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Minding their food miles

Pizza Fusion sources locally in eight states (and counting). How they tamed a logistical monster.

Every night, organic produce distributor Global Organics of Sarasota, Florida, emails out two price sheets. One lists all 300 varieties in its warehouse, from tomatoes to tangerines from all over the country. The second lists only produce from farms in the Sunshine State.

One customer that buys mostly off the second list is the Fort Lauderdale restaurant chain Pizza Fusion. Alongside sustainability programs like hybrid delivery vehicles and wind energy credits, it sets a goal of serving produce that’s grown as close as possible to the stores at which it will be eaten—preferably, in the same state.

“It’s just part of our core mission to support local farmers,” says Ashley Rathgeber, director of R&D and procurement. “We don’t have a separate department for it in our company. It’s part of our homework when we’re setting up new vendors.”

A local buying program can be tough enough for a single restaurant. It could be a logistical quagmire for a growing chain with 20 locations in eight states, especially when it requires that the food also be organic. But a look inside Pizza Fusion’s supply chain demonstrates ways to make it work. 

The key is to let its vendors do most of their legwork. Where a single chef can cultivate personal relationships with local farmers, Pizza Fusion seeks distributors who already have those relationships.

“They go out and negotiate with local growers to get the products and specifications we’re looking for,” says John Puidokas, vice president of operations. “Or sometimes, we’ll find a local source and we’ll go to our main supplier and ask them to bring in produce from that farm.”

Global Organics is a typical vendor for Pizza Fusion. It’s a baby green compared to national produce houses, but it’s big for an organic distributor. From a single warehouse, it ships 100 million pounds a year to grocery chains like Albertson’s and Publix, across Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee. “We won’t expand past there,” says vice president of administration Ronni Blumenthal. “We want to keep the food miles somewhat reasonable once the produce hits our dock.”

For a regional player, finding new buyers for local crops makes good business sense, and besides, the CEO—her brother Mitch—farms 10 organic acres on the side. “Our priority is definitely Florida farmers,” says Blumenthal, “helping young farmers get their stuff to the main market. We help farms with organic certification, packing and food safety.”

Once a vendor signs on, Rathgeber works with it to determine par levels, the amounts of each item it needs to stock for an average week. Her units place orders more often than a typical chain’s, because organic food tends to spoil more quickly than factory-farmed. So it’s important to limit not only transportation miles, but transportation time.

To identify what’s local, she requires vendors to list the location where each item is grown. She’ll audit each supplier periodically to verify the list, and to make sure it stores certified organic produce separately from produce that’s not.

Back at individual units, Rathgeber trains buyers on how to place orders. “When you’re on the phone with a representative, “ she says, “don’t just take whatever’s cheapest, but make an effort to find what’s closest.”

What’s closest will change from state to state and season to season, so buying local is a principle rather than a set of quotas. In Florida, with an eight-month growing season, her stores can get up to 80 percent of their produce in-state. In New Jersey, where the growing season is limited to summertime, the average is more like 50 percent. “Obviously, we can’t run out of tomatoes,” she says, “but we try to keep an eye on where they’re coming from.”

To know where tomatoes are coming from in any week, she relies on her vendors. When a freeze devastated Florida farms this winter, Global Organics reported that certain growers still had tomatoes, which they had picked green before the cold hit. The same with leafy greens, berries and grapefruits.

If Pizza Fusion’s purchasing operation sounds more complicated than the average chain’s, it is, admits Puidokas. Nationwide, his stores buy produce from 10 different distributors. But that number is dropping as regional players consolidate—he once had more than 15 vendors—and he expects further economies of scale over time. “As you grow a brand,” he says, “you always look to reduce the amount of vendors you work with, while staying within the parameters of local.”

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