Behind the Scenes: How Food Gets Around
An often unknown segment of the food business involves distribution. How does food get from one place to another? From whom do restaurants buy food? By a foodservice distributor, that’s how! The Arizona Beef Council is fortunate to work with Arizona food distributors for educational opportunities to further educate chefs and restaurateurs about beef and how it is raised in Arizona. Meet Brent Olsen, US Foods Arizona, whose job is to connect the food growers with chefs and restaurants.
ABC: What is US Foods and what does it have to do with beef?
Brent Olsen: US Foods Arizona is a full line distributor of over 11,000 items serving the hospitality and restaurant industry in Arizona. There are 62 US Foods locations across the United States. Stock Yards is a wholly owned subsidiary of US Foods and operates 14 USDA inspected production facilities across the United States. In geographic areas not served by those locations, we contract with other facilities not owned by us to produce product for us. It may be of interest to know the US in our name actually stands for Unifax-Sexton, part or our heritage company portfolio. We have two Stock Yards production facilities in Arizona – one in Phoenix and the other in Tucson. The Phoenix location stocks and fabricates a wide variety of fresh proteins for the Arizona market and we supply products to other US Foods houses as far east as Little Rock, Arkansas. Stock Yards Phoenix focuses on domestic cattle and we deliver packer boxes of fresh beef as well as fresh cut steaks to the Arizona market 6 days a week. Stock Yards Chicago, one of our sister locations, is credited with being the first business in America to offer a cut steak program to Chicago area restaurants in 1893, almost 125 years ago. Our Tucson location produces a wide range of cooked items, including a wide range of pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, and pot roasts, in a wide variety of beef quality grades.
ABC: When did the food distributor segment start and how much has changed?
BO: The food distributor started in the late 1800’s and has basically moved from a group of small, regional, segment-specific companies to a huge network of much larger, full line suppliers offering anything a restaurant owner could need or want (anything from canned tomatoes to Prime Ribeyes). US Foods, as it is today, is the culmination of mergers and acquisitions that have taken place over the last 100 years. Stock Yards was also formed from a variety of specialty meat companies across the United States. Stock Yards is really fulfilling an emerging need for portion control, cut steaks, the talent pool of qualified meat cutters out there, whether at retail or foodservice, is rapidly disappearing.
ABC: How is foodservice different from retail?
BO: There are some big differences between the two industry segments. First, we market to restaurants, companies that are preparing the raw material for their customers to consume. Retail is marketing to household consumers. Secondly, a retail store will typically offer one grade of beef, whether it be USDA Select or USDA Choice. Foodservice is considerably more diverse with our offerings. On a strip loin steak, for example, Stock Yards Phoenix has 7 different and distinct offerings for that item. Those offerings range from USDA Prime cattle to an enhanced, ungraded, fed Holstein cattle line. Third, there are significant volume differences between retail and foodservice. Foodservice does not run weekly newspaper ads featuring beef, but we do create and promote special pricing and product offerings on a regular basis.
ABC: Who are your main customers?
BO: Our customers range from a single location, owner-operated café in a small Arizona town to multi-unit regional and national footprint customers that are state and nationwide. We supply products and services to schools, hospitals, Indian gaming locations, convention centers, caterers and restaurants across Arizona.
ABC: What are some of the common questions about beef you receive from customers?
BO: There is a dramatic increase in interest from consumers about where food comes from. Food safety is at the forefront as well. As a USDA Inspected facility, we interact with the local USDA inspector on a daily basis to insure we’re providing safe, wholesome food to our customers. We are also GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) certified, the first facility of our type to have this certification in Arizona. There is also increased interest in quality grades, animal welfare, and “natural” offerings. Part of our goal is to help all of our customers understand what is available, and help them determine what works best for their format, customer base, and dining segment expectations.
ABC: Is there anything else you would like to share with Arizona’s rancher audience as well as consumers?
BO: Keep raising high quality beef. It’s the back bones of what we do, collectively, to provide a great eating experience for the restaurant segment we service. I’d really like to see more frequent, meaningful interaction between the ranchers, growers and our side of the business.
ABC: Will you share a little of your background? How long have you been selling beef?
BO: I started my beef career in a small mom-and-pop corner grocery store in Utah in 1969. We sourced our carcass beef from a small, local packer, and that’s where I picked up the trade. I’ve had a wide spectrum of positions in grocery retail, grocery wholesale, as well as foodservice. I’ve always worked with beef, and I love this industry and the people I’ve met wherever I’ve worked. With my current role, I travel the western United States and promote beef with a wide range of customers, and train about our products and promote our industry whenever possible.
ABC: What is your favorite cut of beef?
BO: I’m a strip loin man, through and through. It’s all about the flavor, and I’m never disappointed with a nice New York cut. A nice, juicy burger is at the top of my list as well. Keep it simple, with high quality there’s no need to hide or mask it with spices or toppings.
Brent is a journeyman meat cutter, beef lover (that shouldn’t be a surprise), and promoter of the cattle industry. He’s a pretty good water skier, as well.