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Common Foodsense: What Makes a Good Sales Visit

It’s nine-thirty in the morning, an hour and a half before we open. The salmon has arrived, thank the gods, because Donald is late and I’m on the prep alone. When I open the bag and dig through the ice I find a whole fish, not the sides I had ordered. I have no roast knife; I have no needlenose pliers. I have a case of chicken to cut up and two soups to finish, and my aggravation level has just set off a cardiac monitor at the hospital down the street. 

Half an hour goes by, and a guy in a nice suit comes in whistling and asks for me. He finds me downstairs in the prep kitchen, grabs the salmon, pushes back his cuffs, and has two skinned slabs of fish in front of him about 50 seconds later. The filet knife disappears and is replaced by pliers, and after another minute or so the pinbones are gone. He apologizes for the mix-up, offers to sell me a decent knife, and asks if I would like the filets portioned. Uh, no thanks; I’ve got time now to do that myself. And where does a salesman learn to use a knife like that—can I assume your shop promotes from within?

Twelve years in the cutting room, he says with a smile. Nice to be out of the cold, but it’s fun to still do it every now and again. Do you want the bones, or shall I take them?

Later that week my butcher comes by with the meat, snags a cup of coffee and leans on the doorframe. He works a mile away in North Beach, and forgot to take his apron off when he left to make deliveries, so he’s been wearing his bloodstains all over town. He blows on his coffee and tells me that he’s finally found where the pig bladders have been going.

That took a while, I think to myself; he’s been looking for a month. Turns out they’re used in Chinese medicine for something or other, and they’re shipped out of the slaughterhouse direct to apothecaries. You won’t find them anywhere in San Francisco, they’re all bought up. What did you want them for again?

Capon, I tell him. There’s fat on the outside of the bladder, so you turn it inside out, wash it, stick a whole capon in and sew the thing shut. The bird steams while it roasts and the fat drips on it. Magic. You send the whole thing to the table looking like a mutated football, and the waiter slices it open and carves. 

Huh, he says, and grins. Better wash it real good so it don’t smell like a catbox.

I liked that guy. We used to argue about boning chicken breasts: I started at the top and he at the bottom, so he got more weight and I got a cleaner breast, which, as it turned out, were both proper for our respective businesses. He also kept me abreast (sorry) of meat gossip—did you know there was such a thing? Problems with lamb for a couple weeks; there was bad weather in Nevada during lambing so the prices will be up a bit until the Midwest comes in. And I’ve got your osso buco cut for you—you know, I heard it’s hard to buy veal in Wisconsin ‘cause they send it all to us!

The thing that united these guys—besides a professional history of having to wear long underwear to work—was that they enjoyed being part of what their customers were doing. A mission statement would phrase it differently, of course: “We pride ourselves on our deep commitment to being part of our clients’ success, and partnering with them in their journey…” et cetera. In the search for solutions. And synergies.  Going forward. My favorite vendors, on the other hand, wanted to swap gossip and get a feel for who I was and what I was doing and how they could help.

And not every vendor could, of course, but if they made that clear, it was fine. Sometimes the needs on both sides just can’t meet in the middle. It’s a sales cliché that “no” is the second-best answer; at least you know where you stand. “Maybe,” on the other hand, is a crappy way to run a relationship: Imagine it as the response to a marriage proposal.

But when you find a sales rep who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work, and wants to make it easier and become an integral part of it—these are the qualities that make lifelong friendships and money for both sides. And scale doesn’t matter; I found people with the same spark working for a behemoth the size of General Mills and the 28 seat Café Maisonnette.

 I still remember the morning my fish man called me to say his old partner in Maryland could now ship live softshell crab to San Francisco. He was over the moon with joy, and he knew I’d grown up near the Chesapeake and would react the same way. Instant sale, every week for the four-month season. And a guy at a chile company in New Mexico had the same gleeful hysterics when I told him I knew their product and asked him to send samples to a division of GM. Asked for two half-gallons. Got a half-pallet.

So look for enthusiasm and find reps you like. It’d be nice if they ate at your place once in a while, though it’s not really necessary—but they do need to understand your own customers, however they figure it out. Gossip is a good start. 

Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the fooservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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