May 19, 2009

Togues Off to Sysco

Kudos to Sysco, the world’s biggest broadline food wholesale distributor. And hats off to Business Week for catching them doing it right.

Restaurants, Sysco’s prize customer group, are teetering on the brink. It doesn’t matter whether they are big chains or small independents, upscale or downmarket, virtually without exception they’re starving for business as consumers stay home more to eat.

As in any vertical value chain, when the retailer suffers so do its suppliers. So Sysco is stepping up to help restaurants. It’s offering classes at its warehouses to teach better and more economical cooking techniques, showcasing foods and ingredients, and generally trying to give its business customers the boost they need to stay alive.

"The company has a weapon it hopes will save customers and lead to greater market share during the slump: a free consulting service called the Business Review. Along with selling cases of napkins and three-gallon containers of ketchup, Sysco is using employees . . . to help clients design menus, train waitstaff, and market their businesses. The company has turned its warehouse kitchens into schools for its customers. "We felt if we could improve their business, that would improve our business with them."

I love this! In many industries, when business is off, manufacturers and distributors don’t respond this way at all. They don’t bend to the task of improving their distribution system. They step up their advertising.

There’s nothing wrong with advertising. But isn’t it great when companies make a material contribution rather than a symbolic one? And maybe in this new (hopefully temporary) economy, material contributions will start to get the recognition they deserve.

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