How to Find the Right Restaurant Food Suppliers

So you have an idea for a great new restaurant, but you’re not sure how to source the right ingredients for your menu. The options might feel overwhelming or you might not even know where to start. To help with this, we’ve broken down the different types of food suppliers you might encounter, the considerations you should keep in mind when evaluating your options, and the steps you can take to find the perfect supplier for your restaurant.

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Types of food suppliers

There are many types of food suppliers that suit many different restaurant requirements. Understanding what makes each type unique will help you make smarter decisions when it comes time to sign a contract with a specific supplier.

National wholesale suppliers

The most prominent type of food supplier you’re likely to run into is national wholesale suppliers. Distributors like Sysco, Restaurant Depot, and US Foods are renowned for the variety of products they offer. 

You can get virtually anything you need from these suppliers: meat, dry goods, produce, cleaning supplies, paper products—you name it, they’ve got it. However, larger suppliers often prioritize deliveries to their top clients, so smaller restaurants like yours might only receive deliveries once per week. 

Local farmers

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it may be in your best interest to work directly with local farmers in your area. Farmers markets are excellent places to meet local farmers and sample their products. 

You’ll likely receive much more special attention from these suppliers than the national distributors, and it’s much easier to receive deliveries more frequently and at the peak of freshness. Though a local farmer may not be able to provide all of the products you may need, working with these independent suppliers gives you the added benefit of supporting other business owners in your community.

Discount clubs

If you’re in an area with a Sam’s Club or Costco nearby, you might want to consider opening an account with one of these discount clubs. For an annual membership fee, you can get discounts on a huge variety of bulk products for your restaurant.

These stores are perhaps the most convenient sources for last-minute supply runs if you’re in a pinch. Most of them allow you to place online orders for curbside pickup or even delivery in some cases. Buyer beware, though: not all products at these markets are better deals than what you would find at regular grocery stores. Do a bit of research before you check out to make sure you’re actually getting the best price.

Local specialty shops

There may be a specific part of your menu that’s a bit outside your forte. In this case, it may be worthwhile to connect with specialty shops in your area that could fill this need. Local businesses like bakeries, cafes, breweries, and ice cream shops often have strong ties to the community, so adding their products to your menu can create a sense of familiarity for new guests. 

Additionally, these suppliers are often highly skilled in their specialty, so you can bring the best of both worlds together by partnering with them. The only downside of working with local shops is that you are relying on them completely for an entire piece of your menu, so assume this risk with caution.

Food supplier considerations

When evaluating an individual food supplier, there are a few key considerations that are important to keep in mind. 

Product variety and consistency

Product consistency and variety are at the top of the list because these factors have the biggest impact on your bottom line. If a supplier isn’t able to deliver the ingredients you need or if those ingredients fail to meet your quality standards, this could mean you’ll be unable to fill some orders, thereby leading to disappointed customers and lost revenue.

Substitution availability

Along the same lines, substitution availability can be a deciding factor if you’re torn between two food suppliers. It’s unrealistic to expect that your suppliers will be able to give you exactly what you need every single time, especially when ingredient shortages can have an impact on a national or even global scale. However, what they can provide when the unexpected happens can make all the difference. Look for suppliers that have at least one suitable alternative for the key ingredients you’re sourcing from them.

Specialty needs

Your food supplier decisions could also be influenced by your specialty needs for ingredients, cooking tools, or tableware. There may be a limited pool of suppliers who have what you need, but that doesn’t mean you need to use any one supplier for everything. Maybe you have one supplier for all of your meat products and another for your produce. Just be mindful of each supplier’s minimum requirements.

Delivery frequency

The last primary consideration when looking at food suppliers is how frequently they deliver. If you have a limited amount of storage space, more frequent deliveries are ideal. Larger distributors usually aren’t able to deliver as frequently as smaller, local suppliers, but local suppliers don’t have as much variety. This means you’ll likely have a larger number of vendors to juggle if you need to prioritize frequent deliveries.

How to find the perfect supplier

Now that you know the differences between the various types of food suppliers and the considerations that are important to keep in mind, the process of finding the perfect supplier is fairly straightforward.

  1. Plan your menu. Quantify the exact amount of ingredients you need for all of your dishes along with all of the other supplies you need to run your restaurant. Take into account the number of patrons you expect to accommodate in a given week and the most popular dishes on your menu.
  2. Categorize your products. Sorting your list of ingredients and supplies into bigger categories will help you identify which types of suppliers you need. Broad groups like dairy, produce, meat, dry goods, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, paper products, and cleaning supplies will help you make sure all of your bases are covered.
  3. Determine how much you can buy in bulk. You might not have enough storage space to buy a month’s worth of pantry staples at a time, so this can influence the supplier you choose and the size of orders you place.
  4. Identify local and national vendors. Once you know how much you need, make a list of all of the national distributors and local suppliers who service your area.
  5. Request samples, pricing, and payment terms. Before committing to any suppliers, make sure you understand their requirements and get a sample of the products you can expect to receive in your orders.
  6. Open an account. Often this involves a credit check and providing information about your restaurant, including tax ID number, banking details, and contact information for your management team.

Restaurant supplier management tools

Many of the tools you use to run your restaurant business can help with managing your food suppliers. A POS tool designed for restaurants like Toast or Aloha should come with inventory management features that can alert you if a particular ingredient or product is low on stock. Some of these software solutions also provide accounting capabilities, but you may choose to use a separate accounting platform like QuickBooks or FreshBooks to manage your supplier invoices. 

Read next: Tech Tools for Post-Pandemic Success

Kaiti Norton
Kaiti Norton
Kaiti Norton is the editor of Small Business Computing. She is passionate about creating relatable, research-based content that helps small businesses thrive.

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