In the search to create menus that convert, food service operators know that the “farm to fork” narrative resonates well with customers, meaning a large proportion of the budget is allocated to higher-value proteins and fresh produce. But for their specialist suppliers, dependent on a limited number of product lines, lack of diversity leaves profit margins dangerously exposed. As a result, independent suppliers face a choice between lowering prices to remain competitive, or expanding inventory across verticals to remain agile. Typically, that means a transition from center-of-plate to broadline distribution.
The food distribution landscape
There are more than 16,500 food service distribution companies in the U.S., with the industry worth roughly $268 billion. As with any industry that emerged from a national network of independent businesses, larger players have come to dominate the market though acquisition and consolidation, so that today the top 8 distributors control 41% of the market.
The pace of food service supplier consolidation within the industry shows no signs of relenting. Despite the ongoing saga of the Sysco / US Foods merger, the larger players continue to absorb independent suppliers to build their portfolio of signature lines. Moreover, the distribution giants aren’t just getting bigger—they are getting smarter, too. The Amazon Business acquisition of Whole Foods for $13.7 billion is just one of the signs that food service distribution will increasingly follow a path of digital transformation and automation.
The types of food service distribution
Food service operators will typically deal with two types of intermediary between them and the manufacturer: the “center-of-plate” / system distributor, and the broadline supplier. Platform Innovation specialist Applico paints a picture where the typical food service operator buys from 2-3 broadline suppliers, and 6-7 specialty distributors, on a regular basis.
Center-of-plate – quality at a price
Taking their name from the signature proteins that headline the menu, center-of-plate distributors specialize in beef, lamb, pork, and poultry, items which command the highest cost. Most tend to focus on a narrow range of products targeting a clearly defined sector, such as restaurant chains.
The foundation of the center-of-plate offering is better quality and customer support. Center-of-plate supply evokes sales teams building close relationships out in the field, promoting select product lines with a backstory. That same strength, however, can be a weakness. If food service operators are no longer willing or able to meet the reserve price on core products, there is little leeway to fight off competition from the bigger distributors other than cutting price.
Today, center-of-plate territory no longer belongs exclusively to the independents. Food service operators may also choose to build relationships with broker networks, which continue to develop their own center-of-plate offering, handling a variety of brands. Inevitably, however, time-pressured brokers will lean heavily on their top-selling brands and may not always offer the actual variety they promise. Likewise, the big food distributors continue to follow a relentless strategy of buying up independent distributors to incorporate their own center-of-plate house brands. This provides a valuable resource for regional or national chain restaurants that require a consistent supply.
Broadline – the ‘one-stop shop’
The broadline food distributor emerged in the 1970s as a partner capable of delivering everything from proteins to dry goods and disposables on the same truck. Now responsible for around 60% of distributor sales, broadline distributors carry a wide variety of products, with the average distributor handling 8,000 to 12,000 units.
Unlike center-of-plate distributors, broadline suppliers may be servicing a variety of sectors outside the traditional restaurant trade, from the health sector to schools. As a consequence, they are more likely to have a more sophisticated range of options for warehousing and transportation.
The advantages of moving to broadline distribution
Towering over the broadline distribution sector is Sysco, the world’s largest food service distributor, controlling some 27% of the U.S. market. While the majority of Sysco’s business is in fresh and frozen meats (21% of sales) and canned/dry goods (16%), it also serves a diverse range of needs, including paper and disposables (7%) and medical supplies.
The opportunity for independent suppliers, however, is that not all food service operators relish the prospect of placing their budget with the top five distributors: Sysco, US Foods, Gordon Food Service, Performance Food Group, or Reinhart Foodservice. They fear losing autonomy and bargaining power in the face of a marauding giant, and suspect that they will be toward the back of the line when it comes to addressing missed or incorrect orders, or receiving discounts or signature brands.
Here, then, is the territory that the smaller independent can fill—not by trying to emulate the size and scope of the bigger broadline distributor, but by looking for complementary lines to adopt. Center-of-plate suppliers can leverage their existing relationships to identify new areas for growth, from dry goods to disposables. They can exploit their reputation for customer service and reliability with the business owner to introduce new lines away from the fresh food sphere. By anticipating a buyer need, the distributor not only consolidates their own revenue stream, but also avoids losing an existing customer. Because the loyal client who searches for disposable gloves or detergent and finds a competitor who also sells meat is suddenly harder to retain.
Food service distribution trends to follow
Although family-owned “mom and pop” food distributors still account for two-thirds of businesses in the sector, they account for less than 10 percent of revenue. Growth has to come through consolidation.
According to The Hale Group 79% of operator purchases will be made through centralized purchasing by 2020. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that doing the same thing and hoping for a different result would be not necessarily madness, but certainly unwise.
To compete in the modern food service marketplace, businesses will be obliged to diversify and offer better economies of scale by carrying a wider variety of products. As retail giants such as Walmart, Costco, and Amazon have shown, consumers will ultimately gravitate to a retailer offering everything under one roof. For the distributor, that means identifying new products with wider margins that can be incorporated at the best price, and using them to support and nourish the original center-of-plate roster.
One great addition to any center-of-plate lineup is disposable gloves. Required by OSHA regulations, they offer high profit margins while being a repeat purchase item.