How to Choose Suppliers for your Restaurant

A guide to find new food vendors, plan your orders, and manage your restaurant supply
Restaurant management Jul 26, 2021
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Ordering from the best food suppliers is probably a fundamental part of your daily job that impacts a significant proportion of your business costs. Being more conscious about the suppliers you work with can help your restaurants to support a more sustainable food system.

Restaurant managers and owners often find the entire process of looking for new restaurant food suppliers and placing first orders very time-consuming. Whether you are looking for new ingredients to reduce your menu cost, tips on how to improve your supplier relationships, or searching for local producers, we’re here to help you understand how to determine if a food vendor is a great fit for your restaurant and leverage these partnerships.

Let’s start by understanding the common signs suggesting you should look for new food suppliers, and then move on to how to choose them.

Common problems that kitchen managers experience with food suppliers

▢ Cannot find the right assortment of ingredients in your supplier’s product catalog.

▢ They find the pricing unreasonable and are searching for some better deals.

▢ Customers are not satisfied with the product and looking for a food supplier with better quality goods

▢ Disappointed with the timing of delivery service, or too many order delivery errors from one or more of your suppliers.

▢ Build and maintain relationships with multiple suppliers for your core ingredients

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Common Criteria for Choosing Restaurant Suppliers

Building a good supplier relationship is one of many other factors which contribute to the decision-making process beyond quality and price.

1. Quality

The quality of your ingredients plays a role in the success of your menu. It is important to ask your food suppliers about the life-cycle of ingredients in order to prioritize food safety to protect your customers and your reputation.

Your restaurant team should be aware that certain products (including seafood, canned foods, dairy products, game animals, wild mushrooms, or eggs) are more likely to carry dangerous pathogens and must undergo strict shipping and handling requirements. These requirements are regulated by the FDA Food Code. It’s highly recommended to make sure that your suppliers comply with them.

While restaurants are allowed to purchase their food supply from different sources like wholesalers, producers, farmers markets, or grocery stores, signing a contract with a supplier is a great way to make sure your vendors set and meet quality standards.

Here you can read more about quality certifications, grades and quality labels.

2. Assortment

It helps to have suppliers with broad and diversified assortments to reduce the chances of a chaotic ordering schedule and to find all the things you need on a regular basis. However, this does not mean completely ruling out more niche suppliers with those quality ingredients which make your offerings more unique and keep customers coming back for more. Diversification is key.

Most restaurants deal at least with one full-line supplier. Although these types of suppliers might not fit all your requirements in terms of ingredients, they usually dispose of all kinds of restaurant supplies such as napkins, disposable cutlery, containers, toilet paper, cleaning products, or kitchen equipment.

Especially when looking for premium products, working with specialized cheese, seafood, poultry, or meat suppliers can be a good choice. Also, partnering with a local farm that can grow specific products for your restaurant can be a great strategy to step up your menu.

Keep in mind that, especially for small and local suppliers, the assortment is subject to seasonal changes - which doesn’t imply that you should discard producers or suppliers with a narrower catalog.

If you are running a bar program, you will soon find out that - just like for food products - larger beverage wholesalers usually dispose of a wide range of all most commonly used spirits and drinks. Instead, small vendors’ offerings are more likely to focus on specialty products.

3. Price

For many restaurateurs, the ideal price usually represents the best compromise among quality, cost, and service.

Research has shown that buying in bulk can help restaurants save money - although the amount saved varies depending on the item, a 10% larger package can translate to a 5% decrease in the unit price (source: the Balance). You can opt to differentiate your strategy and spend different amounts for different categories. For example, you might decide to look for poultry or seafood suppliers providing higher quality and choose to save up on goods like veggies or rice.

At the same time, purchasing seasonal food can also help you save money as prices fall with demand peaks. Serving a seasonal menu is also a good practice considering that they generate 26% more orders (source: Restaurant Insider).

Different hospitality businesses can also organize as a GPO (group purchasing organization) to gain more buying power and create programs to get better deals from food suppliers.

4. Sensorial aspects

Buyers can request a test sample to evaluate the sensory characteristics of the ingredients, before purchasing from suppliers (not all the time, but most of the time). Requesting samples is a common practice, and many wholesale suppliers agree on subtracting sample cost out of your first order or let you pay for the shipping only. Alternatively, you can check on local grocery stores or websites offering freebie samples.

Why not, smell, taste, and look at the appearance of different product samples? Organizing a tasting session with your restaurant team is a great chance to review products from suppliers. You can also download evaluation forms for different products online and research specific tasting guidelines.

5. Freshness

Perishable goods like vegetables, fruits, fish, shellfish, poultry, meat, or dairy products are often ordered more frequently - of course, knowing the specifications of each product** helps with managing your orders effectively.

For small operations and family-owned restaurants, consider the pros and cons of ordering these types of products either from a small local purveyor or a large supplier.

In the first case, it is generally easier to ensure that, once you place an order from fresh produce, meat, or cheese suppliers, all you need is delivered to your restaurant within a day. On the other hand, local and small suppliers can have more limitations of product variety, consistency over seasons, and alternatives for substitution. When you decide to work with such kinds of suppliers, make sure you dispose of multiple contacts as a backup.

Ordering perishable goods from large suppliers is usually safer in terms of consistency and variety of products, however, small single-unit restaurants can have a hard time receiving these supplies more frequently. These suppliers work with big restaurant chains, schools, hospitals, and similar establishments, sometimes even more than once a week, making it more complicated to arrange fast delivery to small businesses upon short notice.

6. Packaging

It’s always good to think about the packaging in which you receive your products. Does it preserve quality and ensure food safety? This mainly depends on the material and technology implied in the packaging and shipping. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your packaging, you can also decide to look for suppliers using eco-friendly packaging.

When choosing to expose products in the front of house, you should also keep an eye on the packaging design and choose one that fits your brand.

7. Origin

Whether you are ordering directly from local producers or from a large wholesaler, understanding where your ingredients come from can affect your decision-making process. Suppliers can certify the origin of their food and you can use this information as a selling point of your menu.

8. Health

Depending on your type of restaurant, you should also keep in mind the ever-growing trend of healthy eating and consider working with suppliers whose assortment includes ingredients like superfoods, natural, or allergen-free products.

9. Logistic

Consider choosing suppliers whose delivery times make it easier for you to run your business. Getting food delivered at your restaurant doorstep and ordering from a more flexible supplier are perhaps the best options to look at.

Not a rule of thumb, but you should check the distance of your suppliers’ establishments from your restaurant as a factor that can potentially impact your workflow. At the same time, effective relationship management and clear communication from both sides can overcome any last-minute problem in terms of ingredients availability.

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10. Finance

Upon making an agreement with a supplier, restaurants often look for establishing extended credit terms. These include net terms (meaning, how long you can wait to pay) and payment methods such as cash or check on delivery, net invoices, direct debit, and other types.

It is generally in your suppliers’ interest to come up with different credit terms, mainly depending on how long you’ve been operating and the risk of bankruptcy they associate with your business. Also, note that, especially if you are a new restaurant, this does not necessarily mean that the more you are willing to order from a supplier, the more flexible their terms will be.

Before choosing your suppliers, make sure that they provide clear and accurate reporting - it is a good practice to avoid ordering too much or too little in the long term. Also, although there are limited possibilities for restaurants in terms of return policy, make sure that you also check on this aspect.

11. Sustainability

More restaurants and customers these days are conscious of the environmental impact of food. Looking for sustainably produced food entails checking on different indicators such as carbon footprint, water usage, food miles, or animal well-fare.

The social and cultural impact of the business model of the supplier you work with can also be a selection criterion, especially when you decide to support specific communities.

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How to find new suppliers for your restaurant

There are different ways and channels to find new restaurant suppliers. Here are the most common ones to contact different wholesalers, producers, vendors, or sales reps.

Start by defining the list of products that you need, including food, beverages, tableware, kitchen tools, bar supplies, and cleaning products - this will also help you define a budget. Whether you are looking for large-scale wholesale or small local purveyors, aim to collect contacts from more suppliers, and ideally have two to three suppliers contact per category. Organizing your favorite results on a spreadsheet can help you compare prices and services of different suppliers.

Online search

Search restaurant suppliers online to quickly compare websites, get a sense of their type of business model, view or request their products catalog.

When searching for food vendors online, use a variety of different keywords, product categories, and the name of the specific product you are looking for. You might obtain your desired results by varying your search from “cheese suppliers near me” to “cheddar suppliers near me” or “organic pastures’ raw cheddar suppliers near me”.

If you are looking for small and local suppliers or producers, do not stop at the first page of your search results and spend some time checking a bit further - consider that many new businesses or farms might not have a website optimized for search engines.

Also, consider that social media can be used to find pages of suppliers through the similar accounts suggestion feature on Instagram.

Referrals

Ask and listen to referrals from other restaurants, bars, suppliers, or stores in your area to find suppliers trusted by your community. Different associations in the food and hospitality field will also be keen on sharing their leads with you.

You can incentivize people to share their suppliers by creating a referral program - for example, by offering a discount or gift card to dine at your restaurant for every successful and lasting partnership.

Ordering apps

Download an ordering app to differentiate your sourcing strategy and find new suppliers trusted by the service. In this case, you can also feel more confident that your ordering process is smooth and organized by keeping all your records in one place.

Farmers market

Visit farmers markets, food fairs, and similar events to try new products and get in touch with potential suppliers and producers for your restaurant. Building a partnership with a local farm can also allow you to work with produce at the height of their freshness. As mentioned above, you can also ask a local farm to grow a specific product to supply your restaurant.

Order from all your suppliers in one place

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