Value-Add of COP Builds Distributor Margins

{mosimage}COP beef, poultry, pork, seafood and occasionally even dairy have been driving patrons to restaurants and attracting their attention, despite mad cow disease and avian flu. Savvy distributors who seek to grow their businesses are reinforcing their sales and buying teams with skilled professionals who can advise a broad range of commercial and noncommercial operators on the best product for their menus and patrons.

"In most cases, the value-add part of center of the plate is where distributors will get their biggest return. Their best margins are in the value-add products that center-of-the-plate suppliers sell to distributors," said Bobby Koch, COP category manager for Progressive Group Alliance, Richmond, VA.

Koch reasoned that essentially consumers' appetites are driving the category's popularity and ringing up sales for operators.

"Everybody takes advantage of center of the plate. I can't think of one kind of operator that doesn't."
"When patrons open a menu, what is the first thing that they see? The thing that is the most important part of the plate is usually listed first, for example the New York strip steak or the crab cake. That's what center of the plate is all about. Obviously, that's important because that's what all menus reflect," Koch said in a recent interview with ID Access. "A good menu forces patrons to select COP. When you sit down to eat, the first thing that you think of is steak or fish. Patrons don't think first of having a baked potato and then what goes with it. Consumers are going into a steakhouse to have a New York strip and then select the side."

Though clear statistics about COP's share of the foodservice cash register are unavailable, Koch said the marketing group's center-of-the-plate offerings have been growing double-digit for several years. It's no surprise, he explained, because, in many cases, COP constitutes 50-70% of the menu.

"COP is truly important and I can't imagine that there are many distributors out there that aren't giving center of the plate the majority of their purchases and thinking," he observed.

Koch has been involved with foodservice COP for a quarter of a century, including five years with Progressive Group Alliance. He has also owned a restaurant and worked for suppliers and distributors.

In the span of that time Koch has seen COP evolve into a sophisticated foodservice category, with all of the suppliers offering a library of marketing material to eager procurement and sales teams.

"Suppliers talk to distributors and DSRs about what is available, how much money can be made and how important COP is to the end user. With the poor labor that's out there, you really need a lot of center of the plate expertise and product in most restaurants," he said.

The way Koch sees COP, the category is not relegated to high-end, white tablecloth restaurants. By his estimate, center of the plate products are suitable for nearly all commercial and noncommercial operators. Mom and pop eateries, he pointed out, are apt to benefit from them more than their high-end colleagues.

"COP may be as important if not more important to the mom-and-pop operator because the center of the plate that I market are products that are quick and easy. They are fantastic and taste great. They aren't starting with a box of beef but rather with a steak that has been cut and probably marinated and sometimes fully cooked," Koch said.

Moreover, most COP is not raw but has been prepped to a certain degree, according to the operators specs or needs.

"Everybody takes advantage of center of the plate. I can't think of one kind of operator that doesn't. Even vending because you have fully-cooked hamburgers in a bag that go in a vending machine," he said.

SKILLED SPECIALISTS AND BUYERS ARE NEEDED To be successful in COP, Koch advises distributors to staff a specialist, who sells everything from seafood to hamburgers, because the average DSR, especially a rookie, isn't trained well on center of the plate products and may hesitate in selling the products. Sales rep can successfully present COP products to their customers when they are fully or partially prepared, ready for cooking. However, if the meat or seafood needs kitchen preparation, a COP specialist would come in handy for the DSR."

In addition, Koch said, the distributor also needs "a very good, savvy buyer."

"The variety is so vast and there are so many variables in center of the plate that I would be surprised if any buyer would know it all," he said.

Fortunately for distributors, the principal COP suppliers, such as Tyson, Perdue, FPI and others, Koch said, have COP schools and all the DSR has to do is to get the buyer to arrange for schooling and the suppliers will either bring trainers to broadliner or the sales rep can go them. Beyond category knowledge, DSRs should know how to advise their customers on creating menus that will strategically position COP selections.

According to Koch, the COP category is so vital to a distributor that even if he doesn't have a specialist, he should still stock and sell the products. However, distributors should pay close attention to quality, freshness and turns.

"With any good COP program, the first and foremost consideration is quality. Price should be secondary," Koch cautioned.

Koch endeavors to involve all Progressive Group Alliance regional sales teams in COP sales.

"We train them here to get them involved in center of the plate. I also arrange for them to attend suppliers' schools. Quite frankly, I'm open to anyone of our distributor-members calling me and picking my brain," Koch said.


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