Perhaps Thomas Keller or Alice Waters can be credited with bringing diners menus that detail not just what they are about to eat, but where that pork chop or vine ripe tomato hails from. The farm-to-table movement shortened the distance between producer and dinner consumer. The ingredients themselves were now the stars of the show. There were colorful narratives about little lambs from Colorado and heirloom eggplants, and their journey to the customer's plate. These stories became integral aspects of cooking and eating.
A new style of cuisine meant a new way of doing business. The chef, the staff, and the profit margins were not all that mattered. There was a new challenge: To find high quality purveyors with great products. Great personalities didn't hurt, either. It was one thing to find a great cave-aged cheese, another if it was made by a cooperative of families living in an environmentally friendly way and spending their mornings milking cows. The origin of the ingredients came to mean cache and value.
Even restaurants that don't focus on the celebration of ingredients and their lineage need good material to work with. Everyone can benefit hugely from nurturing a solid relationship with the companies that sell you food. This holds true for linens, cleaning equipment, wine, flowers or anything else, too. As the integrity of the food starts from its source, so does the integrity of your business depend on your vendors.
1. Get to know them
Business relationships are still relationships. Our chef has befriended one of the farmers who sells us juicy, fuzzy peaches in summer and perfectly sweet beets in winter. They've shared a few great conversations, big laughs and cold beers. On a hot summer day, Chef went to visit his farm, taste the wine-berries and play with his rambunctious puppy.
Now when the farmer has just a few Kaffir limes or deep purple edible flowers, he happily sends them our way—often, without an invoice. Likewise, a much bigger dessert company sells us ice creams and sorbets. When a lady from their sales office came for dinner, we gave her and her family lavish VIP treatment. It goes both ways. You show your vendors some love, and they treat you in kind.
2. Play by their rules
All the love in the world can't make up for failing to pay on time. My restaurant outsources our bills to an accounting company. They send checks in big, monthly batches. This works for most of our suppliers, who have 30 day terms on their bill cycle. Some of our vendors want to be paid in two weeks, however. And some prefer a check upon delivery.
It took us a while to realize it was easier to give them what they asked for then to battle angry phone calls, threats to discontinue deliveries and unhappy sales reps. To be a responsible business partner is to respect those who you rely on for goods and services. Our accounting company gave us some grief, but now we pay according to our suppliers' wishes. That means the gentleman who replaces our knives with sharp ones weekly gets a crisp $20 bill, and the Kaffir-lime gifting farmer gets a check when he arrives with carrots, apricots and turnips. It's a little more work for us, but it's worth it to keep them happy, and to keep our fish, ducks and coffee coming as planned.
3. Communicate (a lot!)
Help your vendors help you by voicing your priorities. If you are getting frustrated by damp mushrooms, let them know. If you would prefer only the tiniest of squashes, tell them.
If you explain your projects and goals, perhaps they have great products for you. You could be missing out if you don't clue them in. Likewise, a great cheese wholesaler can find you deals or fabulous new fromage if you let them know what you're looking for. A real conversation is usually many times more fruitful than simply browsing a product list. This also means that you should look for companies and salespeople who have a deep understanding of the products they sell.
4. Don't be too loyal
Do your research and keep your eyes open. A nice salesperson is great, but so is getting something amazing for a bargain price. Surveying the field for alternatives means your vendors know they have to be on their game. There are many great products out there, and the success of your business depends on finding and selling only the best.