Restaurant food suppliers are vendors that sell products directly to restaurants, whether wholesale purveyors or local farms. The critical function of a restaurant supplier is to allow a restaurant to purchase products at lower prices to increase their profit margins. When choosing food suppliers, restaurants should consider cost, delivery schedule, minimum order requirements, and quality of products.
There is no single supplier solution that fits all restaurants. Most restaurants rely on a team of vendors to keep supplies moving. The plan you choose will depend on the type of food you serve and your sales, size, and storage facilities. The size and skill of your staff will also influence the type of products you need. Follow the guide below to find the best fit for your restaurant.
How Restaurant Food Suppliers Work
There are four steps to the standard restaurant supply chain: production, processing, distribution, and retail. Food supplies generally begin in the same place. Meat, milk, eggs, grains, and produce all come from a farm. Depending on your location, these farms may be near enough that you can purchase from them directly.
Most of the products from the farms, however, go directly to a processor. Meats go to a meat processor to be portioned into various cuts. They may be further processed by smoking, drying, or curing. Milk is bottled or processed into cheese and other dairy products. Eggs are packaged, and produce is wrapped, canned, dried, or frozen.
Depending on what type of food they handle, processing facilities are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They may package products from several farms and sell the resulting products directly to wholesale distributors who, in turn, sell and deliver those products to their retailers, including restaurants.
It sounds like a lot of steps from production to final destination, but along each step, the food items are divided into smaller, more useful portions. Products that go through the traditional supply chain tend to be packaged to prolong shelf life, and can be purchased in presliced, diced, or peeled forms that cut down on labor in a restaurant kitchen.
Some restaurants buy many of their products directly from local farms rather than go through the standard supply chain. This strategy allows restaurants to serve produce at the height of freshness, and sometimes encourages farmers to grow a specific crop for them. Studies indicate that consumers are willing to pay more for local products, especially when listed with the “mileage” incurred by their transport.
How to Create Accounts With Restaurant Food Suppliers
Restaurants must open an account with individual suppliers to purchase from them. Smaller operations with a limited credit history may, initially, be required to pay their vendors immediately upon delivery of products. Over time, however, most restaurants in good standing with their vendors are extended a term of seven to 30 days to pay their purveyors.
Finding Your Ideal Supplier
Before opening an account with a purveyor, there are several things to consider. The cuisine you serve, available storage space, and sales volume help determine what products you need.
Here are seven specific steps to follow to find food suppliers:
1. List Your Menu
Sit down with your menus and write out all of the ingredients you need. If you have a chef or manager on your staff, this is a great place to apply a team effort. The goal is to have a comprehensive list of every food and beverage ingredient you must have on hand. Don’t forget baseline things like salt and equipment like to-go containers and toilet paper. Make it detailed; if the chef wants onions to come quarter-inch diced and shrimp to be a specific size, list it that way here.
2. Group Items Into Categories
Create overall categories like meat, produce, dairy, spices, staples, beer, wine, liquor, non-alcoholic beverages, cleaning supplies, and paper supplies. Organize your ingredients list into these categories.
3. Note Storage Availability
Note the size of the available storage for different types of products. You can’t buy 100 pounds of frozen beef if your freezer can’t hold it.
4. Consider Your Expected Sales Volume
You may not have freezer space for 100 pounds of frozen meat. If you sell 800 orders of your signature meatloaf per week, though, you might need it. Before you sit with a vendor, you already know that you either need some fresh and some frozen product, or more than one meat delivery per week.
5. Look for Prospective Vendors
Look for vendors in your area that supply restaurants with the types of items you need. You can find them with a simple internet search or reach out to nearby restaurants. Some restaurants are secretive about their vendor lists, so don’t be afraid to enter spy mode; spend some time watching loading areas and take note of what trucks you see delivering. Ideally, you want two to three options for vendors in each category.
6. Meet With Sales Representatives
Once you have your options narrowed, call or email each prospective vendor to set up a meeting. Be prepared with your list of supplies, as well as questions for the supplier. You’ll want to know their delivery schedule, their order procedure, and their terms for extending credit. In this meeting, you should also ask for their catalog, credit application, and some references from restaurants that they currently supply.
7. Compare Vendors
It is rare for a single vendor to be perfect. You need time to consider what prices, product offerings, ordering, and delivery timelines fit best with your operation. Take the time to contact the references the purveyor provided.
Preliminary meetings with vendors can feel like negotiations. The sales rep is trying to sell you as much of their product as possible, and you are trying to spend as little money as possible to get what you need. Let the reps know that you are weighing several options, as well as what your deciding factor is. If the best price is your bottom line, say so. You are proposing a long-term business relationship, so be clear about your needs.
Depending on your expected business volume, some vendors may propose a Preferred Supplier Agreement (PSA). A PSA gives you a price break if you agree to purchase specific items only from this preferred supplier. If you have a small managerial staff, a PSA with a vendor that carries most of your supplies can save administrative time. You should have your lawyer look over a PSA agreement before you sign it to ensure that it is, in fact, in the best interests of your restaurant.
Opening an Account
Once you have identified the vendors you want to work with, you must complete a credit application to open an account. Even if your first deliveries are paid in cash, purveyors need your business information to create and track your orders and deliveries. It also speeds up the process should they decide to extend credit in the future.
Most credit applications ask for general information about your business, such as:
- Tax ID number
- Shipping address
- Billing address
- Length of time your business has been operating
- Whether you own or lease your business location
- If you lease, the address and contact information of your landlord
- Bank account information
- Names of any business partners
What to Expect From Your Vendors
Vendors should provide the product you ordered, or notify you if that item is back-ordered. All deliveries should arrive with an itemized invoice or packing slip. Products should arrive at the time agreed upon, delivered in a truck that is equipped to prevent spoilage. The items you ordered should be at the correct temperature, undamaged, and free from rot or pests.
Someone from your staff—usually a manager or shift leader—should check each delivery when it arrives. Not because you distrust your vendors, but because when you are working with a high volume of a perishable product, mistakes can happen. It is easy for a person to accidentally leave a box on the truck or pull the wrong one. The first thing for your receiver to verify is that the products in the delivery match what is on the invoice.
The receiver should check that all delivered items are:
- The correct quantity
- Held at the correct temperature
- Not expired or close to expiring
- In packaging that is not wet or damaged
- Free of rot
- Free of pests
- The grade and quality listed on the invoice
If everything checks out, they can sign the invoice and accept the delivery. Any items that do not meet your standards, however, should be refused, and the adjustment marked directly on the invoice at that moment. Some vendors supply their delivery staff with credit slips to accompany any refused items. Receivers should ask for one any time they send a product back.
How to Maintain a Positive Relationship With Your Vendors
Get to know your delivery drivers. When possible, have the same person receive deliveries every day to help build that relationship. Meet order deadlines and order minimums. Pay on time or early when you can. If your sales rep approaches you with a great deal on an item, they have overstocked; buy some if it makes sense (and possibly run through it in a special). Participate in recycling or sustainability programs if they offer them.
Avoid asking for favors like rush deliveries unless it is truly a service emergency. When a vendor does rush to your assistance with a trunk full of fresh lobster tails ahead of a New Year’s Eve dinner, let them know your gratitude. If you love working with your sales rep or your driver, tell their boss.
The best way to maintain a good relationship with your vendors is to pay on time. Vendors also appreciate orders that are organized with detailed line items. If you are struggling to keep your orders tidy, a point-of-sale (POS) with inventory management integration can help. A system like Revel, for example, includes inventory management software as part of its baseline offering. It can alert you when stock is low, and enable your team to place orders directly through the POS.
On the other hand, if you are putting your best foot forward and aren’t happy with the support your vendor is delivering to your business, it might be time to pursue other options. Your vendor relationships should run smoothly, and if they are not, remember all those vendors you met? It might be time to give one of them another shot to earn your business.
Key Restaurant Food Suppliers
Food is a perishable product. It is essential to use your inventory before it spoils and maintain a steady supply of fresh ingredients. Ideally, the bulk of your inventory should turn over in seven days. Since products like milk and fresh tomatoes have a different shelf life than a bottle of soy sauce, most restaurants use a team of vendors to keep supplies moving.
1. Full-line Suppliers
These are large operators. You might hear them often referred to as the “Big Two”: Sysco and US Foods. They carry everything from frozen and canned goods to meats, pantry staples, paper products, cleaning products, and to-go containers. Many bulk suppliers also supply basic equipment as well. These purveyors usually deliver once a week to small operations, and up to two or three times per week for large ones. A large operation to a vendor this size is a hospital or a college cafeteria.
A restaurant owner can order virtually everything they need from one of these purveyors. Small or remote venues might only receive one delivery a week, however. If you have limited storage space, your supplies might get lean before their next delivery date rolls around. In that case, it is a good idea to have a smaller local supplier as a backup.
2. Produce & Perishables
Highly perishable products like produce and dairy items are usually handled by smaller, local purveyors. These vendors can deliver daily, and generally, only need 12 to 24 hours between the time an item is ordered and the time it is delivered. The best way to find a produce vendor in your area is to ask other restaurants which they use. Or you can look through the USDA’S Local Food Directory.
“Always make sure the supplier is approved by your regulatory body. Many commercial vendors are. Be careful about purchasing from roadside vendors, farmers markets, and local farmers. If food was prepared in a home kitchen, be extra careful to ensure it is approved by your regulatory body.”
— Katie Heil, Food Safety Expert, State Food Safety
You can purchase coffee from a full-line supplier, but many restaurants choose to work with a small regional roastery. Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable about coffee products, and the freshness of locally roasted coffee can be a selling point. A smaller vendor may offer services like creating a signature blend for your restaurant or permit you to order smaller quantities.
Some coffee distributors will also provide your restaurant with brewing equipment as part of the relationship. If at any point you choose to do business with another coffee purveyor, however, you must be prepared to return this equipment.
4. Wine, Beer, Liquor & Sodas
Alcoholic products have different licensing and regulations than food products. Most food vendors choose to leave alcoholic beverages to other groups. If your restaurant has a bar program, you will likely need a separate vendor for these items. Just as with food products, spirits vendors come in all sizes. Large companies like Republic and Young’s Market supply a wide range of products at all price points. Smaller distributors tend to have more specialty products.
Soft drinks are in a specialized category with its own distribution system. Just like coffee companies, the “Big Two” soda companies, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, will usually provide your restaurant with some complimentary equipment to make it easy to serve their products. To find the sales representative in your area, it is best to reach out to those brands directly through their websites.
5. Specialty Ingredients
If you serve a cuisine that is exotic for your location, you may need a separate vendor that specializes in imported ingredients. Imported Italian cheeses, Indian curry spices, Korean chili oils, Vietnamese noodles, and Russian pastries are all things that may fall outside the range of full-line suppliers. These purveyors can best be found by an internet search in your area, or by asking local chefs in your area who you know use these kinds of ingredients already.
Pros & Cons of Large or Small Food Suppliers
The major difference you will find between most of the purveyors you consider is their operational size. Most are either very large or very local; there are few suppliers in the medium range. Full-line suppliers have everything, but they only deliver once a week. Your restaurant is near a wonderful farm supplier, but they only have tomatoes in July. There are pros and cons to each.
Pros of Large Suppliers
Working with a large, full-line supplier provides restaurants with:
- Consistency of product: The larger suppliers work with large producers that have the capability to grow produce year-round. If you know that you need strawberries in January, a full-line supplier is the best bet.
- Huge variety: Larger warehouses allow the Big Two to offer a wider array of products at various case sizes. They are usually eager to locate a product for your restaurant if they do not currently supply what you are looking for.
- Many options for substitution: In the rare case that a large supplier is out of the item you are specifically looking for, they have several options for a similar product that can be substituted.
- Lots of training resources: US Foods and Sysco both have lots of resources on their websites. Through your sales representative, they also offer training in menu costing and other managerial tasks to help your restaurant maintain profitability.
Cons of Large Suppliers
Large suppliers have a lot of benefits, but it is important to understand their limitations:
- Small restaurants can get lost: These suppliers service state college cafeterias, hospitals, grocery stores, and government agencies. A single restaurant accounts for a very small portion of their sales; sometimes a small restaurant can feel lost in the shuffle.
- Less regular deliveries: If your restaurant is small or operating in a remote location, the full-line suppliers may only deliver to your area once a week. Restaurants with limited storage space may find it challenging, especially during busy seasons.
- Few specialty items: While these suppliers stock a large variety of items, the brands they stock are widely available to consumers. If your restaurant needs rare spices or an unusual cut of meat, the full-line shops are unlikely to have it.
Even weighing the pros and cons of large suppliers, most restaurants do business with at least one full-line supplier. They may not have all of the signature ingredients your chef wants, but they do have virtually everything else your business needs, from single-portion jelly jars to pallets of frozen sirloin, and from toilet paper to to-go containers. Due to some of the delivery and product limitations, you will likely supplement an account with one of the Big Two with smaller vendors to fill gaps.
Pros of Small Suppliers
Working with small, local suppliers has a lot of benefits:
- Local is a selling point: Studies have shown that customers are willing to pay 12% to 20% more for items that are sourced locally, especially when the mileage is listed on the menu.
- Personalized attention: Sales reps with small vendors tend to have more time to focus on individual accounts and answer questions about seasonal offerings. Many small vendors send out a regular market report of offerings that would be a good fit for your restaurant.
- Freshness: Produce that does not need to travel across the country can ripen on the plant longer and be delivered at the peak of freshness. This is one of the things that chefs love about working with local suppliers.
- Ability to customize: If you are looking for a particular kind of strawberry and having trouble finding it, you may be able to find a local farm to grow it for you. Many farmers are happy to explore a new crop if they have a customer lined up to buy it.
“We’ve grown with vendors. The guy we buy all of our greens from was growing a whole bunch of different vegetables. So we’d get a little bit of this, a little bit of that from him. One day we said we need 80 pounds of greens a week from you. We’re tired of sourcing from four different people, will you grow greens for us? Now he does four or five things that we buy the majority of. We’re 80% of his business between our three restaurants.”
— Jason Merrill, COO, Worthy Group
Cons of Small Suppliers
Just like full-line distributors, small vendors do have some limitations:
- Less variety: Since these companies are smaller, they do not have as many options in a single category as a mainline distributor.
- Fewer options for substitution: If the local distributor is out of oat milk, then your restaurant is too. If a specialty item is out of stock, there may not be another similar item to substitute.
- Less consistent product: Local vendors, particularly produce vendors, will tend to have stock that shifts with the seasons. So the Colorado lamb that you fell in love with in May might not be available in November.
Alternatives to Traditional Restaurant Suppliers
Many restaurants—particularly small ones—supplement the supplies they purchase from traditional purveyors with products from other sources. These can be good alternatives, especially if your order falls short of the minimum required for free delivery.
Working Directly With Farms
Just like working with a small, local vendor, a relationship with a local farmer comes with options for customization. Small farm producers are usually eager to grow new crops if they know they have a buyer for them. If you work with a local farm, it is important to confirm that they have the proper business licenses and are registered with the appropriate agency—either the USDA or FDA—that oversees food safety for their product type.
Buying From Farmers Markets
The chef chatting while filling a basket with fresh produce from the local market is a great image for any restaurant. Potential customers shopping at the farmers market will see how sincere you are about the quality of your produce. It can also help build a community of farmers that are excited about your restaurant. As a bonus, buying from the same farmers repeatedly usually ensures they will start to hold the best produce aside for you.
Buying From Small Businesses
Many restaurants will choose to buy high-labor items like bread or desserts from a local bakery rather than make them in-house. The time it takes to allow the dough to rise or to laminate puff pastry is more than most restaurant labor budgets can take. This is a great option for expanding your menu offerings with high-quality products without breaking your labor budget.
Buying From Discount Clubs
Sometimes the sales prices at discount clubs like Sam’s, Costco, and BJ’s are as good as the price you can get from your wholesale distributor. They are also useful if you need to restock your inventory between deliveries from your mainline supplier. If you only need a few items that will not meet order minimums to get free delivery from your larger vendors, discount clubs can be a lifesaver. Be selective, though, because not everything in a discount club is a good deal for your business.
Ordering Supplies From Online Discount Sites
Some food and beverage supplies might be less expensive on sites like Amazon, especially if you need only a small amount of an ingredient. However, you will have to pay sales tax on these items, deal with delivery lead times, and be aware of local liquor control laws if the items you want contain alcohol. If you are willing to wait, it is easy to get free delivery, and the items are delivered right to your door, so this can be a very convenient option.
Tools for Managing Restaurant Suppliers
If your restaurant is very busy, or you have more than one location or a slim administrative staff, it can be difficult to stay on top of your orders and invoices because it is a lot of information. Some POS systems, like Lavu, Revel, and Toast, already include inventory management as part of their baseline system. There are also third-party software applications that integrate with several different POS systems and accounting programs.
Small, single-unit restaurants should make every effort to streamline their physical ordering and payment processing before looking elsewhere. However, if your business is growing and overwhelming the systems that used to work for you, it might be time to look into restaurant management software like Compeat or Restaurant 365.
Restaurant management software are very broad-spectrum accounting programs that sync with your POS and QuickBooks, and allow you to streamline ordering, inventory, and payments to vendors. They also perform a lot of heavy lifting when it comes time to reconcile your books at the end of the month and year.
Compeat starts at $75 per month after a one-time implementation fee; Restaurant 365 starts at $159 per month, with an additional $79 per month if you want to include advanced accounting (both are on top of a one-time implementation fee).
Those prices are steep for a small operation. You should be sure that you and your team have truly committed to your physical ordering and payment processes, and are using every function available in your POS before taking steps in that direction. But if you are growing rapidly or have plans to expand, working with one of these systems could make sense for your business.
Restaurant Supplier Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These are some common questions that arise when developing a restaurant supplier strategy. If you think of an additional question—or want to expand on one of these answers—please add your thoughts to the comment section below.
Where do restaurants buy their food from?
Restaurants buy their food supplies from wholesale distributors that deliver directly to the restaurant. These distributors can be a large purveyor like Sysco and US Foods, or they may be local produce or meat suppliers that operate at a local level. Some restaurants also choose to buy some supplies from local farmers markets, though virtually all restaurants will have an ongoing relationship with a large, mainline supplier.
Who is the biggest food distributor?
Sysco is hands down the largest food distributor in the U.S. It operates in all 50 states and 90 countries. Choosing a company to do business with will largely depend on your location; if you are in a large market, you might have several options for a full-line distributor, such as US Foods, Performance Food Group, or Gordon Food Service. More remote locations may only have access to one. No matter where in the U.S. your restaurant is located, though, Sysco is a likely place to start looking for your full-line supplier options.
How do I choose a food supplier?
There are several steps to choosing the best food supplier for your business. First, you should analyze your needs: what types of food supplies you need, what quantity, and how often you need deliveries. Then look at which distributors operate in your area. The International Food Service Distributors Association has a website with a map of all of its members, which is a good place to start.
From there, it is a good idea to compare a few distributors for price, quality, delivery schedule, and other parameters that may impact your business. Most restaurants open accounts with several distributors, depending on their supply needs. Restaurants that buy directly from farms or farmers markets tend to have more vendors than those that do not.
The restaurant industry works primarily with products that are highly perishable, creating a need for a full-spectrum plan to continually resupply your business. Assess your supply needs, and then meet with sales representatives from multiple companies to find the best fit for your business. If you are struggling to keep track of your orders, vendors, and inventory, make sure you are using the full functionality of your current POS system; most modern POS have at least some inventory capabilities to assist with creating and processing vendor orders.
If your current systems are not supporting your needs, there are POS systems like Revel, Toast, and Lavu with inventory management capabilities. If you have the budget to include third-party apps like Compeat or Restaurant 365 to automate orders and vendor payments, they can be a good solution to keep your ordering and vendor payments organized.