"We simply do not have enough good food to feed the seven billion people who come to the global table every day. We'll have to produce more with less. Applying technology to improve and expand the food supply is critical."
July 13th, 2011

Jeff Welch Food Broker

Jeff Welch is a food broker at the Kansas City-based firm Linwood-Welch Marketing Company. He also happens to be my dad. Most of my friends, and I suspect most everyone's, have no idea what a food broker is. Fittingly, he and I began our conversation on Father's Day, and it ended up being the perfect corollary to our previous conversation about foraging.

Do you sell food?

We do! Food brokers are many, and varied in size and specialty. The profession is over 150 years old, and if you think about all the places someone is presenting or preparing food for you, we’re there. We are independent sales agents representing food makers. We take the finished foods to the marketplace and are paid only on what we sell, hence the name “broker”. We are the low cost alternative to a manufacturer employing an in-house direct sales staff, which can be quite costly. With brokers, both the manufacturer and the customer saves money, relative to the ultimate end cost of the goods. We like what we do. We like people and we like food!

So what kinds foods do you sell?

My company has two divisions. One is devoted to food service, the other to industrial. The food service division specializes in sales to restaurants, business and industry, deli’s, and schools, among others. Within those categories, we focus on ingredients that go together to make pizza. We handle crusts, sauces, cheeses, meats, peppers, olives, mushrooms, and pretty much anything else that you might like to see when you order your favorite slice. Did you know that Americans collectively eat more than nine acres of pizza each day? This keeps us very busy.

Our industrial division specializes in sales of prepared food products to the food making and manufacturing industry. For example, we might sell a particular cheese to to a maker of mac and cheese, or perhaps to a maker of a packaged burrito, or a maker of a hot dog or burger filled with chunks of cheese. We sell pickles and peppers to prepared salad makers, and tomato paste to sauce and dressing makers. We might also sell mushrooms to a soup maker, or a cooked meat item to a frozen entree maker. Breadsticks? We have ‘em. Cooked chicken? Sure! On and on we go. We have fun with this division too. We’ve not only seen our own products being made, but we’ve also seen our products being incorporated as an ingredient into making up something else. It’s pretty cool.

Hot dogs and burgers infused with chunks of cheese — oh my! — bring to mind the huge role that science and technology play in food manufacturing. Can you talk about how those have evolved over the past thirty years?

The biggest impact, by far, on food research and development is food safety. Each and every lot of incoming and prepared food is tested for not only mandatory nutrients and chemistry, but also pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus, coliforms, E. coli, yeast, molds and other stuff you don’t want in your food. These tests are absolute and non-negotiable. When we visit one of our producing plants, if we walk on to the production floor, we are required to wear an outfit that looks something like a spacesuit! These plants are clean beyond clean, and they should be. Our food scientists also address new product development, existing product improvement, health and dietary improvements, cost control, sustainability, and cleaning up existing products. We’ve reduced some fats, reduced a fair amount of sodium, and eliminated the use of chemical flavor enhancements. The debate over the use of high fructose corn syrup continues as well.

But a discussion of food science and technology would not be complete without the mention of the worldwide food supply. We simply do not have enough good food to feed the seven billion people who come to the global table every day. We’ll have to produce more with less. Applying technology to improve and expand the food supply is critical. It’s a formidable task, but science and technology are hard at work addressing the need. If we care about our planet and its inhabitants, we should also care about those who work hard to provide enough good and wholesome food to go around.

How has the broker’s role changed over time?

The basic business model of food brokerage has not changed. We are still charged with taking a manufacturer’s food product to the marketplace. I do think we have that part figured out after thirty years. Beyond that, three changing things in the food brokerage environment come to mind. For one, there are fewer of us; and the fewer tend to be bigger. It’s that mergers-and-acquisitions thing prevalent in so many business situations. Secondly, we must now evaluate and sell a product based on its end use. For example, we’ll look at a restaurant and evaluate its clientele to determine if one our products might fit the menu. If so, we’ll take that product to the restaurant and attempt to make the “sale” at that level. If we’re successful, we’ll connect with a wholesale distributor, who will then arrange to stock our product in its warehouse, then truck the goods to the restaurant as needed. In another day, a broker might have simply taken the product directly to the distributor and let the distributor take the sales job from there. No more. Brokers must now be street smart. We are now also constantly battling costs. Consumers have only so many discretionary dollars. Restaurants struggle, and we must help them find ways to put what they call, “butts in the seats.” We must demonstrate and sell the quality and value of a product rather than a price point. Quality and value tend to enjoy longevity. Price point dies a quick death as soon another lower price point rears it annoying head.

Can you talk more about the nature of your relationships with manufacturers and restaurant owners? I recently interviewed a woman who sources food directly from farms and markets, and she kept stressing the importance of trust and integrity in her dealings with suppliers. Obviously, what you do is on a different scale, but given that you both deal with sourcing food, I wonder in what ways your business relationships are the same and yet quite different.

We are a very different type of provider than those supplying fresh, artisan, and local (although many of my manufacturers are aware of this need and addressing it). Those growers and food makers tend to have close personal ties to their customers due primarily to the personal “hands-on” nature of the goods provided. We have great admiration for what they do. And it typically, and naturally, breeds trusting relationships. It’s interesting, though, that you bring up the subject of relationships relative to what we do. Relationship sellers are precisely what we strive to be! We’ve worked very hard in that development over many years, and we think we are pretty good at it. We only represent manufacturers we trust, and those who trust us, and by that I mean those who respect us and our position in the supply chain. They actively work alongside us, provide product knowledge and support, and appreciate our every effort on their behalf in the marketplace. The same is true relative to our customers. We must earn their trust in what we can potentially or actively do for them. If they are willing to take a little time with us, and help us better understand their needs, we’ll come through for them. It’s the greatest feeling. We’ll do any thing for them. And why shouldn’t we? We have the greatest customers in the world. They like having us around.