In the world of providores and distributors success means contending with elements that are often out of your control. By Micaela di Piramo
It’s a tough game and for providores and distributors you’re only as good as your last delivery. Supplying fresh, dry and sometimes processed goods to businesses ranging from juice bars and canteens to fine-dining restaurants is a fiercely competitive business, while you also have to deal with elements that are often out of your control. Suppliers of fresh produce, for example, must weather freakish fluctuations in temperature and rainfall, not to mention the occasional pest plague, which affect the quality and availability of fruit and vegetables. Distributors of dry goods find products are often discontinued and substitutes must be found. With seafood, it all depends on the catch of the day, with the exception of farmed fish. Then there are the ever-changing food trends that suddenly spike demand for a particular ingredient. Whether it’s cavolo nero or pandanus leaves, suppliers must be aware, if not ahead, of these new trends in order to be able to meet demand.
Many of the customers are chefs who must be creative and ever mindful of strict budgetary constraints in a highly stressful environment, in order to satisfy an unpredictable dining public who is quick to vote with its feet. There are chefs who are more comfortable with a regular repertoire of ingredients, while others are more experimental and happy to change their menu on a weekly basis. Whatever their method, they all need reliable suppliers.
Add to this government safety and sanitation regulations and external occurrences, such as last year’s fall in the supply of Spanish olive oil due to cold spells and snow (which has placed extra demand on Australian olive oil) and the UN-enforced global ban on wild caviar exports (which came into effect on 3 January this year), and it becomes clear providoring is not for the faint-hearted.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” says Victoria Lush with a laugh. As the national wholesale manager of Simon Johnson Purveyor of Quality Foods, Lush deals with both olive oil and caviar.
“It’s like working on the stock exchange,” says Wayne Hulme, restaurant sales rep of Christie’s Seafoods in Sydney. “Every day, I have to find the best fish at the best possible price. I know what my customers are trying to achieve and what they can afford to spend, and I try to find a product that fits.”
What all providores seem to have in common is a passion for food and an acute awareness of what it’s like to run a commercial kitchen. As for the essentials of running a food distribution business, good communication skills top the list.
It’s all about keeping in contact with your customers as much as possible, says Justyn McGrigor, owner of Murdoch Produce, also in Sydney. “People sometimes find it hard to understand that produce grows out of the ground,” he says. “They will insist on ordering a particular vegetable even though we advise them not to and then they are disappointed with the quality.” McGrigor cites the high temperatures experienced in both Sydney and Melbourne over the Christmas period. The heat burned popular crops such as baby spinach and rocket, and created a high demand for replacements such as silverbeet, which pushed prices up. So suppliers were in the unfortunate position of having to offer an inferior product or a substitute product at higher than normal prices. Consulting your supplier regularly, says McGrigor, can prevent such situations from occurring. “We know if a product is coming to the end of its season, or if there’s a shortage overseas which has increased demand for Australian produce. We can explain and offer suitable alternatives. We know our products well and can encourage chefs to think outside of their staples, but we need to be consulted at the menu-planning stage, not the ordering stage.” Although Murdoch Produce print product updates on their invoices, letting people know what’s around at a good price, McGrigor says many chefs are too busy to read them and it all comes down to personal communication and establishing a good working relationship.
Beetroot Brothers, also based in Sydney, posts a weekly newsletter on its website, letting their customers know what’s available, product quality and market conditions. At the time of writing, cabbages had “come back a little in price but on the whole prices are still well above the norm. Chinese and red cabbages are the best value.” As for bananas, “availability is lower than previous weeks with prices moving up slowly as a result”. The newsletter basically outlines “what should be avoided when planning a menu,” says owner Ben Rubin. While more and more people are reading the newsletter and it’s providing “valuable feedback”, Rubin agrees that communicating on a personal level is vital. “If I know a customer uses a lot of cos lettuce and I can see prices rising, I’ll get on the phone and warn them. I won’t assume that they’ve read the newsletter.” Like McGrigor, Rubin says his customers stand to benefit by consulting his experienced staff. “Many of them used to be chefs themselves so they know what’s at stake.”
Mick Ponte, director of Melbourne’s Melba Fresh, actively encourages an “open line” communications policy. “People know they can call me at any time to ask what’s available, what’s going to be around. And, ideally, they’ll use our input to plan their menus.” This way, he says, they avoid disappointment and utilise what’s freshest on the market and the best value.
“I believe in transparency,” says Hulme, of Christie’s Seafoods, when asked about communicating with his customers. “I think of them as my business partners.” Hulme says he collaborates with chefs all day, every day and “every single chef is different. Some chefs love mahi-mahi, some won’t touch it. I pay attention, I take notes.” While chefs will call Hulme with particular requests, because of the unpredictability of each day’s catch, it’s up to Hulme to match the catch with the best chef. “A fisherman will call me up at 5am to let me know what he’s got. I then call up the chef who I think would be most interested. In order to do that, I need to know their menu, what their restaurant is like and what their customers expect. Plus I’m aware of their costs—I know that a $1-2 difference in price can blow a margin.”
Seafood has such a short shelf-life, he adds, that his customers have to trust him to make the right decisions. “If I’m not happy with the quality of what’s on offer, I’ll call the chef and discuss substitutions. Generally, they are glad to know if a product is sub-standard.” If a product is delivered and the chef is unhappy with, say, the fish fillet size or the size of the oysters, it gets replaced.
Although she predominantly deals with dairy products and dry goods, Simon Johnson’s Lush echoes Hulme, almost word for word. “You have to make sure your chefs trust you. I make sure I know what’s on their menu, which ingredients are important and what their expectations are. If a chef orders a particular cheese and it’s not available, I can suggest a suitable alternative because I know how he intends to use it—whether it’s simply part of a cheese platter or part of a main dish.”
Like fruit and vegetables, cheese is a fresh product and subject to seasonality and quality variations. “Chefs trust me to make a decision for them if something is sub-standard. I know there’s nothing more frustrating for a chef than not being able to get an ingredient and I will do everything in my power to get it for them, but if I can’t, I’ll either give them enough notice or a suitable substitute.” Lush also distributes a weekly information sheet, letting her customers know which cheeses are available and which are the best buys.
Besides the usual factors that drive supply and demand, Lush also has to consider shipping costs as many of the dry goods are imported. “The Simon Johnson house brand is well priced,” she says. “If we make any savings, we try to pass them on.”
As for discontinued lines, if a suitable replacement is not found, Lush must decide between running with something that may be inferior or not offering the product at all. How well you know your product—how it’s made, how it’s used—is instrumental in making such decisions, says Lush.
Product knowledge is absolutely fundamental at the top-end of the market, also. Babak Hadi, owner of Brisbane-based Black Pearl Epicure, distributor of caviar, saffron, truffles and other delicacies, sees education as a big part of his job. “With products that come with a premium price, chefs need to understand not just how to use them, but where they’re made, how they’re made and why they’re different from other products on the market.” And because of the cost involved, many chefs have not had much experience with some of these ingredients. Black Pearl runs tastings and classes for chefs, where they can learn to use the product and learn about its possible variations.
Hadi says supply of items such as caviar and truffles is less likely to fluctuate (with the exception of the odd ban) than with other more readily available fresh produce, while demand is also steady and not influenced by current cooking trends. He is unlikely to get a last-minute order but when your customers include Princess Mary and Prince Frederik, reliability is crucial.