Foodservice distributors are an important part of Team Beef
By Miranda Reiman
Cattlemen would no doubt get paid less for their product if they didn't have dedicated foodservice distributors on their side.
Not only do these people need to correctly assess demand, they must help create it. They work on education and menu creation, they help smaller restaurants figure pricing and in general provide a lot of support. They also age meat and do further-trimming and packaging work for all those who don't cut their steaks in house.
When a rancher has had a long day weaning calves, he might be surprised to know his beef counterpart in the nearest urban center has kept similar hours.
Take Dennis Hendrickson, district sales manager for Sysco-Boston. He's often on the road as the sun comes up and continues that trail until all of his customers are taken care of.
"We carry 14,000 to 15,000 line items for next-day delivery," he explains. "It's highly probable at least one thing is going to go wrong. Whether the chef forgets to order it, you didn't punch it in right, we were out of stock on it--which doesn't happen very often, but it's reality. My wife used to say, 'Do you ever have a time when something doesn't go wrong?'"
Fridays get busy as restaurant operators realize what they're running short on for the weekend. Salespeople often get panicked calls when chefs find themselves out of staple items.
Hendrickson says the mantra among his team is, "We are right here Mr. Customer. Our job is to make sure you have every product you need to service your customer."
That's only part of their role.
Hendrickson says his clientele relies on him to provide expertise on where the market is going, help explain new cuts and develop menu items.
"A lot of them are chief cooks and bottle washers, operators that are trying to make it," he says.
The stats are bleak--only two out of 10 restaurants do make it. But if Hendrickson has his way, that'll change. He's convinced that getting his customers to treat their beef purchases like an insurance policy is one way.
"Do you know what the most expensive cost in a restaurant is?" he asks. "An empty seat. Once Friday night is closed down, you take all those empty seats and you can't get those sales back."
Paying another 50 cents to $1 more than Choice beef is worth it for a premium product.
"The more they get educated, they realize, 'We have to serve good beef.' I can charge $1 to $2 more to the customer, but it'll get them in my restaurant," Hendrickson says.
Hendrickson's "always on" hours aren't the only thing he has in common with ranchers. He also feels a strong calling for his chosen profession.
"I just fell in love with the business," he says. At 15, he started as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant. He worked his way through high school and a business management degree at Merrimac College.
At 21, new degree in hand, Hendrickson continued his education at the school of hard knocks, helping in a family business and starting his own bar and grill. After major family health issues, Hendrickson sold The Usual Pub and Grill, but today it's like he's the manager of 350 restaurants. He manages salespeople, develops strategies, provides support where needed and, probably most importantly, helps right the wrongs.
Hendrickson wants to change that reality from two in 10 restaurants surviving to at least three in 10.
"If we can help keep our customers in business, that's huge," he says. "Then you become a partner and not just a sales guy."
He also wants to keep his suppliers in business. After riding around in the pickup with a Midwestern cattleman last spring, he feels an even stronger push to rep quality.
"We have to work so that the (ranchers) of this world--their craft gets noticed," he says.
For more on the role of each sector of the beef business, search "Beef's a Trip" on the Black Ink Blog at www.blackinkwithcab.com.