One of the elements of running a restaurant that television gets spectacularly wrong is how chefs buy food. TV shows present two versions of this. There’s the chef who goes to the farm to meet the chicken, pig, or cow face to face — a rewarding activity that no one has time for more than once or twice a year. And then there are the competition show chefs, rushing around a supermarket for ingredients — a frenzied activity the parents of small children (but not industry professionals) engage in often more than they would like.
Here’s how procuring foodstuffs works in reality at a typical restaurant. At the end of dinner service the cooks spend an hour scrubbing clean every surface in the kitchen, while the chef or sous-chef compiles a list of everything they will need (including unsexy stuff like aluminum foil and string) for the next day’s service. Once there are tallies, the chef calls and leaves messages with orders for delivery.
Some restaurants order from separate companies for produce, meat, fish, dried goods, and cleaning supplies. Others make one call to a large all-purpose company, such as Sysco or Gordon Food Service. Those are the big trucks you see across the country, unloading medleys of tin foil, lettuce, and salmon outside chain pubs.
The big companies can get you the lowest prices and deliver everything at once, but they rarely have the best product. Smaller suppliers cost more but give you greater control if you care about having the best tomatoes, the freshest halibut, or a closer relationship with farmers and fishers.
I used to work in a kitchen that ordered everything from one of the big companies; sometimes the fish that arrived was different from what we’d ordered, because that’s what they had an excess of in the warehouse. A sales rep would make it okay by offering it at a price we couldn’t refuse.
Enter VendorHero and its app, ChefHero, which eliminates the clipboard inventory-checking and consolidates ordering on a mobile device. The company, which launched last March, allows restaurants to place multiple orders, with a variety of participating suppliers, all at once through the app — promising the convenience of dealing with a big company, and the quality of dealing with small suppliers, such as Hooked or 100km Foods.
“I have been using ChefHero for a couple of my suppliers,” Deron Engbers, Cambridge Club executive chef, told me by email. “So far, I’d give them a B+. I’m pretty happy overall. If they can sort out the kinks in the app, I could see them becoming very popular.”
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Sometimes technology comes along to meet an existing need, such as delivering meals (UberEATS, Feast, Door Dash); filling kitchen labour shortages (Staffy, Pineapple, Hyr); or making restaurant reservations (Opentable, DINR, Bookenda). Even in those cases we have to ask: What are the unintended consequences of this disruptive technology? How does that weigh against the benefits? But sometimes, before that arises, the question is: What issue is this meant to fix?
“If the world made sense,” says Saif Altimimi, CEO of VendorHero, “there would be a single place for chefs to go to order from their suppliers, similar to how you would go to Amazon.”
Amazon is convenient for consumers. But while it can help at least some writers reach a wider audience, it also forces publishers to sell their books for less.
“We’re not trying to drive prices down,” says Altimimi. “Our intention is how do we really improve both sides, and there’s a margin to be captured along the way.”
John Nerpiti, founder of z-teca Gourmet Burritos, with eight locations in Ontario, isn’t sold. “When they came in for a sales meeting, I said, ‘You guys are providing a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,’” says Nerpiti. “If anything ... there’s too many choices and the pricing’s good. Quality is the problem we’re trying to address.”
Some others, on the supply side, are upset about the sales call they never got.
“We were first made aware of ChefHero when a customer mentioned that we were listed on the site as a vendor,” says Grace Mandarano, co-founder of 100km Foods, a Toronto-based produce distributor that focuses on direct relationships with local, sustainable farms.
Mandarano contacted VendorHero, informing the company that it was in copyright violation for using the 100km Foods logo, and asking to be removed from the website and app.
“The person we spoke with apologized and said they were intending to open the conversation with us about becoming a vendor,” Mandarano says. “They assured me we would be completely delisted. When we logged in to verify if that we had indeed been removed, we found that they had removed our logo and ‘100km’ from our name — we remained listed as Foods Inc. — and all our products were still listed and available to order.”
After receiving a cease-and-desist letter, VendorHero removed 100km Foods products from their database. Another eight companies are copied on the lawyer’s letter, which TVO.org has reviewed. “They all had the identical situation to ours,” says Mandarano. (Disclosure: my brother is the vice-president of sales and marketing for produce wholesaler Hilite Fine Foods, one of the companies copied on the cease-and-desist letter.)
Altimimi says some of the companies named on the letter have continued to do business with VendorHero, though he declined to say which ones.
Another company not included on that list, Gordon Food Service, has also raised this concern with ChefHero. “Gordon Food Service, Fresh Start Foods, nor any other Gordon Food Service affiliate is any way related to Chef Hero,” writes Amy Mulchay, legal counsel for GFS, in a Dec. 23 email to Glenford Jameson (the latter acting as counsel for 100km Foods). “In fact, Chef Hero is currently infringing on Gordon Food Service and Fresh Start's intellectual property rights in the same ways that you allege they are infringing upon your client's in the attached letter.”
This conflict is baked into the design of the app, which requires chefs to input their suppliers’ information, thereby freeing VendorHero from any need to develop its own relationships with each company.
Altimimi would not comment on the particulars of any specific vendor’s case, but rejects the notion that his app unfairly targets them. “The chef gives us this data,” says Altimimi. “When a vendor has requested us to take down that data, we automatically take it down. We take it very seriously.”
Currently, ChefHero is free both for suppliers and for restaurants, and it has no profit model in place. “It’s a free product right now,” says Altimimi. “There are a few things we plan to do. One is that, as we improve the workflow for chefs, we believe we can extract value at some point by offering premium features, like an integration with their accounting systems.”
Altimimi is also considering charging transaction fees, or charging suppliers. “We can charge a fee to the vendor,” he suggests, “to be able to access new customers. We would become effectively a sales rep for the vendors.” He says that it’s very early going for his start-up, and that he’s still exploring different models and running experiments.
Some observers, including Engbers, see only one logical direction for the business. “While they’re obviously not making any money right now,” he writes, “I think they’re basically using this to scout out the landscape, see what people’s prices are, and then in a couple of years, open their own food distribution centre, à la GFS and Sysco.”
Altimimi, however, says that’s the last thing he wants.
“We have no intention of becoming a distributor. Being a distributor’s really tough. That’s not what we’re good at. We’re good at building amazing technology products.” (Altimimi’s first company helped students share notes online. It was on Dragon’s Den.)
It’s been a decade since I stopped cooking, and I’m genuinely shocked by how many chefs are still phoning in orders instead of using email or text, working with older suppliers who haven’t updated their processes. So I can see the advantage of modernization. But even if there does turn out to be a market for the service — even if it is addressing a real problem — that still leaves the matter of unintended consequences.
“The whole point of the local-food movement is to shorten the supply chain so that more money goes into the pockets of farmers,” says Brent Preston of the New Farm. Since 2007, the Creemore farm has been supplying chefs with organic lettuce, cucumbers, potatoes, and beets, through 100km Foods.
“So any time someone inserts themselves into that chain and adds another link, that means that the consumer’s going to be paying more or the farmer’s going to get paid less. There’s no other possible outcome.”
Photo courtesy of Graeme Maclean and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence.
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