributors; different restaurants have different business models, he says.

For the majority of the convention center’s dry goods, Del Regno orders through large distributors. “It is not like we have a wheat farmer in central Ohio who can supply freshly milled flour,” he says. If the Cleveland Convention Center were to stop ordering from broadline distributors and switch entirely to smaller local operations, he predicts a 30 to 40 percent increase in annual expenses.     

While he could choose to eliminate Sysco and US Foods, Del Regno says he would only end up purchasing identical products for more money from a smaller company. But he has faith that things are continuing to move toward higher-quality, fresher foods, even from broadline distributors.

“The Syscos of the world are now starting to offer a better variety of farm-fresh, GMO-free products,” he says. “But their wheels just turn a bit slower.”