The Cost of Good Food and The Sysco Problem

You get what you pay for,  generally.

I’m fascinated by commenters on Steve Barnes’ Table Hopping blog that complain about the cost of food in some restaurants as compared to others. The complaining is clearly done by people who are comparing apples to oranges, or actually frozen salmon portions from Sysco to fresh Copper River salmon. Also from people who fail to see the difference between the work of an inexperienced kitchen worker and the effort and design of a well-trained and experienced chef. I ask myself why these people do not see the difference. I think I’ve figured it out, and it’s not the fault of low-end dining establishments. It’s the fault of Sysco-driven apparently high-end dining establishments.

Don’t get me wrong, using Sysco does not mean you’ll have a bad restaurant with cheap, poor quality food. In fact, there are some very good restaurants in the area that use them. Sysco has a full line of excellent products that any chef would be proud to use. While I do not use them at The Wine Bar I have used them at various restaurants I have worked for and can tell you that their produce is superior to all local produce companies. They do such high volume that things are always fresh. Their packaging options for produce are also very good.  They are also one of the only area vendors for Certified Angus beef, which accounts for only 8% of Angus beef raised in the US. I’ve purchased grade A lobes of Hudson Valley foie gras, truffles, excellent olive oils, and true San Marzano tomatoes from them.

Yes, they have many great high-end products to choose from, but the bulk of their offerings are low-end crap. That is where chefs get into trouble. The selection of convenience items is countless and can be an open invitation to laziness and cost-cutting.  Sure, French onion soup with freshly made beef stock is great, but most people are satisfied with soup made with beef base, full of salt and chemicals. It sure is a shitload easier than making stock the right way and sure is cheaper than paying someone to make it. So screw it, buy the base and you’ve got soup in a jiffy. Save a few bucks on cheese, use the bread from the tables that people don’t eat for croutons and there you have it, French onion soup for $8.00. Utter junk and over-priced, but most people can’t tell how it tastes because they’re too busy fighting the pound of stringy molten cheese searing their double chins.

So that’s the problem. Chefs, kitchen managers, and chinchy owners trying to save time and money only to feed people who don’t know the difference anyhow, the people complaining on Table Hopping about the price of a meal at an actually good restaurant that uses good quality products from good quality producers that they’ll never eat in.

Now I’m not talking about tavern and pub kinda places where I expect lower prices, and lower quality food. They can be quite satisfying with the right mind-set, and there are exceptions to the rule.  I’m taking issue with the places that pass themselves off as fine dining or higher quality restaurants but use Sysco or US Foods convenience items and pass their work off as top-notch cheffing.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of convenience items and cheaper versions of good Gruyère when making French onion soup and many other things. If you’re going to claim high standards, use vendors that show you are using great products, pay a little more, and deliver on your promise. Only until then can we start to educate the public on the difference between a previously frozen water-packed scallop and a fresh dry-packed scallop. Perhaps then we can raise the bar by allowing them to taste and learn the difference between powdered demi glacé and sauce bordelaise made with veal stock reduction, good-for-drinking red wine, quality tomato paste, and fresh thyme. If we keep allowing, and championing those who take quality-diminishing short cuts and fail to show that bad food is just that, then we deserve the comments on Table Hopping questioning the cost of food.

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23 thoughts on “The Cost of Good Food and The Sysco Problem

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. The bulk of what Sysco, et. al. sells is not quality product, it’s economy product. It contributes to the cyclical nature of the food problem here, and elsewhere. The ubiquity of these products set the standard for most diners to the point where they don’t understand good product, nor do they think to ask for it. They only criticize higher prices, smaller portions, etc. It’s really shameful. This is echoed in retail consumerism, as well. The same thing at most grocery stores. The naivete of the consumer/customer benefits the big conglomerates, who then work to continue the cycle. It’s hard for the “good stuff” to gain traction.

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  2. Gotta say, one of my favorite routines at work is watching the sysco rep come in over and over, hopelessly trying to get an account with us. This topic is a reoccurring theme in this area – where people seem to not understand the correlation between food and labor costs and menu pricing. Its a pretty simple equation. Cheap ingredients plus cheap labor = cheap menu prices. Good ingredients plus talented labor = a higher menu price.

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  3. Thank you for this enlightening post. I suspect the Sysco effect also contributes to waste too. Cheaper ingredients mean restaurants can serve bigger portions that may get eaten, or just tossed out. But customers will be impressed by the mound of food placed before them and will come back for more. It seems quantity over quality often wins out, whether or not the food actually gets eaten.

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  4. So…. if you’re not using Sysco products, where are you getting most of your ingredients, and for staples like olive oil, frying oil (higher smoke-point stuff, like peanut or canola), flours, etc., who are your procuring from?

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  5. Mostly Dole and Bailey for things like Bob’s Red Mill Flours, SanMarzano tomatoes, vinegars etc. Adventure in Food for spices, cheeses, cured meats. Sid Wainer for produce. We also shop at Sam’s for small amounts of produce, paper and cleaning products.
    There’s a fine line line between art and business. A good kitchen manager will know where he/she can buy lower cost items, and where they need to buy quality.
    My gripe is not with Sysco, but with choices chefs make to save time or effort. We all have access to shortcuts and inexpensive products. We must choose wisely.

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  6. Pingback: Americana Diner | The Cost of Good Food and The Sysco Problem

  7. Blaming Sysco or any other broadline distributor for poor culinary management decisions is like blaming Nike for a bad play in a game it is incorrect and nearsighted If you chose to partner with a small local vendor vs. a national broad-liner there are benefits and disadvantages like with any other purveyor relationship. Food services distribute thousands of products and each chef/operator needs to select items that work best for them. Dole & Bailey is a great company and they offer many superior products (so does Sysco and USF) does this guarantee the end result will be of high quality? The relationship between an operator and any supplier should one of trust, respect, value, integrity and service. I don’t care if you buy from Costco, Sysco or the farm down the road all these factors are equal. Buy with your head and match the philosophy of your heart and you can create a consistent quality experience for your guest if you have the skills and staff to execute it. With some understanding of business and relationships you may even become a sustainable, profitable operation. Food service is hard and getting tougher all the time. Don’t blame one source or credit another for all your good or poor fortune. Accountabilty starts and ends with the operator period! If you do not care for your sales rep request another…if you do not care for large companies use smaller ones. If you have special needs find the right partner for those needs. It is too easy to subjectively slam large companies when insights are limited. Learn more about the health, labor, safety and environmental practices of your distributors you may be surprised at what you discover. God forbid you ever need the support of a food service company for an ill guest due to food related causes (ones the operator may have even induced) you will be glad to have an established vendor on your side acting on your behalf. Large food services are not the enemy of smaller, quality restaurants as a matter of fact the opposite prevails. I know I have been in hospitality my entire life, I have been on all sides of this equation so before you hop on the all mighty small, locavore wagon get some good info and then quietly step off the soap box. Buying regional, seasonal products isn’t a new concept its just more in vogue and more sensible in many ways to a greater up and coming generation it is the prudent and sensible business person that learns how to balance factors of quality, realistic products for their concept and not subscribe to some bumper sticker rhetoric because its cool to do so. I have seen too many dogmatic closed minded operators lose all their investments because they were so inflexible (and right) and so sure they were practicing smart principals when all they were doing was missing opportunities.

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  8. There are many truths to this article but it is very short sighted. Sysco is not at fault for the sub par movement. How about the owners who are not willing to pay more for an educated chef with standards, or not demanding a level of high products and high execution by there team. Sysco has everything. They are the worlds largest food distributor. They sell, prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, diners and FINE DINNING RESTAURANTS. You can get all the top type ingredients from them also. They have Honolulu Fish, micro greens, and hudson valley fai gras. You just have to have a standard as a chef and not waiver. Is
    McDonalds responsable for making America fat or is it the people not making better choices.

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  9. I’m wondering why people want to portray Sysco as completely neutral and so value-free. Yes, they offer what sells, but I don’t see them trying to help the public see the these distinctions as writers such as this guy is attempting.

    When people read Michael Pollen’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” they walk away thinking that corn is evil incarnate, but after awhile they see that as simplistic and go on to read labels more carefully, make more informed choices and perhaps eat less corn by-products in their daily diet.

    Maybe as we are more educated, we will expect better food ingredients and Sysco will shift its lineup more and offer more quantity of the quality items. That will be a great and healthier day for those who do. This is what the mainstream supermarkets are doing, increasing their natural foods sections, in response to the pressure from places like Whole Foods. What’s wrong with a little pushback? Until then, keep reading and digesting.

    And why not entertain the idea that maybe Sysco is a bit like Wal-Mart for the dining industry? Consider why the US Government has sued to block their merger with US Foods. Quoted from Feb 20, 2015’s Wall Street Journal:

    “The FTC alleged the proposed tie-up would create a dominant national company that could raise prices and reduce service for restaurants, hotels, schools and other institutions that buy food, paper products and a wide range of supplies from Sysco and US Foods. A combined company would control 75% of the sales in broadline food-service distribution for national customers, the FTC alleged. It also said the merger would be problematic in 32 local markets around the U.S.”

    Hurry to the US Government for speaking up for diversity and competition! Whoa, did I say that?!

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  10. Jc. I think you might want to do a bit more research before aligning Sysco with Wal-Mart. Also…are you familiar with the entire Sysco product line? There is a significant regional and seasonal influence depending on what part of the country you are looking at. When you say they/Sysco should offer more”quality” I am unclear on your perspective or point of reference. Furthermore one of the points of contention with the recent FTC assertion is that their calculations are skewed and incorrect. Even when/if the Sysco USF merger occurs this will account for approximately 20-25% of the National broad-line Foodservice distribution share and not 75% as they stated. I am impartial, but you should know all the available facts prior to quotes and comparison in my opinion.

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  11. Just had a Sysco meal and bad? No. Good? No. I’m from the west coast of Canada and we have great pubs, but that sysco food is really cramping the pub experience. When you pay 15$ for chicken Parmesan and get a reheat in the bag experience that says something. ( I would of payed an extra 10$ for fresh and better than good food with out blinking an eye.) Personally I’m going to start asking if they use Sysco products before i even order a drink. If so I’ll move on.

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    • Once again I am baffled at the direct association of a value-added shortcut (properly used or not) implicating Sysco as a culprit. You can get frozen food at Whole foods too why is it Sysco when you don’t feel the quality standard is high? Sysco purveys top quality products along with value added frozen ones its up to the operator to find the proper fit and execute proficiently. Please do some research to qualify your shallow assertions…. Naiveté is excusable ignorant accusations are not! Spend your money as you see fit, however, if you feel that a vendor determines the outcome of an experience I beg to differ. I’ll move on too.

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  12. This is so wrong on so many levels. Just because the meal is expensive doesnt mean they dont buy from us foods or sysco. This article is a joke. I for one know who buys from sysco and us food and yes its some of the highest end places that claim fresh ingredients. You arint in the back, you’re not thw one putting in the orders. You’re the one shelling our the $40.00 per plate when that steak and lobster you are consuming is the same steak and lobster joes crab shack gets. The only difference is how it is prepared. So before you start sipping your tea with pinky up, while ordering your primo meal think about what you wrote in the false information article. Good day sir, enjoy your yuppie meals just because you think its fresh non big chain products. Your article is laughable.

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  13. Sysco and us foods are great companies serving great and low budget restaurants everywhere, and here you are bashing them. They have the best of both worlds for everyone. Sad that people like you have to bash great companies.

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