Craig Giesecke: Making groceries, by the ton

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Craig Giesecke

We’ve been doing a little grocery shopping over the past week or so, getting product samples from some suppliers and putting them through the various tests in the kitchen and comparing prices and quality like anyone would at home. Except it’s on a larger scale.

I’m in a unique position these days, working at a major regional grocery operation while also setting up a commercial kitchen. Really, except for the tonnage of things being ordered, it’s no different than what any of us do when it’s time to make groceries. You have in mind the amount you want to spend and you try to squeeze the most you can out of it, while keeping in mind various limitations of available equipment and how long everything has to last until you can make another trip.

In a lot of ways, the at-home kitchen has the advantage. If you need one or two of something, you can stop and get it on the way home from work or whatever. The commercial operation restricts itself to only once or twice a week, depending on the item, and needing a small amount of something isn’t an option. You have to order a case if you need it or not. If you think you might need, say,  five heads of romaine lettuce in the coming week, you might have to buy a case that contains 30 (depending on chosen suppliers) and hope to use it up before it goes south. Hello, Caesar salad special!

(Quick aside – I know Restaurant Depot up on Broad at Earhart solves this, since they allow and promote smaller purchases. You can also simply go to a grocery store, and we’ve all seen high-dollar chefs hurriedly rummaging around in them. But this is highly inefficient, because it costs time and money to dispatch a staffer away from the shop).

The grocery store advertising tabs that appear in the Wednesday newspaper are equally as rampant in the commercial field, except they now arrive via e-mail. Each week, the various wholesalers try to fling various items out the window in hopes enough clients will be there to snatch them up. There can be some tremendous deals, depending on the season, and everyone’s happy.

On the other hand, they can sometimes be ill-timed. As we head toward St. Patrick’s Day, you can bet there are lots of places already trying to push corned beef and cabbage (a trite and too-easy thing, I think, because there is so much truly good and inventive Irish food. But that’s another column). This is because their own orders arrived too early and it won’t last another week.  Sometimes sales can get a little too far ahead of the curve.

Like any grocery shopper, each restaurant has its favorite suppliers. Sometimes it has to do with service, sometimes price, sometimes simply loyalty. Part of a kitchen manager’s job is to search for the best deals and to maintain close relationships with suppliers in hopes of nailing down the bargains.  If a particular place has better and more flexible service, the KM or chef is willing to give a little on price. Or vice-versa.  This can get ugly, such as when a newly-hired chef has sworn loyalty to a supplier that is on the owner’s blacklist for whatever reason. This is when the two principals sometimes go into the walk-in cooler for a heated argument no one else can hear. It happens. I’ve seen it.

Next column, we’ll deal with what goes into and out of those huge delivery trucks you see outside your favorite restaurant every morning. It’s a cutthroat business that has recently changed dramatically here in New Orleans.

…for the better and the worse.

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. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.

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