Renzi Bros. - Looking out for the independents

John Renzi, vice-president of operations and purchasing of the family-owned broadliner Renzi Bros. Inc., Watertown, NY, bemoans the absence a vibrant discussion of industry challenges but is quick to express his view of the single pressing industry issue.

"The biggest challenge for independent distributors is to help independent restaurants survive and compete with the chains; to help keep our independent restaurants profitable," he declares unequivocally.
His brother, Jude, vice-president sales and marketing, expands on this observation: "Not only restaurants, but independent kitchens such as healthcare or colleges and universities, so chain-type organizations do not take business away from them. It's not only a challenge for independent distributors but for manufacturers as well. Our biggest challenge is to provide our customers with the ability to continue to grow profitably."

Thus the nucleus of this family business's philosophy, one that has helped it thrive and expand in upstate New York for the past quarter of the century.

President and ceo Michael A. Renzi, the father, founded the company with his brother, Roy, in August 1977. While its headquarters did not relocate from its hometown, located on the St. Lawrence River, not far from Lade Ontario, it did expand its territory throughout the northern counties of New York, stretching south to Albany. Renzi recalls in a recent interview that neither his brother nor he had any experience in foodservice distribution when they bought a local thriving retail wholesaler. The elder Renzi admits that it took courage to enter his industry the way he did and those early years proved to be very interesting. The major product was C-O-P beef, pork and chicken that the brothers sold to retailers.

Sensing a good business opportunity, in 1981, the Renzis began to develop a line of products around the C-O-P with frozen food items, such as French fries and vegetables. Then came the first of four expansions, which ultimately resulted in the current 70,000-square-foot warehouse. Also at that time they entered foodservice.

"We were looking into other market segments to get into in order to grow the business. I think that I didn't realize until today what I saw taking place then. I didn't know to what extent foodservice would benefit my company. We worked 14-15 hours a day and we kept growing," Renzi recalls.
Renzi's sons became involved in the business after his brother's surprise retirement in 1999. Later, his daughter, Mary, joined the distributorship and currently is its marketing manager.

Jude Renzi points out that his father and uncle managed to evolve the business in step with trends. "We changed from hanging beef to boxed beef and now a lot of the business is based on valued-added services. Looking back now, we can clearly understand, why he did what he did," he said.
But more than that, Renzi always paid tenacious attention to its customers and their needs. The second-generation distributor executives each spoke of the company's tagline, "Foodservice made easy," in terms that reach religious proportions. "We market ourselves as being able to provide value to the customers that we service. We believe that we aren't in the distribution business but the service business. We partner with our customers to provide value to them and still maintain a local family business relationship. We deliver to our customers a product that is affordable and profitable."

The restaurant business in Renzi's territory has not been stagnant and has contributed to the distributorships almost constant double-digit growth in recent years. "We have seen in tonnage and case volume that we've had a significant increase in business over the past five-10 years. A lot of this is based on the evolution of the business as well as being a solution provider to our customer," he says.

Mary Renzi Miles explains that the primary thrust of the marketing department is providing operators with opportunities. "We help our customers design menus, write them, help them with their food costs, waitstaff training, any kind of business building from the back of the house to the front of the house as well as educating their staff," she says. Obesity and food safety information, two key topics among Renzi's customers, are other solutions provided by the sales team. Renzi's very important annual food show also includes training workshops and the most recent one on food safety attracted more than 100 operators.

Furthermore, brother Jude says, "With rising costs today, whether it is compensation, insurance, labor, it is very important for us, as the solutions provider to provide solutions to help the restaurant manage these types of costs and remain profitable at the end of the day."

Jude Renzi suggests that this philosophy keeps Renzi ahead of its only two regional competitors: Sysco Corp. and US Foodservice. "In today's world, our ability to talk food cost, labor cost and show value, commitment and partnerships and show that we're customer driven, do things that are right for our customers is really what keeps us growing at the rate that we're growing, and competing against other distributorships," he says. The Syracuse area is the firm's latest expansion target, with four new DSRs already pounding the pavement there.

Brother John notes that the broadliner stocks by 90% national brands. He adds that the company's entire marketing philosophy is based on national brands. "We believe that the end user should have a choice of what they want to use. The national brands already do advertising for their products, the operators understand that they're getting the same product all the time, the same specifications, the same label, everything is consistent." As for carrying two tasks in his portfolio, John believes that operations and purchasing coincide with one another and their integration is important to maintaining high service levels. While he does not see a single hot new product for his customers, John did say that anything that shortens preparation time and adds value is essential for operators.

Michael Renzi learned soon that industry involvement is key to distributor education. In the early 1990s he joined UniPro's predecessor Emco and has continued with the Atlanta-based marketing group until today. Renzi is also a new member of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, Falls Church, VA. "The support and education we get as a member of UniPro and IFDA are very important to our management and marketing staffs. The networking also helps us. We learn every day that something is changing in this industry and we have to change with it," says Renzi.

Who ya gonna call?
When you need exceptional service, excellent quality and good prices, Kelly Hunter only calls Renzi Bros., Inc., Watertown, NY.

Hunter is kitchen manager at Captain's Landing, a fast-paced floating restaurant located some 25 miles north of the distributorship, directly on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, across from Canada. Closed in the winter due to heavy snows, the restaurant is situated on an old barge, with the "very small" kitchen located underwater. The staff serves daily a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner, maintains a full menu bar and provides food for lunch and dinner Uncle Sam boat tours on the river. That's having a full plate.

"The Renzi staffers are very customer oriented, they go out of their way to do anything they can for us. All you have to do is ask them for something and they'll give you 120%," says Hunter who has managed the kitchen for five of the 13 years that she has worked at the restaurant. The DSR is Rich Miles.

"Renzi goes out of it's way to look for new products to use in the dining room. They go out of their way to get a new desert line. They look for new items that I could use for the buffet on the lunch and dinner cruises. They look for ways to cut my costs while providing a quality product."

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