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Specialty Food Magazine

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Some of the world’s finest and freshest foods come through this century-old wholesaler and retailer’s Massachusetts warehouse. And if the owner’s can’t find what a customer needs, they’ll grow it.

Sourcing, supplying, and shipping premium produce, cheese, and specialty foods to North America’s leading restaurants, chefs, and retailers is only the start of Sid Wainer & Son’s trailblazing efforts. Led by Dr. Henry Wainer, president, owner, and grandson of the founder, this family-owned wholesaler, importer, exporter, and retailer has also set the standard for food safety as the country’s first, and reportedly only, HACCP-certified produce supplier. Most recently, the company has been pioneering support of local agriculture through operation of its own greenhouse and farm and building relationships with farmers across New England. All this from an unassuming location in the mill town of New Bedford, Mass., where Sid Wainer & Son first began delivering fruits and vegetables to local restaurants by horse and buddy 100 years ago.

Sid Wainer & Son supplies 24,000 restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, and catering facilities. Though smaller than its foodservice business, retail sales are a fast-growing sector.

Specialty Food Magazine recently toured the vast facilities to see firsthand what goes into servicing, as the owners put it, “basically anyone who eats.”

Customers: Expanding a Foodservice Stronghold to Retail

Foodservice sales account for the bulk of the business. At 80 percent, says Allie Wainer, director of customer relations and fourth-generation family member to join the business. The company supplies upwards of 24,000 restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, and catering facilities nationwide, in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda—up dramatically from about 2,000 about 15 years ago. “One of the reasons for our growth is that chefs move around,” Says Victor Simas, vice president. “We may not have planned to [supply restaurants] in Washington, D. C., for example, but a chef from Boston may have moved there and knows us.” The wholesaler has also supplied food for major sporting events, conventions, and other occasions.

The company maintains a fleet of 200 delivery trucks covering the Maine-Canadian border to Florida and relies on ground and air shipments for the rest of the country and world. To expedite shipments, Sid Wainer & Son operates an on-site TSA-certified area where staff can pack and ship orders and send directly to Boston’s Logan International Airport.

Though smaller than foodservice, retail sales are a fast-growing sector, says Simas. “More retailers want specialty food products and are looking to upgrade to high-end produce,” he explains. “We think there is a niche there that we can fill.”

“Products like our Jansal Valley produce and cheeses are recognized by chefs and now are getting national recognition from retailers,” says Henry Wainer. “We’re offering consumers what we’ve offered chefs for over 100 years.”

Sales and Purchasing: Chefs Selling to Chefs

An expert team services Sid Wainer & Son’s customers. The company requires its entire on-site sales staff of 52 to have culinary backgrounds; several are graduates of Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts and many have worked in professional Kitchens.

Orders are processed seven days per week to ensure customers receive the freshest product; in fact, the phones operate on a backup satellite system akin to what the government uses. “We put it in a while back, after realizing that we were vulnerable if something happens to our phones,” says Tom Furtado, vice president.

New Products arrive for sampling daily and staff is encouraged to participate in tastings. “We did a charcuterie tasting recently with our inside sales team. Who better [to judge] than a room full of chefs,” says Allie Wainer.

“A key factor for us is that our sales team thinks a product is the best [on offer]. If they don’t believe in it, they can’t sell it,” explains Simas. “When they’re excited about something, everyone is on the phone trying to get their chefs to tell them something new is in.”

Produce buying is handled by a staff of a dozen, while an additional five handle specialty food purchasing. Henry Wainer handles the bulk of specialty sourcing, traveling the world visiting producers and attending international trade shows such as SIAL in Paris. “It stars with a conglomeration of thoughts from me and my sales team as to what they think they can sell and what trends they’re hearing about from their chefs,” Wainer explains.

Wainer spends time learning his producers’ history and passion. “We have to share those stories. They put their heart and soul into their farms and products,” he says. “I go to France and see the woman who makes my olives and see aqueducts on her farm from the Romans. I don’t want to lose that in the mass-produced world we live in.”

Jansal Valley Farm: Testing Ground for Local Crops

In recent years Sid Wainer & Son has emphasized growing fruits and vegetables locally. To that end the company operates 49-acre Jansal Valley Farm in nearby Dartmouth, Mass., where it grows about 300 crops in small batches. The farm allows for test marketing of experimental crops; once a crop proves successful, based on Massachusetts’ climate and topography, and the quality of the harvest, Sid Wainer & Son contracts a local farmer to grow it on a larger scale The company works with hundreds of farms around New England that range in size from a half-acre to 300 acres, as well as farms around the country, to grow its Jansal Valley First Pick line of produce.

“Our goal is to grow as much here as possible,” says Simas. “We had been shipping a lot of product from the West Coast and were having a hard time bringing it in on Mondays and getting it to our customers fresh. We needed to find closer sources or do it ourselves.”

“We put a lot of farms back into business,” adds Allie Wainer.

Every January, the company reviews which crops worked and which did not. Sid Wainer & Son also accommodates special requests from customers. “If we don’t have the produce they are asking for, we get it or we grow it,” she says.

The farm is also home to Jansal Valley International Kitchen and Hospitality Suite, where chefs can train, participate in tastings or harvesting, or experiment with menu development. The space doubles as a venue for conferences, events, and competitions, plus an annual party for all 500 employees and their families.

“My suppliers come to the farm from all over the world, and they see that we understand what farming is about and what it takes to grow something,” says Henry Wainer. “I grew up around farms and kitchens and apply that knowledge to the industry. We may not always think of it this way, but 90 percent of foods at the Fancy Food Show started on a farm.”

Urban Farming: Inner-City Greenhouse

In 2004, Sid Wainer & Son opened a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse on two acres across the road from its facility on the site of a vacant box factory. The greenhouse also operates as a testing ground for atypical crops for the region and season. “We started off growing microgreens, which were becoming popular in the early 2000s,” says Simas. “We had a demand to grow locally and farmers said to us, ‘If you show me how, I can do it.’”

Today the greenhouse is run by Warren Sylvia and one assistant. With about 20 crops grown at a given time, programs start here and then are delegated to another farmer. “We give them the specs, they begin growing, and I move on to the next thing. This year, we’re doing kale ourselves instead of getting it from outside,” Sylvia says. Other popular crops this season are pea greens, baby white turnips, elegance greens, mezuna, Swiss chard, and red frill mustard greens. Produce is picked every day so that it reaches customers’ doors within eight to 12 hours. “You can’t get any fresher than that,” Sylvia says.

“Probably the most important thing is that we’re willing to try things. We take the lead and then bring chefs in from all over the place—restauranteurs, caterers—and have them try it,” he continues. Swiss chard has taken off. “I started playing with it a few months ago and it’s just zoomed. We’re selling 300 percent more than the first week we started.”

Despite best efforts by Jansal Valley Farm and the greenhouse, some foods simply won’t grow in New England in the winter. Artichokes and bananas are two examples. “I had banana trees that lasted until November 6,” Sylvia says. “They grew up to 17 feet tall, but no bananas.”

Produce: Six Inventory Turns per Week

Sid Wainer & Son’s 300,000-square-foot warehouse stores packaged and perishable specialty foods and produce, including products the company imports from all over the world. The produce inventory turns six times per week, says Allie Wainer.

Perishables are stored in eight temperature-controlled areas depending upon ideal condition ns for individual varieties. Temperatures throughout the warehouse are monitored all day, with an alarm alerting the operations manager if conditions rise or drop beyond the ideal.

Shipments arrive 24/7. Product is packed on-site and loaded onto trucks, or air-shipped directly from the facility. Each box displays the customer name, number, truck ID, and product, and is scanned before loading. Trucks have GPS units to allow for easy tracking, and drivers continue to monitor internal temperatures en route so they can report it to customers upon arrival.

Warehouse activity picks up by late afternoon and is bustling by 9 p.m. Ninety percent of the day’s orders are out of the building by 4 a.m. In the morning and early afternoon, staff is busy restocking and beginning to assemble orders for the next day, Simas explains.

While the mix includes plenty of hard-to-find and little-known varieties (Buddha’s hand, horned melon, lollipop kale), even the everyday items require pristine attention. “We need to be picky about tomatoes. When chefs order them, they are to be used today, not in three days,” Simas says. “We have a person on staff who goes through orders to make sure the tomatoes are the right color, meaning ready to use. It’s the same with bananas and avocados. When a chef orders it, it has to be ready to eat.”

Specialty Food: Being the Best is a Prerequisite

The warehouse is filled with specialty items like oils, vinegars, spices, and sauces from more than 4,000 vendors from the U.S. and around the world. Italy and France are the top countries from which Sid Wainer & Son imports, but products abound from Spain, England, Greece, Japan, and Austria, among others. The company offers 17 trademarked brands, including Fondo di Toscana, Fondo di Alba, Domaine de Provence, and its own Jansal Valley. “If something carries our trademark name, we need to be sure it’s the best,” Simas says. “It’s a prerequisite we have. If it’s not the best, we don’t want it[ to have] our label.”

“Fondo di Toscana, for example, came about when producers in Tuscany wanted to create something that represents that region,” Henry Wainer explains. “Fondo refers to the soil, The line is all about saying that Tuscany has fabulous products because of the soil and [other attributes] of the region.”

Best sellers vary by season. “We have roasted red and yellow tomatoes that we sell a ton of,” Simas says. “Our fig puree from Italy is on menus at an upscale restaurant chain across the country.”

Grains are among the top-selling specialty categories. “Everyone knows quinoa but there are others like black barley, faro, and millet,” Simas says. The company offers most in a retail 1-pound pack and 10-pound packs for foodservice. Beans, too, are in demand; rarer varieties on offer include rice, black garbanzo, and rattlesnake beans.

Sid Wainer & Son has brought in a full line of gluten-free foods in response to customer demand. “We listen to what people want. Or—put it this way—we try to never say no,” says Furtado.

The company has built a reputation as the source for uncommon products. Among more esoteric specialty food items are merlot and chardonnay wine vinegars from France; whiskey-smoked sugar; vinegar powders; an arugula pesto from Italy—“something most people have never seen,” Simas notes—part of a new line of five flavors shown at the Winter Fancy Food Show; quinoa granola with chocolate and huckleberry; and Espelette peppers. “Espelette is taking off,” Simas says. “Before, it was anything that said heirloom or pomegranate. Espelette is the key word now.”

Offerings are always being updated. Newer items brought onboard include French tart shells in demand by chefs and a line of 12 flavored mustards from Minnesota, including best-selling tangerine. “We’re trying to do more domestically. We bring in local pasta sauces, Vermont maple syrup, and we’re working with a new preserve line from Oregon,” says Simas. “If we can find the right flavor profile here, [we] want to keep it local. It supports farmers and its what our customers are asking [for]. …We just need to be sure the quality is there.”

Sid Wainer & Son is currently constructing an additional 42,000-square-foot warehouse eight miles away from its New Bedford location to help increase fulfillment, especially on growing retail orders. The company currently sells products on Amazon and does the cheese program for Costco and BJ’s nationally.

The Gourmet Outlet: A Shopping Destination

Sid Wainer & Son’s New Bedford plant is also home to The Gourmet Outlet, a specialty food store opened to showcase the company’s offerings. In the late 1980s, a friend of Henry Wainer’s suggested opening the warehouse on Saturday to let people shop. “I thought, we can’t stop loading trucks for someone to buy a bunch of cilantro. We should dedicate a space where people can shop for what they’re cooking,” Wainer says. The Gourmet Outlet has since become a destination for locals, personal chefs, and vacationers traveling seasonally to Boston or Cape Cod.

The store is packed with cheese, pantry items, condiments, spices, and produce but no prepared foods. “We want people to cook, so we offer recipe cards and fresh foods and educate customers [on] what to do with the food,” Simas explains.

Daily, staff chefs create an array of samples made from all of the products. “I wouldn’t buy something if I didn’t love the way it looked and tasted,” says Wainer. “And I don’t expect our customers to.”

What’s Next: Anniversary Plans

To celebrate its centennial, Sid Wainer & Son is looking to give back to the community. Henry Wainer is launching a program to donate to New England food banks produce that wouldn’t otherwise be sold due to minor bruises or irregularities: The target for 2014 has been set at 450,000 pounds.

Additionally, tastings and events are being planned throughout the local area. “We want to celebrate with the people who helped us be who we are,” says Henry Wainer. “Who else would we want to celebrate with? It’s our family.”