Operators talk deli

Three top purchasers share their buying smarts.

Matt Riddleberger, director of purchasing, Firehouse Subs, Jacksonville, Florida

Signature: Hook and Ladder—smoked turkey breast and Virginia honey ham topped with melted Monterey jack cheese, complete with mayo, mustard lettuce, tomato. onion and a dill pickle spear

Buying strategies

The major issues I face are consistency of product, ability to customize and fluctuations in pricing. To meet the first two challenges, we use one manufacturer to provide and custom label all our meat. Our deli meats have signature flavor profiles and our breads are also custom formulated, plus we use one vendor for our pickles, mustard, mayonnaise and Italian dressing to maintain consistency.

We work primarily with two broadline distributors out of five distribution centers. This keeps products moving, assures freshness and guards against extreme price increases. Negotiating minimum orders and long-term contracts with our broadliners—anywhere from three months to one year—also keeps prices under control. Most Firehouse locations get two deliveries a week. To take control of their inventory, each location uses our POS system to place orders directly at the broadliner’s Website.

Smaller vendors also help us with our customization program. For example, we offer 50 different hot sauces so customers can personalize their sandwiches. Some are created exclusively for us and we take the distributor out of the negotiating process so minimum volumes are not a problem.

Geoffrey Rhode, corporate executive chef, Dagwood’s Sandwich Shoppes, New Orleans, Louisiana

Signature: The Dagwood—hard salami, pepperoni, cappicola, mortadella, deli ham, cotto salami, cheddar, provolone, red onion, green leaf lettuce, tomato, fresh and roasted red bell peppers, mayo, mustard, Italian olive salad on three slices of firm, Pullman-style bread

Buying strategies

I focus on the strength of sandwich ingredients, rather than masking the filling with seasoned sauces and flavored breads. A successful deli sandwich concept starts with good bread, so we source from six different companies to meet our specs. We did a lot of research to find authentic breads for our regional sandwiches; the killer French bread for our Roast Beef Po’ Boy comes from a 100-year-old plant in New Orleans, for example, and a small bakery in Tampa makes unbelievable Cuban bread for our Hot Pressed Cuban. Before signing these suppliers on, I made sure they could keep up with our growth as we added units. (Dagwood’s launched in May, 2006, and currently operates one fast-casual restaurant with many more contracted for development.)

In the deli meat category, we worked with manufacturers to get the exact products we wanted, such as true Genoa salami and rare, oven-roasted top round beef. In some cases, we were able to use a product already in the line, while other meats had to be customized to our specs. Our meat comes from five or six different suppliers, all distributed through one broadliner, with twice-weekly deliveries to our restaurant.

Every product—down to the mustard and mayo—is thoroughly evaluated in our R&D test kitchen. To find the right pickle for our Cuban, we searched for one that added snap and cleansed the palate. We must have tasted dozens—from awful to unbelievable—and had an intense “pickle conversation” before we chose the winner.

David Locke, executive chef, New York NY Fresh Deli, Mesa, Arizona

Signature: Roast Beef and Blue Cheese—roast beef, blue cheese, roasted red pepper, red onion, romaine, tomato and herb mayonnaise on 9-grain wheat bread

Buying strategies

I purchase from processors who have been reliable in providing us with high quality products, especially meats. We slice them ourselves at each location and portion the meat between paper so it’s ready to go as soon as a customer orders a sandwich. Although I take a look at custom products manufacturers are offering (special rubs and flavor profiles), we do most of our development on-premise, giving the base meats a twist with a house-made condiment, such as artichoke or olive spread. This seems to appeal to our sophisticated, fast-casual patrons

Our delivery schedule has changed over the past couple of years because delivery costs have gone way up. We try to keep it down to two to three deliveries per week and put more inventory into each; our meats have a long enough shelf life. I also try not to lock in prices with suppliers; staying on the open market gives me more flexibility with price fluctuations. It seems that as soon as fresh meat prices increase, processed meats follow. And anything from the snowstorms in the Midwest this winter to an E.coli scare can quickly boost those prices.