As we get ready to open a new venture, we’re loading up the place with all the groceries and various other supplies needed to begin operations. We’re also hiring staff, assembling furniture, arranging shelves and working with various placements of things to make them as ergonomic as possible. At least we think so. But you can be sure we’re also forgetting plenty, and whatever it is will come quickly into sharp focus once paying customers start walking in the door.
Of course, this type of activity means lots of deliveries of various items from dry goods to produce to liquor to stainless steel tables. One of the unspoken truths about such deliveries is they show up when they show up. As much as we might want certain items delivered, say, “mid-morning,” the timing is usually no more specific than the cable company asking you to be home “between 8 a.m. and noon.” This is a sure clue they will show up at 2 p.m.
The local wholesale restaurant supply business has changed a bit in the past few years or so, since there has been a fair amount of consolidation. For example, one of my main suppliers (the huge P.A. Menard operation off Michoud) no longer exists. Neither does Carriage Meats. This forced me and plenty of others to scramble to find items we used to order simply by picking up the phone. The great thing about Menard was it had or could get virtually anything in pretty short order, plus it was a locally owned operation. But since it’s no longer there, a lot of folks have switched to Houston-based Sysco to get the same one-stop shopping convenience.
Sysco gets a bad rap from lots of observers because it is, basically, the Wal-Mart of food-service suppliers. It is huge, it sells everything and its sheer size allows it to often undercut the pricing of smaller, local distributors. This image is not burnished by the fact its trucks are so often seen pulled up to hospitals, schools, jails and other places not known for upscale culinary achievement. One gets an image of tons of mashed potato flakes being shoveled from plain, brown bags into large vats of boiling water by a lunch lady who looks like a retired Ukrainian weightlifter from the Soviet era.
Not so. Its products are excellent, its salespeople are personable and attentive and deliveries are no more or less troublesome or lacking than even the most expert of locally run operations. It comes down to which distributor best fits the needs of whatever place is doing the ordering – and no one place has it all at the same time. Most places use a variety of vendors. I’d order 20 items from, say, F. Christiana on the Westbank, But there are certain things they don’t carry. So that would mean a call to Menard or Thompson Packing or Halpern or Bell or Piazza & Sons. Many restaurants refuse to deal with this variety of trucks, so they make one call to Sysco.
Toward the end of each summer, the Louisiana Restaurant Association holds its annual Expo at the convention center. The event draws restaurant and hotel operators and suppliers from around the country, of course, but largely from all over the South. It’s the event where new products are put out for sampling, large holiday orders are placed, backs are slapped and important people are schmoozed. Every industry has its own such affairs and this is our big one. The LRA does a great job with it and there are always plenty of nice surprises.
What surprises me most each year is the sheer quality of what’s available anymore off-the-shelf. Y’know those perfect, fluffy dinner rolls at your favorite place? Those fresh desserts with handmade detailing? The perfect blend of meats in your favorite hand-formed burger patty? More and more, they’re coming out of a box. The little, locally owned places simply don’t have the staff, time or money to hire a baker, a pastry chef and an expert butcher, plus all the specialized equipment they need. The foodservice industry knows this and has picked up its game considerably over the past decade or so to meet this demand. Fact is, you’ll never know if it’s house-made or not unless you’re allowed back in the kitchen. The quality and presentation are just that good.
Upside: as diners, we have higher quality available to us at a more affordable cost than ever. The variety of items is much broader and we can try excellent examples of new things we used to have to buy a plane ticket to experience and taste. Downside: this lessens the demand for specialized culinary folks like those bakers, pastry chefs and expert butchers. Outside foodcentric cities like New Orleans and a few others, there can be scant demand for such expertise when the same quality can be pulled from a container by someone paid $10 an hour.
This bothers me.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now banquet and special event chef at the Warehouse Grille. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.