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Foodservice purchasing expert talks managing costs

Foodservice purchasing expert talks managing costs

This is part of NRN’s special coverage of the 2015 NRA Show, being held in Chicago, May 16-19. Visit for the latest coverage from the show, plus follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Bruce Reinstein is using the experience he gained as a restaurant chain operator to help other restaurateurs make better purchasing decisions.

The co-founder of the fast-casual chain Fresh City is now chief operating officer of Consolidated Concepts, a purchasing partner for 175 chains and other foodservice operations. This year, he has a 30-foot booth at the National Restaurant Show to make sure that he and his staff can meet with as many people as possible.

“We don’t have any shortage of people who want to save money,” Reinstein said.

Reinstein discussed common pitfalls and purchasing trends with Nation’s Restaurant News.

What advice do you have for managing costs?

There’s a lot of money out there, and so many different ways to save. If you could save yourself 25 percent on your office supplies, it’s a lot of money. A lot of companies call us and say, “My beef went up, my food cost is up 2 percent. What am I going to do?” And sometimes we’ll say, “We can’t help you on beef, but we can probably help you on other things and get you back where you were [in terms of food cost].”

That’s a big part of what we do. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if your [purchasing is] $15 million or $15 billion. For certain commodities, there’s only so much you can do, but the biggest thing is to look outside the box and look at everything that you spend.

Sometimes our clients might not be taking advantage of the quality of the ingredients they buy. We may have someone who’s buying a premium oil that is worth [what they pay], but the problem is that it should be lasting three days, but they change their oil every day. They either have to leave it [for three days to get their money’s worth] or they have to go to commodity oil.

The other question is are they getting credit from their customer? For instance, you may be selling fish and chips, and you’re using cod, but how does your customer know it’s cod unless you put it on the menu? Why are you using cod and putting a very heavy batter on it when you could be using a less expensive whitefish and your customer wouldn’t even know the difference?

So the highest quality ingredient might not always be right?

Right. You may be buying a premium tomato and chopping it up, when I could get you  a plum tomato, which is a firmer tomato that has a much more consistent price and better color. It could be a situation where you use a ton of grape tomatoes, and you’re buying them in individual containers, where if I could get them in bulk and save you 20 percent.

One of the first things we do [with new clients] is come out and do an audit. We evaluate product, and then we ask a lot of questions, and then we go to work and try to figure out how we can help and support these companies. I very well know it’s not an easy business, and it’s a very small bottom line. Everybody’s got to do better.

What purchasing trends are you currently noticing?

Virtually everybody’s interested in healthiness — green packaging and all that — but they don’t want to pay the money for it. It wasn’t that different at Fresh City, and we brought some of [those items] in.

That was a lot of your messaging at Fresh City.

That’s what we wanted. Did we get credit for it? I think in some instances we did. We spent a lot of time trying to have organic products in there, but it was expensive, and the consumer who wants it also doesn’t want to pay for it. We do get a lot of requests for it, but a lot of times when we put together programs [and show them the price] people flinch a little bit.

The challenge of buying local

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How do you evaluate whether commitment to that kind of product is worth it in specific situations?

We tell everybody that, No. 1, you have to market it. If you’re not going to invest in the marketing, don’t invest in the package. The other thing is, you’ve got to go with it a little more than a product here, a product there. There has to be a message there. Companies like Whole Foods do it, but of course you pay for it, big time. But they have a very distinct message about going green and being environmentally friendly and so on. That’s only going to get more [prevalent], so our belief is that everybody’s got to get started on it.

Many operators also talk about sourcing local ingredients. Are your customers interested in that?

Yeah, that’s huge. I would say that’s a bigger trend than anything. You obviously have to get a lot of products from California or Florida, etc., but there’s a lot of local product, too, and we contract out on it.

What are the challenges of buying local items?

The season is short in some places. During the warmer months everyone’s doing local tomatoes. The biggest problem is having enough capacity [from local farms]. All you need is a couple of the big guys like Chipotle to take up a lot of the product. It’s not easy, but we’re able to secure contracts and make sure that we have product for our clients. It’s still not an easy situation, and there’s going to have to be more local farms, and there’s got to be a lot more hothouse farms so they can produce year-round. That requires a lot of land and expense, so it means that in order to have local product year-round, you’re going to have to pay a premium.

Are there food safety and traceability issues with local farms?

If we do purchase product locally, the farms we buy from have to have a food safety and traceability program, or we won’t work with them.

Do more farms have those protocols now?

They do, because they have to. Restaurants, and foodservice in general, is very worried about that. That can put them out of business.  

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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