By Ellen Hartman
Blinding flash of the obvious: running a restaurant is hard work, and it never ends,
especially when you’re trying to do it all yourself.
But why do that? If you could afford to hire experts in crew training, menu design, restaurant design and marketing to help you, wouldn’t you do it?
Of course you would, and maybe you’re overlooking a ready source of value-added advice operations and a whole lot more – your suppliers.
Think about it. They’re in your restaurant all the time. They see your operation at its worst and best. And they know a lot about their areas of specialization, whether it is beverages, sanitation, produce or fish.
Major suppliers often provide a range of free or value-added services to restaurants.
The Coca-Cola Company provides its customers with a wide range of services beyond beverages, ranging from crew training to menu design – and the company has available dozens of consumer studies that can help you benchmark and fine tune your business and stand out from the competition with best practices across the business. Even if you’re not a Coca-Cola Refreshments customer, you can get great ideas at www.cokesolutions.com.
Ecolab is more than just cleaning supplies, as well. They counsel customers on food safety, quality assurance and equipment care, and they’ll even test your glassware and dishes to determine whether they’ll hold up in your restaurant.
CSM Bakery Products provides distribution solutions, as well as consumer insights and research – syndicated and proprietary – on baked goods and related categories. CSM BP also does concept research and operator surveys to better calibrate the products and services it provides to individual customers.
Your fish supplier doesn’t just deliver fish in a box. They are experts on a wide variety of seafood products, and they can help you with selecting, storing, even how to prepare different species of seafood. Companies like Inland Seafood stay ahead of trends by knowing about new seafood products before they are available for sale.
Large suppliers like Coke also can connect you with expertise in support areas like public relations or merchandising. They could even nominate your restaurant or chain for an industry award.
Okay, so the big guys are there to help. But what about the small, local suppliers that provide your meat and potatoes and everything in between. Those guys can’t do much to help, can they?
Sure they can. Your produce supplier can advise you on which fruits and vegetables are fresh and plentiful, and which are popping up on menus all over town, so you can stay ahead of the curve.
Your local suppliers probably can share anecdotes about successes and failures at other restaurants (without getting into industrial espionage) that can help you make decisions about what to buy by when and how much.
And if you want to target a specific demographic – Hispanic customers, for example – your suppliers may be able to tell you which products seem to sell best to and attract Hispanic customers.
When I worked at Church’s Fried Chicken, we began looking into a line of “heritage” products for minority customers. A minority food manufacturer that supplied Church’s stores investigated food groups that appeal to core demographics. Her research led to improved sales in Church’s to minority customers, and the food manufacturer had to add a third shift to keep up with the demand for her products from Church’s.
Look at it this way: it can’t hurt to ask, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the amount of information and good advice your suppliers can provide. And they will if they can. You’re their customer. They make money from you, so they have a stake in your success – after all, they can’t sell to a closed restaurant.
If the supplier rep isn’t interested, go over his head. Tell the supplier general manager you have a question or a problem he or she may be able to solve. Successful suppliers sweat the small stuff because they know that it is the little things they do that can have BIG impact on a relationship with a customer.
You may find you’re not in this by yourself and that you have a deep bench of supplier expertise and counsel you can draw upon to grow your business – and theirs.
Ellen Hartman is president and CEO of Hartman Public Relations, LLC, a public relations agency specializing in the foodservice industry.