Produce dealers point to strong foodservice business

10/30/2013 03:28:00 PM
Jim Offner

Foodservice-focused produce distributors in Ohio say they are able to keep sales going, even if some restaurant sectors struggle.

The key to success is diversification, some suppliers say.

“We never put all our eggs in one basket,” said James Sanfillipo III, a partner in Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc., a Columbus-based wholesaler that deals nearly exclusively in foodservice sales.

Sanfillipo said his company’s business is focused especially on high-end restaurants — “based on one customer at a time” — and bypasses the mainstream chain business.

The rewards in dealing with chain customers are not equal to the potential risks, Sanfillipo said.

“Yes, you won’t grow sales as quickly dealing with one independent at a time, but when those people leave you, you’re not out of business,” he said.

Losing a chain restaurant account, on the other hand, could cripple or kill a supplier, Sanfillipo said.

Working with foodservice, as opposed to retail, is an easy choice in a market like Columbus, the state capital and home to Ohio State University, Sanfillipo said.

“During the downturn, Columbus was kind of sheltered, since we have a lot of state and federal jobs, plus the university,” he said.

The recession of 2008 and years following hit cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton with more ferocity than it affected Columbus, Sanfillipo said.

“We have no manufacturing in this town, so we didn’t get hurt like others did,” he said.

In addition, upscale restaurants didn’t struggle in Columbus as they might have elsewhere, Sanfillipo said.

Tom Sirna, chief executive officer of Sirna & Sons Produce, a Ravenna, Ohio-based wholesaler that does considerable foodservice business in the Cleveland area, said his company is selling to a broader range of foodservice customers than in the past. And business at colleges is booming, he said.

“They’re taking it to the next level. You’re seeing stuff in these college cafeterias that is second to none,” he said.

Hospital systems are health-focused in their food orders, as well, Sirna said.

Diversification is a key to success at Sirna & Sons, Sirna said.

“We’re doing fine dining, the casual Chipotle’s of the world, the Applebee’s, the Outbacks, but we’re also doing a whole lot more with colleges and hospitals,” he said.

“We’re trying to be diversified, so if one segment is down, the other might still be up.”

Cleveland has seen more independent restaurateurs open for business, particularly downtown, in recent years, Sirna said.

“For years, if you did a concept franchise with multiple units, they’d open two or three new ones, but we’re not seeing the growth in that,” he said.

All of Ohio’s markets are seeing growth in the foodservice sector, in various formats, said Jarrod Clabaugh, communications director with the Columbus-based Ohio Restaurant Association.

“Growth in the industry appears to be happening in many of our major metropolitan markets, particularly among smaller, independent operators,” Clabaugh said.



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