Blog : Eight years later, Favorite Foods' stance for local rings true
If one of the most successful restaurants in America came knocking at your door, eager for your business, would you turn them away?
For most, and particularly for an independent food supplier, shunning that kind of opportunity – while perhaps noble – would be an awfully tough pill to swallow.
But that’s exactly what Favorite Foods did when – back in 2004 – the Somersworth-based food distributor told Applebee’s to take the proverbial hike, in the process shunning a potentially lucrative distribution deal.
For those trained in the more traditional facets of business development, such a move would appear – at the very least – to be entirely counterproductive, and at worst suicidal. But Favorite Foods isn’t your typical business, and nor was it founded on typical principles.
Launched in 1987 with little more than “a van and a plan,” Favorite Foods aims to provide local, independent restaurants with everything from small-wares, paper products and cleaning chemicals to dry groceries, meats, dairy products, and frozen goods.
Additionally, the company offers comprehensive consultation to restaurants on menu design, customer tastes, costing, and business development strategies.
In an era where Sysco and a handful of other large, national conglomerates have come to dominate the food distribution industry, the Somersworth-based Favorite Foods has staked much of their claim – and success – on bucking that very trend.
Indeed, with a client list that includes over 20 New Hampshire School Districts, along with staple restaurants including Robert’s Maine Grill, Bob’s Clam Hut, Roundabout Diner –just to name a few – you can’t say the anti-establishment stance hasn’t been fruitful.
“In order to continue to grow our business and to be successful, we have had to find our niche – since day one, that has been to partner with local, independent businesses,” explains Chris Barstow, President of Favorite Foods. “As long as we can continue to assist them in becoming more successful, we will also benefit from the relationships. It’s a real David versus Goliath saga, and we have accepted the challenge.”
In 2003, Favorite Foods launched the Favorite Independent Restaurant Association (FIRA). Tasked with helping lend support to local independent restaurants through marketing and promotions, the organization now includes more than 40 restaurants throughout the Seacoast area.
Consumer members who visit these locations benefit by participating in promotions that provide them the opportunity to win large cash and other exciting prizes. By running these promotions, FIRA helps to take diners away from the large national chains and encourages them to eat at the far more unique local establishments.
“The primary objective of FIRA is to help the local independent restaurants to attract new faces and increase the number of times that their ‘regulars’ come to visit” says Barstow. “We have proven, time and time again, that we have been able to help them to meet that goal.”
By 2004, Favorite Foods was confident in knowing its humble company had achieved a level of success fully in line with its founding mission. It was then that temptation – in the form of one of the region’s most successful chain restaurants – came calling.
“It was pretty out of the blue,” recalls Julie Cole, Director of Marketing for Favorite Foods. “ One of the managers at Applebee’s had called most likely looking for a sales representative, but when Barstow found out who it was, he decided to respond directly.”
The story could have ended with Barstow putting in a quick phone call, to say simply “thanks, but no thanks.”
Instead, he wrote a letter to the Applebee’s Manager, wherein he outlined precisely why – in circling the wagons of local loyalty – he and his company would never do business with a national chain.
Citing an earlier interview with Applebee’s CFO Steve Lumpkin, who earlier that year had made the bold claim that his restaurant was “clobbering the independent restaurants,” Barstow admitted that companies like his were – in the increasingly monopolized food distribution industry – at a decided disadvantage.
However, what he refused to admit was defeat.
“It is difficult for the Independents to compete,” he wrote. “So while you may not agree with it, I hope that you can respect the firm position we have taken in support of all of the Independent Restaurants in our area. Many of the Independent Owner/Operators we service were former national chain employees who tired of the corporate rat race. In the event that you ever join their ranks, we hope that you will remember Favorite Foods as the company you can count on to be committed to your success!”
Soon thereafter, the letter was published in its entirety in the Yankee Food Service newspaper – as much a clever advertisement as it was a call to arms for the sake of all things local.
Eight years later, it’s an episode the company continues to reflect back on with pride.
“Although potentially a large opportunity was in front of us, we knew that it was time to take a stand and be true to our convictions.” recalls Barstow. “It was one of those ‘if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk’ kind of moments.”
Now, nearly a decade removed from their most staunch test – and nearly two more since their initial, principals-based founding – Favorite Foods plans to continue doing both.
“Our loyalty was, and still is, to the independents,” Barstow exclaims. “We need to support them in every way that we can and encourage as many consumers as possible to do the same.”