How to work with boutique suppliers

buying small

Here’s a stunner for  noncommercial operators who work with one big supplier: Smith College buys food from more than 50 different suppliers. And only three of those suppliers sell Smith more than 3% of its food. “We know boutique,” says Andy Cox, director of Dining Services at the Northampton, Mass., school. “There are ways to make it work.”

Adding to Smith’s challenges: Dining Services has 12 kitchens and no central receiving, and works to ensure that 20% of its food is fair, local, humane and/or ecologically sound.

Teamwork between a food buyer and financial systems coordinator, along with a grant to hire an executive chef, helped make it possible.

The team set up new vendors in its menu planning program, shifting among four carrot growers, for instance, as the season goes on. “We’ve ... made it easier to make the default be the local purchaser,” Cox says.

Marketing small

Ordering the food is only part of the formula; letting diners know where it comes from is the other piece. In October, Smith held its first vendor showcase, where 15 vendors shared samples. It was so successful that the college plans to hold one annually.

Buying small

When considering boutique suppliers, Cox suggests operators get velocity reports from thier vendors so they know volumes and prices inside out. Starting with a region’s year-round specialties helps as well.

Starting small

Those who don’t have the capacity for Cox’s approach can still start somewhere. That’s what chef Victor Schmidt of the CulinArt Group at Carnegie Mellon University has done with St. Louis-based Hungry Planet.

After trying its vegan proteins at an event, his team began to buy 75-case palettes of the products. Now, Schmidt is planning a campaign to make diners aware of the brand. It’s worth making the effort for small but deserving suppliers, he says: “You might be their one great break.”

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