Menu Management

6 Questions to Ask When Considering a New Vendor for Your Restaurant

By Will Harmon

Two chefs preparing food in the kitchen

If only there were happy hours for restaurants and vendors.

Until that million dollar idea comes to fruition, restaurants are left playing matchmaker while evaluating swathes of potential vendors. Unfortunately, a “one-size-fits-all” vendor is akin to a mythical beast in the restaurant industry.

When you need to find a trustworthy provider for seafood, alcohol, bread, linens, and more, it’s not exactly easy to find that perfect soulmate that offers the whole nine yards. For this reason, restaurants are forced to call in orders from multiple distributors and coordinate several shipping schedules to make sure they have every ounce of inventory exactly when they need it.

Rule number one when evaluating vendors: they must satisfy your needs. It always helps to draw up your ideal strategy beforehand and use that as a sort of map to build your ideal distribution team. When building out your strategy, it’s important to keep these six questions in mind:

1. What are their payment options?

When dealing with payments, there are two typical structured pricing options: cost-plus-fixed price, and cost-plus-percentage price. As their titles might suggest, cost-plus-fixed pricing means you pay the cost of the food, plus a fixed fee. Cost-plus-percentage means you pay the cost of the food, plus a percentage (usually 5%). When dealing with these pricing models, it is almost always favorable to negotiate for cost-plus-fixed pricing. The cost of food is always rising, so locking down the right pricing structure will ensure you won’t be thinning your margins anytime in the foreseeable future.

2. What is their quality of delivery?

Punctuality. Punctuality. Punctuality. No service industry lives and dies by inventory shelf life like the restaurant industry. When you’re ordering hundreds of ingredients on a weekly basis, it’s easy to lose track of what expires when. As any chef, restaurant owner, or operation manager will know, unused inventory is just a blank check sitting on your shelves. Finding a vendor with a track record of on-time delivery is going to be paramount for building a solid professional relationship. A reputation for fresh ingredients is also essential for not only your relationship with your vendor, but with your customers as well. Selecting a vendor who can deliver on both of these fronts is a leap in the right direction for a long-lasting partnership.  

3. Do they have minimum and maximum order quantities?

This goes back to inventory management. It’s important to make sure your kitchen syncs up with your vendor’s delivery requirements. Does their minimum order quantity leave you with too much inventory? If so, that’s a great way to find yourself with piles of food waste. Does their maximum order quantity not quite satisfy your kitchen’s needs? These are the kinds of questions that need answering while you’re evaluating potential distribution partners.  

4. What are their quality assurance processes?

Quality assurance takes due diligence a step further. Quality assurance is used as a thorough analysis into the production, packaging, shipping, and handling protocols a vendor has in place. Naturally, your ideal vendor will hold their food and beverage safety and overall quality in higher regards than their bottom line. When this happens, you have a vendor who cares less about getting inventory off their shelves and more about providing you, their customer, with high quality products.

When evaluating a vendor’s quality assurance procedures, look into the following areas:

  • Process control systems
  • Allergen management
  • Ingredient analysis
  • Sanitation
  • Food product tracking and traceability

5. What’s their order availability? Do they have lead times?

In order to find your perfect vendor, you’ll need to operate on the same schedule. With vendors supplying a variety of clients, their delivery routes can usually get pretty stacked. After all, they only have so many trucks. Assuming you’re the typical restaurant that likes to live dangerously, there’s a pretty good chance you prefer the just-in-time delivery method. That means your ingredients have a longer shelf life and your odds of throwing out unused inventory is reduced.

By now you’ve figured out how long your inventory lasts. You know what your par levels are and when to reorder. A vendor’s ability to sync up with your delivery needs is a great way to build a relationship and cut down on late night calls and voicemails when an order shows up late, or worse, not at all.

It would be wise to keep an eye out for vendors who have already adopted a tech solution for streamlining their delivery routes, as it shows they are forward-thinking and more likely to proactively supply your restaurant.

6. What are their references?

Know some restaurant clientele of your frontrunner vendor? Send them a message. Ask for their experience with that vendor. What was their life like before signing on, how is it after? It wouldn’t hurt to check out the vendor’s website and look for customer testimonials that showcase outstanding service in one form or another. A basic checklist that you can use to make sure a potential vendor is the right fit is:

  • Trustworthy
  • Easy to work with
  • Fair pricing
  • High performance
  • Known for high quality
  • Open to creating a business partnership

Finding great vendors is key to your restaurant running smoothly and efficiently. Asking the right questions positions your restaurant for a successful vendor relationship.

Photo of Will Harmon
by Will Harmon

Will Harmon is a marketing associate at BlueCart, an online and mobile ordering, inventory, and operations platform for the hospitality industry. When he’s not busy being a social media guru and creating content, you can find him learning about procurement practices and up-and-coming restaurant trends.

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