Meet a new kind of distributor

All distributors say they want to help their operator customers grow their business, but few actually have strategies in place to make it happen. Creating programs that could drive restaurant traffic takes marketing, which can be expensive, and expertise, which historically distributors haven’t had. It’s just not what they do.

Or is it? Some distributors have come up with creative value-added programs designed to help put “butts in seats.” Sysco Corp.’s iCare is a network of approved third-party vendors for everything from ad development to menu design and direct-mail campaigns to secret shopper services. In Riviera Beach, Florida, Cheney Brothers promotes a “whole new line of products” that has nothing to do with food or equipment. Purchased through an allied, third-party vendor, the products include ad design and production, media buying, direct-mail campaigns, e-mail blasts, Website design and hosting, even logo design.

A handful of distributors are diving in deeper. Favorite Foods, a Somersworth, New Hampshire-based distributor, three years ago bought a Ski Do snowmobile for a promotion. “We did radio advertising letting people know that if they ate at any one of the participating restaurants over the next six weeks, they could enter to win the snowmobile,” says Favorite president Jeff Barstow.

That promotion was the launching pad for what became the Favorite Independent Restaurant Association. Cornerstones of the program, which now includes more than 30 restaurant members, are a gift and loyalty card program, cooperative cross-promotion, a FIRA Website where consumers can find out about member restaurants and enroll in the loyalty program, and access to an extensive database (with names, e-mail addresses, birthdays, etc.) on patrons who frequent their restaurants. A FIRA-funded secret shopper program helps to ensure that restaurants in the program operate at a high quality level.

“We introduced the loyalty and gift-card programs about a year ago,” Barstow says. “We manage all the transactions, as well as the data that’s collected every time a card is swiped. The restaurants have online access to all of the data to use in their own marketing programs—such as birthday mailings or e-mail blasts—which we will also do for them on request.”

Since FIRA’s launch, more than 7,000 loyalty-card customers have signed on. And last year, FIRA members sold $60,000 worth of gift cards in November and December through a storefront rented by Favorite at a local mall.  J. King’s Foodservice Professionals, a Holtsville, New York, broadliner, targets independents with a promotion supporting breast cancer research. Launched last year, “Great Meal, Great Cause, Great Neighbors” drove traffic to neighborhood restaurants on slow week nights from January through April. The restaurants, in turn, donated a percentage of sales to three local breast cancer charities.

“We had over 100 restaurants participating. All were regularly promoted in ads in the New York Times and Newsday, as well as on the Web and through a variety of street-level marketing tactics,” says Burke Lybert, project manager. “The main goal was to help a good cause and highlight the fact that independent restaurants are ‘good neighbors’ in their communities. But equally important was to directly increase sales at those restaurants on slow nights.”

Cara Donna Provisions of Braintree, Massachusetts, earlier this year launched an Internet Business Building program for its customers. The company contracts with a third-party vendor to design or redesign operators’ Websites. But the program goes further to include online databases used for marketing and four e-mail blast mailings per year per operator. “We might do a targeted coupon via e-mail, sending an alert out to everyone on an operator’s mailing list and driving them to the Website to print out a coupon,” says Joe Cara Donna, director of sales and marketing.

The value of the package is $6,000, he says. “We get it for $4,000 because as the program grows we’ll be bringing more customers into the fold. Cara Donna foots the bill, but we ask that customers agree to use us as their primary vendor and/or to reach certain weekly volume targets with us.”  

Questions for your mystery shopping firm

If you’re starting a new program or looking to change providers, here’s how to get the info you need

Who are your shoppers? “Make sure that the shoppers you’re sending into a client’s site meet the demographic of their typical customer,” says Rebecca Franks of Perfectly Frank, a New York City mystery shopping firm. They should understand the service expectations for different categories of restaurants, too. “If you’re not used to five-star restaurants, you’re going to be wowed by anything and not notice if the dishes are served from the wrong side.”

How are they trained? Many shopping firms insist that, as a mark of shoppers’ seriousness, they be certified by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. In addition, Judi Hess of Customer Perspectives, a shopping firm in Hookset, New Hampshire, says companies should provide shoppers with detailed written guidelines for each establishment, so results are consistent from one shopper to the next.

What restaurants have you worked for? Mystery shopping for a quick-lube shop typically doesn’t involve the level of complexity as working for a restaurant. Ask for a list of the firm’s restaurant clients; select a few in your niche and call them for references.

How quickly will I get a report? You should receive the shopper’s report within three to five days of his visit.

Is the report customizable? Many mystery shopping providers have developed a standard restaurant report, from which you should be able to add and subtract as many questions as you like. “If I’m using the reports to motivate, retrain or fire employees, the information should be detailed enough to modify their behavior,” says Robert Welcher, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Restaurant Consultants.

How do you structure your fees? Most firms will take into account the number of properties to be shopped, the complexity of the report, the frequency of the shops and the length of the contract, then quote a fee on a per-visit basis. In addition, restaurants are typically responsible for reimbursing the cost of the shopper’s meal, including tip. Some also charge setup and change fees to cover the costs they incur with new clients.

Will you do a trial run? Ron Santibanez of Qualified Solutions Consulting, in Moreno Valley, California, and a restaurateur himself, suggests setting up a 30-day trial period in which you’re shopped three or four times. “Most owners know some of the problems they’re having, so if the reports give you a little better insight from the customer’s perspective, then mystery shopping is going to be valuable.”      


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