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Institutional Dining: Three Viewpoints on Distribution Challenges

One of the jobs of the logistics team is to make sure the trucks run on time and the food makes it to those trucks properly. Or as Nick Mabe, who handles logistics and sales at the Falcon Heights food hub describes it, “We internalize the chaos.”

One hundred and fifty on the books for brunch and the butter never arrived? Or imagine you’re a hospital ordering manager and the coffee doesn’t show up. Have you ever seen a hospital run without coffee? Shudder. 

Those of us who’ve been on the receiving end (or not receiving end, as it were) of a late food truck, or a truck without the butter, know how emotionally troublesome that experience can be. In our miniature restaurant kitchen fiefdoms, it can feel a bit like the world is crumbling. 

But if you’re on the receiving end of a foodservice situation at a school district, a healthcare provider, or an airport, that crumbling sensation can feel a bit more intense. 

The unique challenges of supplying food to large institutions could easily fill volumes. So instead of doing that, I spoke to three different distributors, with three uniquely different sets of challenges, about a typical day in their lives. Spoiler: There’s no such thing as typical. 


The big guys

John Mueller has been working for US Foods for 37 years, and currently heads up some of its largest accounts—and by large, I mean US Bank Stadium, HCMC and the Excel Center to name a few. He loves the beat, not least of all because he’s known many of his clients for more than a decade, sometimes longer. He says culinary professionals in institutional settings tend to stay in their careers for much longer, thinking of it as just that—a career—so his relationships with customers are tight.

 “The people are so nice,” he says, which is helpful because his success in the field is dependent on those relationships. He says he never forgets that no matter how large the account, at the other end of the supply chain are people who care about their jobs and the people they feed. “It’s like their family—they’re worried that their family won’t be fed.” And for this reason he says the job is endlessly fulfilling. 

Which doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. There are “stories every day,” which have included rerouting the entire fleet of trucks for HCMC during the Super Bowl, having every piece of produce checked by security during the Super Bowl before entering US Bank Stadium, and speaking of the Super Bowl, incentivizing all 120 of his drivers to come to work on Super Bowl Sunday instead of staying home to watch the Vikings (not) win. How did they do it? They threw a tailgate party, of course. 

Many of Mueller’s accounts involve entire logistics teams who are in charge of food ordering, and anywhere between 400 to a thousand food items getting packed onto a single truck. “It’s like putting a puzzle together,” he says. The entire orchestra usually happens in the middle of the night when the regular world (even chefs) is fast asleep. 

And in between the myriad of moving pieces, from specialty ordering software, to pallet jacks, to freezers, to the occasional driver having a bad day, sometimes things go awry. 

And then what? 

“Having things not get there is not optional,” says Mueller. “People need food.” 

That they do. 


The little guys 

Nick Mabe, who handles logistics and sales at Falcon Heights’ The Good Acre food hub describes his job this way: “We internalize the chaos.” 

He’s been thinking of a better way to say it, because it’s not exactly chaos surrounding providing local produce for 20 school districts, but without their work, well, it could be. 

A snapshot: “I don’t think people appreciate how busy the folks [in foodservice] working the line, the buying managers (are)—how crunched they are for time, contractual and efficiency issues. And then farmers, they don’t have time either. They’re in the field, they can’t always manage marketing and things like that.” 

So Good Acre has stepped in to absorb some of that potential chaos which includes invoicing, phone calls, truck insurance, liability insurance, checking for certifications like organics, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP,) Good Handling Practices (GHP), and that’s just on the farm side. 

On the school district side: creating a schedule, calculating quantities, sourcing, assessing seasons, managing delivery schedules, aggregating quantities and managing weather. These and other potential natural monkey wrenches are par for the course in the fields, but not necessarily in the kitchen when it comes to getting broccoli on 1,000 school kids’ lunch trays in a matter of 25 minutes. 

In a radical move (quite radical when it comes to school district foodservice across the United States) Good Acre has even instituted a school lunch cafeteria training program, which has been instrumental in its successfully distributing local food to schools. Without it, many culinary workers would have no idea what to do with, say, kohlrabi or Delicata squash. 

The program has been described as “cutting edge,” since dealing with the quagmire of red tape, regulations, management oversight, grant money, politics, and a zillion other hurdles make getting a simple broccoli floret on a lunch tray an almost insurmountable task. Unless you’re fiercely committed to the cause, which Good Acre is. 

The cynical guy

But red tape and regulations can be a real setup for “logistical nightmares,” says one veteran foodservice salesperson who preferred to remain anonymous for this story. He’s been in the industry for more than 20 years, working for both specialty and organic companies all the way up to broadline sales and back again since 1995. He says the bottom line, no matter who you talk to in institutional settings, is, well, the bottom line. 

“They’re all trying to get the best deal possible for the highest quality food,” he says. Well, naturally. But is that necessarily a bad thing? 

Maybe, he says. Whether you’re talking about an airport, a hotel chain, or a school district, the hoops a purveyor must jump through are endless, and often, he says, after the hoops have been jumped, he’ll find out he never could have scored the bid anyway, because his company was never an “approved vendor.” And those approved vendors, he says, get approved mostly thanks to the almighty dollar. 

“It’s not even about food safety,” he says. “It’s about litigiousness.” And litigiousness means insurance policies—big ones. Which automatically disqualifies many of the little guys from playing in the first place. 

“They [the customer] are ‘up enough’ that they know eating local is good, and they’re putting their best foot forward in purchasing locally, etcetera, you know, ‘Let’s be progressive,’ but you need a $5 million insurance policy for foodborne illness [in most institutional settings]. So it [almost] never happens.” 

Now that he’s working for a smaller company, he says institutional clients like working with him, even if they can’t use a number of his products for regulatory reasons. “But everybody feels better about themselves,” he says. 

And, he continues, between purchasing agreements, back door incentives, gatekeepers, volume discounts, price locks, and “asinine” regulations, being an institutional supply guy is an everyday exercise in “anticipating Murphy’s Law.” 

“People call me cynical, but really, it’s just like politics.” 

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