When you sit down at a restaurant and take a look at the menu, what’s the first thing you think about? Whether you’re in the mood for pancakes or waffles, most likely. But behind every item on every menu across America is a backstory, and it’s one that you might not be aware of.
There’s a lot of attention right now being given to “farm-to-table” restaurants, where the chef thoughtfully sources each and every ingredient on the menu from reputable, local sources, shops at the local greenmarket for vegetables, meets with the farmer and butcher to make sure meats are raised humanely, and then painstakingly names every source on the menu. While these types of restaurants are great to have around, they’re usually quite expensive and make up a minute percentage of all the restaurants that are out there.
So what about the rest of the hundreds of thousands of restaurants (not to mention hotels, schools, ballparks, and anywhere else you might eat a meal)? They obviously don’t have the resources to go out and buy each menu component individually, and members-only supermarkets like Restaurant Depot exist to cater to exclusively restaurant workers, but not everyone has the time to travel. For these folks, there are foodservice companies.
You’ve most likely seen trucks bearing their logos barreling through your city’s streets, on their way to make deliveries—Sysco, U.S. Foods, Performance Foods, etc.—and not given them second thought. But these are the companies that really feed us, and they operate on a staggeringly massive scale.
Food Service companies operate on national, regional, and local levels, and the largest one in the country, Sysco, is also the most well-known. They’re the largest non-oil-related company based in Houston, and recorded $42 billion in sales last year. The second-largest, U.S. Foods, brings in about $22 billion in annual revenue, and is the 10th largest privately-owned company in the country.
The food distribution service industry’s reputation is a varied one among restaurant professionals, and many who use them do so for the convenience and low cost. For those who don’t use them, however, it can be a source of pride.
“The way I see it is that large companies mostly only offer convenience and lower prices,” Jimmy Bradley, who runs New York’s acclaimed The Red Cat and The Harrison, told us. “These are undoubtedly two very solid reasons for using companies like Sysco, but I personally value the more individual relationships that are forged with smaller vendors which are more in line with our values and beliefs.”
Major foodservice providers are also frowned upon due to the belief that they’re not pulling their weight when it comes to supporting the smaller producers who could really use their business. “Mostly I think they could be a positive influence, and they are not,” added writer Mark Bittman. “It would be so much easier for them to supply quality ingredients rather than the sort of least common denominator run-of-the-mill stuff they mostly sell.”
So what are these companies, exactly? And is the bad rap they get justified, or do we just dismiss them out-of-hand because they’re huge businesses and we’d rather support the little guy, especially when it comes to food? We did some digging, and learned some interesting facts about nine of the biggest foodservice providers in the country: namely, most of the smaller guys work with the exact same brands and sell the exact same products as one another, but the big ones are so vertically integrated that they own many of the companies that supply them with food. A lot of these companies also have found other ways to give back to the community, like by supporting charities.
Click here to learn a little about the companies that are really feeding you.