HAS A UNIQUE STORY TO TELL
We call foodservice distribution the “hidden industry.” Beyond seeing the occasional delivery truck on the road, the average American does not know it exists. We at
inside I foodservice I distribution are dedicated to giving our industry its due, celebrating its heritage, people and progress, all of which created the $278 billion (2015)* industry it is today.
Foodservice distribution remains an industry that is the living embodiment of the entrepreneurial dream. Many businesses were started as far back as the mid-1800s, founded by dedicated business people who plied their trade from their garages or small stores, often delivering products in horse-drawn wagons. That pioneering DNA still exists in the third, fourth, and even fifth generations that head up their family businesses today.
The development of the foodservice distribution industry is tied to the growth of the restaurant industry after World War II. Distribution became more sophisticated and more complex as the restaurant industry grew to meet the great numbers of consumers who were more frequently eating out.
Back in 1955, when foodservice distribution was just coming into its own as a separate industry from retail grocery distribution, only 25 percent of an average family’s food dollar was spent on “food away from home.” By 2008, that share grew to 48 percent. By 2015, the foodservice share of stomach was 50.6% and growing.
EARLY DISTRIBUTORS WERE PIONEERS
The 1870s were a seminal period for invention and change. The West had been opened up to travelers with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. In 1875, a new-fangled invention called the telephone was introduced by Alexander Graham Bell. In 1879, Thomas Edison was ready to unveil the incandescent light bulb. America was on the move toward the future.
In 1878, the C.A. Curtze Company was delivering food and other merchandise – such as gunpowder – to oil and lumber camps in Pennsylvania. More than a century later, the company, now called Curtze Food Service, is a broadline distributor run by the fifth generation.
The new age of transportation created more travelers and more opportunities for dining experiences away from home. As the American public became more mobile, inns and boarding houses popped up to serve hungry voyagers.
Literally hundreds of small businesses were formed to provide food to these establishments, often with just a few items such as dairy or poultry. As Americans ate out more and more, these companies expanded their product lines accordingly. The great American restaurant industry was born, ranging from roadside diners along the highway to sophisticated eateries like Delmonico’s in New York City. From the small family diner to the largest urban hotel, they needed someone to deliver food and other supplies to their back doors.
After the turn of the century, more distribution companies were founded. In 1901, CONCO Food Service made deliveries to customers in stern paddle wheelers on the Mississippi and along the bayous of Louisiana. The company is still thriving, now as a subsidiary of Reinhart FoodService.
In 1906, a man named Ben. E. Keith helped to start a potato and onion distributor in Fort Worth, Texas. It delivered its good by horse and buggy. Today, Ben E. Keith is the sixth largest U.S. broadline distributor.
[Some aspects of this article have appeared on the IFDA website.]