Finding Success Serving the Region’s Restaurants

After 63 years, Florida Food Service has become a big business in some ways, but it has the feel of the small one it was at the beginning.

With annual sales today of nearly $60 million, Florida Food Service clearly is a significant supplier of food and related products to restaurants, hospitals and other institutional customers.

Yet, the company still has a small-business feel, thanks to its family business atmosphere, perpetuated by Chairman Jim Islam and his sons, President Joel Islam, Sales Manager Jeff Islam and Plant Manager Jason Islam. A dozen of the employees have been with the company for more than 25 years, including shareholders Steve O’Steen and Joel Tokar.

Joel Islam got an early start in the business. “We broke some child labor laws,” he says. “My dad used to work six or seven days a week, so if we wanted to see him, we came down here. We went to work as soon as we were old enough to push a broom.”

Joel learned more about business hands-on than he did while receiving his bachelor’s in business from the University of Florida.

“When you grow up in a family business, you do whatever needs to be done,” he says. “If an order needs to be delivered, I’d take it. If we needed to have a check signed, I’d sign it.”

Joel has worked in every part of the business and officially became president in 2004, though that was just part of a natural progression.

“Someone came into my office and congratulated me, and I said, ‘For what?’ Then they told me that my dad had sent out this e-mail appointing me as president.”

How has the company grown?

In 1975, the company was doing just shy of $2 million a year with a market area real close to Alachua County. We still consider North Florida our main service area, but we now go to most of Florida and South Georgia.

In fiscal years 2003, 2004 and 2005, Florida’s growth was robust, and we were growing in terms of the area that we serviced. Over that three-year period, we grew 50 percent. In 2006, we grew another 15 percent and crossed over the $50 million mark. That was a milestone in our industry. The bigger you get, the more you’re able to do things.

I always thought when we were doing $10 million in business, if we could just get to $20 million, all of our problems would be solved. They really aren’t solved. They just increase by a factor.

But some things do get easier, and some things present new challenges.

Is it hard to attract and keep customers or do most restaurants stay with the same vendor year after year?

We are a very commoditized business. The ease of substitution is extremely high. So somebody can buy the bottle of Heinz ketchup from me or from any of our competitors.

What makes my case of Heinz bottled ketchup different from anybody else’s? It’s the service that we provide along with it, from the driver to the salesperson to the office staff.

Can you offer examples of your service?

We do a lot of other things that help the restaurateurs be more successful. We put on three food shows a year. They provide opportunities for customers to come and see the latest offerings in the manufacturing community, get new ideas and learn about variations on old ideas.

We have a demonstration kitchen, where people from the manufacturing community and the broker community can come in and prepare food. They can show how the food can be prepared and served and how restaurant owners can economize.

We also do menu creation for restaurants if they need some help with that. We’ll take photos of their entrees and help highlight certain things.

We teach our salespeople to think like they own the restaurant or institution and to do whatever they can do to make it more successful, even if, in some cases, it means selling them less.

While we’re in a commodity business, we’re trying to avoid becoming a commodity because once you’re a commodity, it’s just a matter of a number.

Who are some your long-term local customers?

I always hesitate to [talk about our customer list], but Burrito Brothers is one example because everybody who goes through UF seems to have to pick up their “degree” at Burrito Brothers. I can remember delivering that place myself.

I remember when I was growing up in the business, we used to sell produce to Sonny’s. There are a lot of place we sell to in Gainesville, but there a lot of places we don’t.

Part of our challenge is that restaurants come and go. Although our company has been here more than 60 years, we’re brand-new to the person who just opened a new restaurant

People don’t necessarily know who we are. Our job is to go out there and knock on the doors and tell them our story.

How much has the slowdown in the economy affected you?

It’s been pretty difficult, but we’ve been fortunate. We were just over 100 employees before the slowdown. Now we’re just over 90.

As I said earlier, in 2006, we crossed over $50 million. In 2007 and 2008, we were within spitting distance of $60 million in sales, and we’ve been there ever since. It’s been absolutely flat.

Can you think of a mistake from which you learned?

In 2006, we took a look at the business, and we had just done $50 million. Our original warehouse here was about 50,000 square feet. That’s quite a lot of business for 50,000 square feet. In fact, we were renting some dry storage elsewhere, so we were shuttling stuff back and forth.

My dad and I began talking, and we said, “It’s time to bite the bullet.” In 2006, we planned an expansion, and in 2007, we built the expansion. We moved in early 2008, and as we’re cutting the ribbon, you could hear the economy going down the drain. The timing could not have been worse.

I don’t know how much of a learning thing that is because nobody saw it coming.

How active is your dad now?

When he’s in town, he comes in every day. He gets up at 5 in the morning, and he examines the numbers. He has a daily e-mail spreadsheet that he sends out.

When I was growing up in the business, he used to look at an order report, and it had every item sold to every customer every day. He could tell you if so-and-so didn’t buy french fries and they normally bought french fries. He had a great command of who was buying what. He could tell if somebody switched brands on shortening.

He’s no longer that involved, but he can still look at the reports when he’s in town and he might question, “Why are we short of this?” or, “Why did they return that?”

How does being a family business affect the corporate culture?

A family business is unique because you have emotional attachments to people in addition to these business relationships. When you get older, people get married, and they have kids, and that creates another dynamic of how we inter-relate.

We get together for Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything else. When we were kids, you could get called out at the dinner table for not loading the truck properly. I exaggerate a little, but it’s not that way now. We tend to not talk business at the family gatherings. Everybody does get along very well.

What’s your hiring process?

For a lot of the operations positions, we prefer to recruit from friends of friends. We look to our best guys to recruit because they’re going to hang out with people who are like-minded. That’s worked pretty well.

In sales, we have a number of people who have come up through the ranks of operations. It turns out that being a driver is a good training ground for being a salesperson. Our drivers have more interaction with our customers than our salespeople do. They have to be there face-to-face to deliver the order. Our two-time salesman of the year was a former driver. We’re very proud of that. We know these people. We like these people.

What types of training and business enrichment do you do?

We don’t do enough, I feel, right now. We do our own monthly meetings for sales. We have a dozen vendors come in, and we constantly get trained on new items.

We do things in operations. We have regular meetings where we talk about safety and things like that. A lot of this business is learned on the ground, on the streets. Our buying group has a professional training staff that comes in at least once a year and spends a few days with the sales staff and talks with them about new trends and new ways of doing things.

As far as the administration, everybody has a different appetite for sharpening the saw. My brother, Jeff, is a bookworm. He devours books—on sales techniques, on management and that kind of thing.

When times are tough like this, you find ourselves making excuses for why we’re not doing more training. You want to keep your foot on the peddle and get everything you can get. But training is one of those things that you really can’t skip. We know that, but it’s a challenge right now to find the time and resources to do it.

What do you see 10 years down the road?

I think Florida’s outlook is very good, and North Florida’s outlook is very good. Some exciting things are happening in Gainesville and Alachua County. As there’s growth, there’s bound to be greater demand for what we do. But the economy has to cooperate.

I’m optimistic. I know these are tough times, but we’re not going to be in these forever. I think that 10 years down the road, there will be a greater food service market, and I think that we will be participating in that.

Do you think your children will follow you into the business?

The kids come down here once in a while. They like to look around. People ask if they’re going to take over the business. I don’t know. It’s certainly going to be up to them.

It Started with a Meat Market

Florida Food Service has been doing the same type of business—providing high quality food in bulk—since William VanPopering Jr. opened Bill’s Meat Room in 1948, and it still has the same phone number as then.

The Islam family became involved in 1975, when James brought his family from Michigan to run the company, which his mentor, Bob Alli, had purchased.

The volume of sales and the number of items the company offers have increased over the years. “When I was a kid, we had a sales book with 1,500 items in it,” says President Joel Islam. “If someone wanted green beans, you had one or two types to choose from.”

The company’s inventory now totals 10,000 items in digital files that are updated every day. “If the customer says, ‘What’s your price on bacon,’ we have 45 different kinds of bacon to offer him. We have to ask if it’s for a bacon cheeseburger, a bacon burrito or a topping for pizza.”

Florida Food Service is a member of UniPro Foodservice Inc., a cooperative buying group with annual sales of $60 billion.

“We like that arrangement because we feel like we have the best of both worlds,” Islam says. “We make our own decisions, but we have the buying power that’s greater than anybody, including our biggest competitors, which are Sysco and U.S. Food.”

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