Tuesday, July 26, 2011

everybody wave to the Sysco truck...

We are incredibly blessed here in Perth County, surrounded by a sumptuous bounty of farmland, protein, produce, cheeses - a 'veritable pantheon' of local producers offering superior products to the array of Stratford restaurants.  Yet, I find myself, weekly (if not more often) watching the Sysco truck parade brazenly around the city delivering its wares to sub-par kitchens and restaurants of every ilk.

For those of you who are not familiar with what I am talking about, Sysco is a massive over-produced food company that will provide you with less-than-quality ingredients at 'bargain basement' prices.

Note: Flannagan's is a similar company, much like shopping at Target instead of Walmart.  But Sysco claims the 'Walmart of food products' place in my heart.

Now, some restaurants use Sysco products for things like: canned goods, bar stock (cherries, straws, mini-swords, etc.) and that's okay, even necessary.  Not every joint on the block can afford the caraffa olives from Pazzo bakery.  But other restaurants are using these foreign products to make up the bulk of their menus, from the very expensive lamb at the Church Restaurant to the eggs on your breakfast plate at Features, some restaurants think it is okay to offer cheaper, low quality products at prices that would be understandable for a hand raised local product.

To extend the olive branch: I'm not suggesting that every restaurant can nor should source everything locally - I understand it gets expensive, I want to eat things like lobster and oysters as much as the next guy, and some restaurant price-points don't allow for every product they serve to be of superior quality.  Let's be honest, we all eat hotdogs right?

Basically I'm just suggesting that the next time you're out dining in a fine establishment (or what you consider to be one) ask your server a few questions.  Where do they get their beef?  Is the fish sustainable?  Are they using local produce?

We the consumers should encourage our dining venues to use products with integrity wherever possible.  Then maybe we can wave good-bye to the Sysco truck altogether!


I feel some of the wording in this post came across harsher than intended.  When I write, it is with a certain inflection in my head, often meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

I understand that there are lots of reasons to use large suppliers and have worked for establishments that do so conscientiously - and I applaud them for this.

I have also worked for establishments that don't have to use large suppliers (they have the liberty of a higher price-point/smaller space)  Some of these establishments still use Sysco products but charge prices that reflect a high quality local/specialized product.

It's great to see the comments below because it means that this post has people thinking - and responding intelligently - which is kind of what this blog is meant to do.

Thanks again for reading!


  1. ya right. never going to happen. Bet you shop at Food Basics- why shouldn't the restaurants use their own discretion to do the equivalent?
    Your last post bemoaned the bottom line for restaurants, and here you suggest they bite the bullet while sales are slumping. As in every market place, you have to deliver the best product you can at a price the market will bear, and you've got to give the people what they want. Sysco allows for better margins on some products to offset the higher costs of fresher local offerings--giving the people what they want. The green party only got about 300 hundred votes locally last election, despite having the best candidate. You forget- the vast majority of the population doesn't necessarily share your views that would allow for the retirement of companies like Sysco, and these are the customers lining your pockets. Like it or not, Walmart will come. The loud minority won't be able to trump the ignorant majority, and the restaurant owners can't afford to be groundbreakers here. As savvy as your blog readers are, they don't have the manpower to support your utopian restaurant.

  2. Leaving the price differential aside, is it practical for a large percentage of restaurants in Stratford to rely predominantly on local suppliers? Is there sufficient supply? Can delivery of products from multiple vendors be timed properly? Can the majority of restaurants adjust their menu quickly based on local products not available in any given delivery (like in a heat wave)? Can the franchise stores even purchase outside of the franchisor's control?

    As a shopper for a family only, I make the effort to visit multiple vendors and support local products. I support similarly minded restaurants through my patronage.

  3. Who does this person think he is! The Chew is going to far now!!!

  4. Workin Stiff Out for a Good MealJuly 28, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    Not all "mass produced" products are sub-par. Most dairy farmers gather milk from a variety of cows into a single tank mixing the poorer cream producer with the better one and we think that is fine as we enjoy our glass of "local" product. The clothes we wear are most likely massed produced outside the local area even though we could buy locally from local seamstresses and tailors. The grocers in our city bring in produce and other products from local suppliers as well as outsiders. This gives us the “best product for the price” even if it isn’t all locally produced. I for one, work for a company that sells our product worldwide and we are sure glad our customers don’t source locally, even though most could. The restaurant business is no different so price and quality have to enter the picture and often times the bigger producers have less overhead and can supply high quality product at a lesser cost.

  5. Here's a question ... is there a local supplier that can supply 500-600 pounds of potatoes a week to an establishment, 12 months a year?? That's just one example. I understand and respect that SYSCO doesn't always offer the "best" products or take into consideration the local markets, but if the local market isn't able to supply it then what?? Just don't use the product?? Change the menu for every season??? Not all that realistic from the business perspective is it???

  6. I'm pretty sure the prices at Features isn't inflated to trick diners into thinking they're eating gold plated eggs from the Taj Mahal of farms in Perth County ... I'll stick with my early bird special quite happily.

  7. its pretty simple.. buy local and you get the best quality at a good price. buy from sysco and get a subpar product for a little cheaper..its a no brainer if you ask me.. i know i would rather eat at bijou (serving local product ) over any restaurant serving sysco products.. i have worked in restaurants that cheap out on sysco produce and had to send delivery after delivery of product back . support local food, its a better product..

  8. It is not quite as simple as that. I am sure most restaurants would prefer to offer local produce, not only for the obvious culinary advantages but also in an effort to boost the local economy. I am also fully convinced that the price that would need to be charged to reflect this increased cost in product would almost certainly have a detrimental impact on a restaurant's bottom line. While some restaurants achieve their namesake through their support of local produce and products they are often (though not always) small, and often offer a more fluid, off-the-cuff menu which allows for a more controlled and reduced overhead. In a perfect world we would all be offering exclusively local products, the reality, particularly in the current economic climate, is much less romantic.

  9. Ah...so you were invaded and conquered by Sysco? The fact is, Sysco has facilitated restaurants large and small, to expand their menu and reduce their operating costs by purchasing from a single resource. The produce may not be from Perth County...but I assure you it is from nearby farmers, as Sysco works with regional farmers in both dairy and produce. The problem is sourcing, as many times during the year, due to inclement weather, the quality of the local produce may be less than up to par. Sysco's commitment with it's customers is to provide them with affordable products at the best price. Restauranteurs have choices on what quality to buy and what they pay.Everything has a price. Sysco stocks 4 different Romaine Lettuce items that have different quality levels and different pricing. Sysco does not select the level and pricing, it is up to the restauranteur. The choices are always there. There is a reason why a Mercedes cost more than a Honda.
    Restaurant operators are facing difficult financial issues and many times are forced to opt for the cheaper lettuce. Blaming Sysco is certainly as misguided as blaming Canadians for the harsh winters in North Dakota...it just doesn't make sense.
    Sysco is a corporate monster whose focus is to earn money for it's shareholders. But because they have multiple options for everyone of the 40+ thousand items they stock, then the blame is to be directed at the restaurant. If you look at Sysco's position in the marketplace, they have brought more positives than negatives...the choice is yours

  10. i think most of the restaurants could use local food and not have to charge that much more..in fact i now live on the west coast and practice what i am saying. its all about having a smaller menu, less waste. a different menu for different seasons or what i do every night... all the restaurants that have 50 items to choose from is pretty ridiculous if you ask me .. waste hurts the bottom line..i have worked in many restaurants that waste and unskilled cooks kill them.. the excuse that the economy is bad doesn't make any sense to me as buying local will only help the economy and the customer only has to pay a few bucks more for a dish... also sysco buying local is a load of crap as i have sources that work for them and have been told it is very little local product and is mainly usa, mexico etc... i am not saying buying local is for every restaurant .. its not going to work for some shitty franchise family restaurant,but i am surprised people even want to eat at these type of restaurants anyway.. you don't really save that much money and you probably have some person with out a high school degree and no culinary education or skills cooking your dinner. the restaurants that i have seen that use poor product also don't pay the staff very well and try to cheap out on everything which just makes for a terrible dinning experience.. good product , good service ,pay your qualified staff a competitive rate and treat them well will go a long way and will keep customers coming through the door.. it has worked for me. its all about low overhead , you don't need to reno your space spending 250 grand or rent of 5 grand a month ...thats what is going to raise your food cost ..

  11. sorry i meant thats whats going to raise your overhead , not raise your food cost..

  12. When was the last time you checked ou Sysco's website? Sysco has recently received awards for their Industry best sustainability practices and praise for their backing of local farmers. You'd be amazed if you get on their site and do a little reading before patronizing them. Sysco provides food and food related products to everyplace from your local Mom and Pop restaurant, to your highest end steakhouse. They stock commodity items such as canned green beans as you mentioned, to every fresh from the ground vegetable, top quality kobe and prime beef, to fresh fish caught in the oceans around the world. They also have one of the greenest and most environmentally friendly fleets in the United States. A big company, Yes, one of the biggest in the United States. A bad company, No, not by any means. Have you read recently about their initiative of using Hydrogen Fuel Cells in their warehouses to power forklifts? I agree with some of the comments above...Sysco has provided many benefits to the food industry over the course of their existence. As our government moves more and more towards food saftey initiatives, you'd be happy to know that Sysco is already ahead of that curve, and has been for some time.

  13. An old post by the Chew, but that last comment was too ridiculous not to respond to. There is nothing more cynical than a major food conglomerate touting awards given to it by the very lobbyist groups that it funds. The notion of a hydrogen economy is a pure fantasy, unachievable and as environmentally friendly as the oil sands. It is merely a method of power storage, not power creation (where does the energy to rip apart water to receive hydrogen come from?). The pure failure of it as a concept is the reason it was so important to George W. Bush's green energy programs - you know, rally behind the idea least likely to supplant big oil. Sysco's environmental 'program' is nothing more than an (apparently mildly successful) attempt to mask the fact that they are a part of vastly wasteful and polluting industry whose primary activity could be well described as a rape and despoilment of the planet.

    But the fraudulent nature of Sysco's claims is not really the issue, nor is Sysco really the problem. They are simply a reaction to the giant homogenization machine that has been rolling across the planet since who can remember. Stratford is not exempt, Shakespeare and the chefs school will not save us from the steam roller, and sooner or later there will be a McDonald's kiosk in the lobby of the Avon. And who's fault is that? Sysco? Ronald 'The Man' McDonald? No, no. It's us. It's you and me, and it's definitely the person who wrote the last post.

    We know nothing about food, good or bad, bourgeois or humble, and what's more, we demand to know less every day. We don't think that it is wrong or even curious to eat stir-frys at East Side Mario's. We go to Fellini's and expect that they will have some kind of burger, possibly with an Italian twist, but certainly with fries on the side, and we smile, knowing that no matter what the burger is like, the ketchup will undoubtedly be as familiar as our own bed. We are the huge, hungry morass of cultural goo that holds the rich and the poor apart and we want to be served! We want you to call us 'youse guys', sit down beside us when we order, and tell us your name and that all of our choices are excellent and that we are the best table you've had all night. We will dutifully reward your food with the praises 'good', 'good', 'pretty good', and 'very good', as we will be too tired from gorging to fully access our lexicon. We will foolishly equate the appearance of comforting-looking ingredients on our plate with the actual preparation of comfort food, sweep aside the parsley and paprika rim, and then convince ourselves that poutine is just as good with Trio powder-water and shredded white and orange plastic on top as it is with cheese curds and real gravy, or that the marginally crispy home fries are delicious despite the fact that we poured four ounces of salt on top just to choke them down. We will eagarly substitute quantity for quality, and in fact (and here is a note for all you struggling Sysco servants out there) if you give us a theme day (fish n' chips night, seniors day) or elsewise temporal deal, we will feel so compelled to avail ourselves of your generosity that we will arrive in droves. Just don't change the conditions. If you raise that sale price by even a nickel (I don't care how depleted the Newfoundland and Labrador fish stocks are) and I will drive across the county to save on my fish n' chips. And put some lemon in my warm water.

  14. sorry huge post continued...

    There are a glut of restaurants in Stratford that attempt to satiate our beige desires. They all serve food that could be easily (and likely far more wholesomely) prepared at home, which, curiously, begs the question, why the struggle that Sysco apparently remedies? Why so hard to get the price point that one needs? why so hard to get covers through the door when every place is the same and they all serve grilled cheese? And as long as I'm asking questions, why can no one make a success of the old House of Gene building? But I digress. The reason is, folks, that there is simply no reason to choose one restaurant over the other at this level, and they struggle, because in reality they barely exist. At the least they have no clear identity, which is a huge part of the package. They differentiate from one other only on decor and perhaps vaguely in terms of menu items, but once again - is Fellini's really an Italian restaurant? Is Bentley's actually serving pub fare? Most have now lost the ability to tell. Years ago, it would have been unheard of to walk into an ethnic restaurant of any kind (save for the cultural curiosity that is the Canadian Chinese food restaurant) and have a host of white bread North American dishes cluttering up the menu, conversely it would have been equally as unlikely to be able to order claggy butter chicken or half-burned asian stir-fry in an Irish pub. And at this point enter Sysco.

    They are the great enablers, along with a number of others in the agribusiness and food services industry, of this downward trend in dining. They co-opt foods and preparations from ethnic traditions and the highest levels of the culinary world, reduce them to an agglomeration of esters and essences and then slather chicken, pork, and pasta in these 'value additives'. Near-complete dishes arrive in bags either distinct or in components and are then mindlessly assembled by drone workers (well described in a previous comment). In this regard, the edible products offered by Sysco begin to look more and more like the frozen entrée section at Zehr's, the only difference being the mark-up. Specials are simply microwaved bags of what Sysco had on sale last week. An even more disturbing trend is the tendency for once reputable restaurants (also mentioned above by the Chew) to move towards these types of food suppliers as one experiences financial hardship, as though the problem all along was that the food wasn't unremarkable enough. There is no ladder out of this hole, reputations lost are rarely regained. "If I could serve 25% less people, but make 30% more on each dish…"

    Restaurants have always been about catering to the desires of a customer, but there is a curious relationship between supply and desire these days, one cannot be sure ether we want honestly want or enjoy this culinary detritus, or whether our expectations have been so diminished that we simply could care less. For my main course I will have the crispy warm salty sweet with a side of ketchup.

  15. Dear Anonymous 12:10,

    Thank you for your eloquent and inspiring comment! I couldn't agree with the things you have said any more fully. I can't say anything more because you have put it so perfectly and concisely.

  16. Just came across this post while looking into Sysco's sketchiness a bit. Wanted to say thanks to the Anonymous poster above that nailed the issue on the head.

  17. Thirding the thanks to Anonymous for the above. Great post, great thoughts, and bookmarked for future re-reading and sharing.

  18. I heard SYSCO was going to begin importing processed and boxed beef from Mexico. Any truth to the matter?