Was Advice Guy all wrong about distributors?

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Your advice [to work with multiple suppliers in Feb. 16’s “Putting a squeeze on distributors”] couldn't be more wrong, especially in this day and age. Partnering with a broadliner has always been smart, and is more advantageous now than ever. Using distributors back and forth, nickeling-and-diming them to death, does not promote a business relationship. Without a relationship and loyalty, the salesperson and their company after a while are going to realize they are only being used and will be less likely to help in a time of need. It's not about saving money, but making money. My company is competitive (as most are), but more importantly likes to help and show customers how to be profitable and make money. You put dollars made in the bank, yet a restaurant can "save" itself right out of business. Anyone can take an order and have groceries show up the next day, but a company that is willing and wanting to partner with a customer to help them succeed, improve profitability, grow sales, improve their menu and show better-quality products is the one that will succeed. If you were in the restaurant business at one time, maybe there is a reason you are writing columns now.  

– “Cabbage Peddler” 


I am not surprised that a broadline distributor would object so strongly to my recommendation for the restaurateur in this case to keep his options open rather than entering a sole vendor agreement with a single broadline distributor, in exchange for discounted pricing. But you may be surprised to learn that we agree more than we diverge—I share your sentiment that the best vendor relationships are true partnerships, where rather than nickel-and-diming each other, as you mention, the supplier and the operation can work together to grow both businesses. We have many great vendor relationships where reps come in and provide training, feature new products, sponsor events, connect us to brands, provide equipment, come through in a pinch, and give us ideas and suggestions to improve our operations. In addition, prices are competitive. But none of these relationships are exclusive.

Such a relationship, when you can forge one, is wonderful and built on trust, mutual respect and the work that comes with maintaining any relationship, be it employer-employee, investor-operator, restaurant-guest, peer, or personal/family. Unfortunately, the insulting and aggressive tone of your feedback underscores my point—for our own purchasing, our network of alumni, or consulting clients and industry friends, this is not the kind of vendor relationship we suggest, especially for a prime vendor.

Early in my days managing kitchens, I saw prices creeping up for cleaning chemicals. I called my rep on it when he asked me for my next order. Rather than acknowledging the price creep and offering to make it right, he reinforced the idea that his products were the best in the industry and implied that if we stopped using him as a supplier, he would let the health department know we are using less-than-ideal sanitation practices as reflected by our poor taste in chemical providers. I switched and entered a much better partnership with a new vendor rather than allow myself to be bullied.

One of the great things about being an educator is the time and license to reflect and explore. I am always grateful for the opportunity to hear from readers, learn new practices and talk to people on the ground. Our field is constantly changing, and you are right that the textbook answer always needs to be challenged. In this case, though, I am sticking to my advice—long-term meaningful relationships with vendors, and even primary vendors, is a great way to do business—but be wary of exclusive contracts.

More on managing sole and prime relationships with vendors here

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