What is the most important thing a restaurateur manages?

Ask a layperson and the answer may be “the menu” or “the food.” But in reality, it’s relationships. As a restaurateur, you cultivate many different types of relationships, each of which is critical to your livelihood. Your employees, your guests, and your suppliers all make up the community.

Neglect your supplier relationships and you leave money on the table. Food spend is 1/3 of the costs of your restaurant and not having a clear picture of where you’re spending money will impact how you view the health and projected growth of your restaurant.

Managing the inventory process is essential to your service, hospitality and ability to deliver a remarkable guest experience. There is nothing worse than telling your best customer they can’t have the meal they had their heart set on because you didn’t accurately predict demand and “ran out.”

Food suppliers are an essential lifeline of any restaurant. And relationships with those suppliers are critical your restaurant’s day to day operations. Cultivating a rapport with the right food suppliers is as important to the success of your restaurant as hiring the right general manager and sous chef.

Having worked with restaurant owners and operators across a spectrum of concepts, cuisines and styles, we’ve found five key components to managing fruitful, margin-boosting supplier relationships.

Value the Relationship

At its best, the relationship between restaurateur and supplier is a partnership that benefits both businesses equally and the best restaurant owners invest their precious time to nurture these relationships. Regular inventory management helps you become a better restaurant manager and builds a predictable cadence with your suppliers. Foster the relationships you have to establish you and your restaurant as reliable and trustworthy to do business with.

When suppliers know you’re dependable and honest, they’re more likely to negotiate price, offer you special products, and give you favorable reviews when talking to other suppliers. Make no mistake, it is one big network and your reputation will precede you, so tend to it often.

Ask for Introductions and Samples

If you have found a supplier that you’ve established a good relationship with, leverage it as much as possible. Ask for introductions to other suppliers you’re interested in working with. Having someone who can vouch for you as being easy to work with and trustworthy will go a long way. This is especially true when you are seeking working relationships with smaller scale producers who have more to lose from a risky transaction. Likewise, suppliers and their sales reps are constantly looking for new restaurants to do business with and are happy to share your good name, as you do the same for them.

As you build out new relationships, ask for samples and examples of their product. Also, ask for references so you can call some of their customers to find out what it’s like working with them. The more information you have going into the partnership, the more lucrative it will be for both parties.

Scale According to Your Needs

If you’re looking for local suppliers and producers, or specialty made ingredients for your restaurant menu, get out and do some research. Visit your local farmer’s markets, try a lot of products, and talk to your farmers. Also, talk to market organizers as they are usually knowledgeable sources of information on which farmers have bigger operations and are reliable to work with. Working with local suppliers can be very rewarding relationships and meeting them in person is a smart first step. If you are committed to working with local producers, join a local food cooperative. Restaurateurs who join together for bulk ordering can often make it easier for smaller suppliers to service you. See if any co-ops exist in your area, or talk to some of your like-minded neighbors about setting one up.

Even if you’re hoping to source as many products locally as possible, there can still be a place for big food service suppliers. You may be spending more for local, organic chickens, so save on the big commodities like salt, flour or paper products by using a big food service supplier. Their prices will likely be the most competitive, leaving bigger portions of your budget available for the specialty items that make your dishes unique.

Get Social

More and more, food producers have discovered that they can create more demand for their products by speaking directly to consumers, even though they’re not actually selling directly to consumers. Give them something to talk about by engaging with them on social media. Online reviews are increasingly seen as trustworthy and show that you are taking a vested interested in their product.

By doing this, you will be certain to get their attention. Tag a supplier if you’re posting a photo of a dish made with their ingredients. Snap photos if you go visit their farm or production facilities. The more you can engage with them, the more they’ll also be sharing within their own circles, further expanding upon your network.

Be Generous

While these relationships may help your bottom line, also be generous so that it helps theirs as well. Recommend their products to other restaurants and be sure to let them know that you did so. Use their products to inspire restaurant menu ideas and give them direct feedback on how your customers are responding to their products. Look to them for advice when you are trying to create a particular menu item by bringing them into the process. Also, ask them how you can help them succeed and what items they are particularly excited about? You can guess what their business needs are, but if you ask, you’ll find out for sure and undoubtedly will get insights into things that weren’t even on your radar.

Don’t forget, using supplier, or any relationship, to further your cause only works when it’s mutually beneficial, and done in the spirit of community and true collaboration. Done with the best of intentions, these relationships can be leveraged to help positively impact everyone’s bottom line.


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