Hi, Foodies! We started a podcast! This is the first episode, with many more to come. The Virginia Foodie Podcast is all about pulling back the curtain on the craft food industry and sharing the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands you love.
We recently sat down with Abby McAllister, a local foodie, and friend of ours. During our chat, Abby shared what she’s learned about locally sourced food over a career as a chef, food distributor, and broker. In this show, we hear about Abby’s food journey and how she gained knowledge about local produce when she moved to Virginia.
Realizing the richness of the resources in her state, Abby was drawn to working with these products as much as she could. She also sheds light on the chicken and egg nature of the relationship between distributors and buyers when it comes to selling local products. Abby unpacks this intricate relationship and the various aspects that can make this connection complicated. Along with this, we also find out about Abby’s position as a broker and how she bridges the gap between producers and distributors, why small brands should consider working with a distributor, and some final words of encouragement, particularly during these tough times.
Key Points From This Episode:
Get to know Abby, her background in food, and her passion for small brands.
The story of Abby’s sorbet and how it won Georgiana’s heart.
Abby's experience with sourcing products from outside the state.
What distributors look for from their local partners when selling to the local food industry.
How small farms are handling the pandemic, trying to bypass selling to restaurants.
Hear more about Abby’s role as a broker and how it’s different from a distributor.
Why Abby believes small brands should look for a distributor before a broker.
Good news about pricing: It’s fine for small producers to not offer price deviations!
Be careful to not price yourself out of business, it will catch up to you when you scale.
Final advice from Abby for brands trying to expand their reach — Keep the hope!
Links Mentioned in This Episode:
Click Here for the Full Transcript
Abby McAllister** **00:00
Georgiana Dearing 00:01
Abby McAllister 00:05
We’re here. Finally.
Georgiana Dearing 00:11
Welcome to the Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people and good brands that you know and love. If you've ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How did they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” Then we've got some stories for you.
Hello, podcast listeners. Welcome to the first episode of the Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we explore the “To” part in the farm to table movement. Today, I've invited my friend Abby McAllister to share what she's learned about locally sourced food over her career as a chef as a food distributor. And now as a broker.
Hey, Abby I'm so glad that you're here. I mean, I think I've been dying for months to talk to you ever since we had this idea of what a podcast would be. So, first off, can you introduce yourself to our listeners, tell us who you are and why you're talking to Virginia Foodie.
Abby McAllister 01:16
Sure. Thanks so much for asking me to be a part of this. I'm so excited that this is our first and I'm excited to introduce myself. I am a broker now. But I've worked in the food industry since I was 15. I started at a little cafe. Actually, it was a Daily Grind. So that's a thing of the past, now. I think there's one left. I was at a Daily Grind in Northern Virginia. And I just love working in food; I did it my whole life. I went to culinary school, I studied pastry. And then about halfway through my career as a chef, I switched and went to savory food, but I love being VA Foodie, because local food is my passion and certainly what I have focused on for most of my career, and I don't think it’s something that is as second nature as it should be in the food industry. And I love that you promote that. And I love that you want to support that. So I think that's how we came together and started talking on our own outside of any other businesses was because we just clicked in our support of small brands and at a local coffee shop we just talked about all the things.
Georgiana Dearing 02:24
Well, I'll tell you that for me, what did it for me was we were at that food event that... What was it, Taste of Blue Ridge? It was that or were you at Farm to Fork?
Abby McAllister 02:35
It was that or were you at Farm to Fork? Yeah, and Shenandoah County?
Georgiana Dearing 02:36
Yep. Okay, Farm to Fork which is an event that happens every couple years in Virginia where they try to get producers connected with restaurants and so I think we said, “Hello” there. But I think we did it for me was your… It was your non-dairy ice cream. Oh my God, that you did that from olive oil, and I was at this farm-to-table dinner and I thought, “I am this woman’s fan forever.”
Abby McAllister 03:02
Yeah, that turned out so well. I was so glad because it was one of those like, this is either going to turn out or it's not. Yeah, it was an olive oil sorbet, which has a really beautiful ice cream texture because it's so high in fat.
Georgiana Dearing 03:15
Oh man, of course. Of course.
Abby McAllister 03:17
And it just had those dried strawberries, the freeze-dried strawberries and fried basil on there. So, all the things you can eat. I was glad about that. I was really glad about that.
Georgiana Dearing 03:29
Oh, no, that was great. I thought this woman has got it going on. So that kind of is a little segue there is that that main ingredient was olive oil, which obviously we don't grow in Virginia. But, how difficult did you find it in your chef life to source local ingredients and still fill the expectations of your customers?
Abby McAllister 03:52
Sure. So, I started out in the DC area, and kind of progressively got more west towards Winchester. You know, Tysons and so on and so forth down Route 7, if you will. And, and the closer you get to rural Virginia, the more plentiful these things are. And DC you can kind of pull from lots of surrounding areas because nothing's necessarily local. I mean, DC is a city, and there's not a lot of farmland in there. But you do have small manufacturers. So definitely, you know, if I had a vinegar producer and olive oil producer, someone who had honey, because you know, people can keep bees fairly close to the city, things like that. I mean, you'll have little niche producers in the city. But like I said, as I moved more West, I, you know, got to go to all these amazing farms and realize how agriculturally rich we were in Virginia and that really tuned me into what was native and what was plentiful and so started from focusing my menus around those things, whether it was pastry or you know, savory. And just where you can't find those things locally just sourcing it the best quality, because even if it's not local, your customers are going to expect good quality. So, you can't use bottom shelf olive oil because you have local strawberries, that kind of thing. So yeah, I mean, I'm the only one also from my family from Virginia. So, the rest of my family is from Chicago. So, I've always taken pride in being from Virginia and loving all these things. So, I think that that certainly played into it. I got in touch with my state and really have come to love it a lot.
Georgiana Dearing 05:42
Yeah, that's pretty cool. So, when you're trying to source these things, did you have to go direct to the farms, or did you go through distributors? I mean, that your step between being a chef and being a broker, you worked for a distributor for a while. And as I recall, local was your, your focus. So, right. Tell me like a lot of the brands that we talk about and support or talk to are trying to make that next step. So tell me how you as a chef, were kind of finding these things.
Abby McAllister 06:15
Well, as a chef, at the time, there definitely was not local in, in distributors. I mean, if anything, the specialty products were imports, not local. So like specialty this and specialty that–even in produce, you know, like California strawberries or whatever, whatever you might have. And I always either had a friend tell me about a farm like, “Hey, I got this from here and you really got to go try it” or I tried it at a restaurant, and they told me where the farm was. Or sometimes it's because I was driving to and from work and I was like, oh, man, they have a lot of cows or they have these big beautiful strawberry patches or big beautiful apple trees. Or sometimes those farmers who were very passionate they went around to restaurants to introduce themselves. And that was really amazing. I mean, I feel bad that they… just given my most recent positions outside of being a chef, I feel bad that they have to do that footwork in addition to the work that they do at their farm and, or, you know, being a small producer. So yeah, I mean, I always really respected all of my small producers and farmers because it's not easy. And because we're dealing direct, they were always forgiving with me. I was always forgiving with them. And it's a relationship. It was never transactional. It was very much a friendship, a relationship between chef and producer. So yeah, I mean, distribution, especially with my time as a chef that didn't exist. And I don't know that it really still does.
Georgiana Dearing 07:44
I have seen evidence that there is a shift in that, and there's a couple things like we're seeing–a lot of farmers… Probably the biggest questions that we get as marketers is, “How do I market my farm?” Because social media and being so connected now, people are seeing what the other guy is doing and trying to figure it out. But it's not a comfortable space for them because they're there to get the best they can out of the earth. And that other half of it, it's a lot of “Oh, this is not really what we were thinking about 10 years ago.” We're talking right now in 2020. Even when we started Virginia Foodie just a little over four years ago, things have changed, like finding locally-sourced brands has gotten easier and easier because it's become part of our conversation. So, when a distributor is trying to sell food into the foodservice industry, what are the things they're looking for from those local partners?
Abby McAllister 08:49
Georgiana Dearing 08:50
Abby McAllister 08:52
…I say that because you know so much about this already, and I don't want to…
Georgiana Dearing 08:56
I want your point of view.
Abby McAllister 08:59
A lot of it is chicken or the egg, right? Because people want it, you know, they want local product. So as a distributor, it's like, well, people want it. So why don't I just bring it on. People will buy it. Great. Then you realize that the conversations you have to have on both sides are far more reaching than you ever thought they would ever possibly have to be. And we're talking supply. We're talking marketing, packaging, seasonality. And then on the buyers’ side, it's like, oh–well, hey, I have all this cool stuff in there. Like, I mean, that's great. I definitely use local stuff. But I already have this supplier for that, because that's a relationship. I don't want to break that relationship just because you have a relationship with this other small producer/ farmer, which is great, but I'll fill in with you, you know, so don't expect to just gain. I'm not like purchasing dry beans from this guy. So, I can just switch to whoever I want just because it's a national bean company like it's, it's not something simple. It's this relationship, because we're in the middle of that culture change, because it's become front and center in our conversation. You have years of relationships that it seems like maybe coming in and just expecting that business, you're destroying that relationship if you were to just switch over. So, there's a lot of things to take into consideration. I mean, it's at first glance, it's, oh, obviously, there's a need for this. But when you really dig into it, it's 1000 layers.
Georgiana Dearing 10:30
Well, the two things when I'm starting, whether it's a I would say more farm type brand, or a value-add brand, where they're taking the ingredients and turning it into a packaged good. The two things that I always talk about with beginning emerging brands, it's like capacity and packing. And then knowing who your market is, you know, like sometimes they're like, oh, if I put it up for sale, the people will come. When you're talking about direct from the farm product… Shishito peppers, big hot thing, trend thing, you know, especially starting last year, and it's like, well, you know, they take a while to grow. So maybe you put in a test plot and got some attention. And then it's like, well, I actually, you know, it takes a while to get the capacity. And then we're fortunate in Virginia where we can extend our growing season pretty well with like high tunnels and things like that. But yeah, at the outset, you do have to have a very direct connection with your buyer. And again, we're talking in July of 2020. And restaurant business across the country is down like 60%. So…alright. There's a lot of these local farms that are pivoting to, “How do I bypass restaurant and get this to the customer.” And I've seen a lot of smart things– going with farm boxes and partnerships with people similar to… we have 4P Foods is a good example here but there's a couple of different models like that. But that's another thing is–alright, I'm not selling a bushel to a restaurant for the weekly special. I'm selling to Mrs. Jones who wants to try this thing once. And maybe her kids will hate it. So right, you're right, it is a chicken and egg thing.
Abby McAllister 12:32
I mean, it's every producer is different. And every buyer is different, I feel, when it comes to local–no matter what the good is. And that makes it just a little more. Just a little more difficult. And yeah, I mean, there's no bar for what we're going through right now. This is totally unprecedented. So seeing the farms go through what they're going through and how the amount of ingenuity coming around is really amazing.
Georgiana Dearing 13:00
Yeah, so it's incremental. I think it's incremental changes in a food brand or farm that's seeking that growth is going to have to be prepared for a big step forward and a slight step back, till you find that right balance of production and market. And then you kind of know who you're selling to. And you can start being very, very targeted about who you're selling to. And it takes a while to form those relationships in general. I mean, there's crazy things happening right now. But it could take three to four months to work out the details of a new supplier buyer relationship. That's interesting. So, I want to ask you now about your current role, because you're a broker and that of all of the pieces between the farm and the table. That role is one where I understand a little bit, but I don't know All the details of what a broker does, as opposed to a distributor.
Abby McAllister 14:05
So, I would say brokers are great support. So essentially, we bridge the gap between producers, manufacturers and distributors. So, whether it's, hey, I have a customer who's looking for this product, do you guys make anything like that? And I can do the footwork to figure out you know, what's coming down the pipeline with the manufacturer. If they're saying, you know, we need a sample for this account to try I can connect with my manufacturer and get samples. And the biggest point is these brands need feet on the ground where they may not already have representation within their own company. So they might have this is for national brands or even coastal or international brands. They might have someone who is, you know, a Mid-Atlantic or Northeast Regional rep for the company, but their opportunity to come down to our area¬–or my area specifically–might be a couple times a year that they have time to come out. In the meantime, I can still represent their brand and go to a few accounts every week to say, “Hey, like, I think there's really an opportunity to work with this brand within your restaurant. What are you looking for? What is your menu like?” and be kind of this consultative representative for each brand. And it's been really great. I mean, in my role as a chef, you learn to speak that lingo. So, I think it's helpful to have been on that side. I think even in a distributor role. The more you understand about being in a kitchen and being a chef, the better suited you are to go into a kitchen and be confident and understand what the operator's needs are out of whatever product you're trying to move. From a distributor perspective, I mean, because there's not someone sometimes it's not even in your time zone, but you can contact at a manufacturer. It's better to have representation in your area because it's someone you can connect with quickly. And they can help you get whatever you need in real time.
Georgiana Dearing 16:03
So you're kind of extending the reach of the brand. It's like you're not, you're not an employee of the brand, right? You represent several product lines. Do you do you represent competing lines? Like, would you be selling two kinds of dried beans?
Abby McAllister 16:24
Dried beans? No. I think we definitely do see that in the broker world where some brokers will take on competing wines. We are a fairly small broker. So, I don't think we have a lot of that really, if anything, even if they're two different products, they would serve two very different categories of food service, you know, so like a fine dining restaurant may want one thing whereas a hospital or senior living might want another…
Georgiana Dearing 16:50
So, like strawberries, you might have a bulk strawberry provider in like big things and then a fine dining would be like those giant gems that are Perfect for dipping in chocolate, right? Yeah. Okay, so that's a thing. I'm not going to ask you specifics because it's not my business, but there is a piece of the income that goes to a broker, right? If you're thinking about the sale that happens into a distributor, from the brand to the distributor, brokers will make a piece of the sale. Either…my understanding is either that you have a sort of like a retainer relationship where you just pay to steady drip. And then there's other situations where there might be a bonus situation where like, a sale or–explain how that works.
Abby McAllister 17:42
So I think I'm sure you're getting to this, but I think it's important to say there's brokers, I think are on a much more national scale for these larger brands. It's not something that you're gonna find a lot with our boutique brands, or even with with local produce or anything like that. I don't know that that exists yet, I would think that a distributor is about as large as they would need to go. That being said, to talk a little more to the way that brokers are paid out of the manufacturer or producers product, not to mention, at least I know our company is not. And I–at least, I'm not paid commission, I should be clear on that. I'm not paid commission, because my job is based on relationships. I'm not just here to sell you the thing of the day, I'm here to be a support system for you and the manufacturer all the time,
Georgiana Dearing 18:36
You have a whole catalogue of products that you're supporting,
Abby McAllister 18:40
Right, and I'm thinking about all of them all the time. And I'm thinking about how to best benefit the operator all the time. And sometimes those relationships mean to push distribution. So I want a distributor to be able to get this product for them, but sometimes it's direct. So that's up to the operator as well, and sometimes up to the distributor on whether they want to carry it or not. And yeah, like I said it. It's not necessarily a commission business. It's more of a salary business because we are very much about being experts on our brands, being experts in our field, and being able to be there for our operators and make sure that they know that we're there for them in their support.
Georgiana Dearing 19:21
Yeah, so you're kind of like a customer service team. And the cost of your salaries are really borne by the whole catalog of brands that are that are working with the company you work for.
Abby McAllister 19:35
Georgiana Dearing 19:37
Yeah. See, I would get questions a lot from emerging brands, like if I could just have a rep who would extend my reach. Like that's almost like a freelance broker or something. I know, I know that there's some individuals out there who will like… All they're doing is trying to connect a producer with a buyer, and I've run into situations like that more from when I’m at Fancy Food Show and talking to the small brands, there's always a story like, oh, so and so told me that if I made it this size, they could get me into Dean and DeLuca. And I was like, well…I don't know that they're actually going to do it for you. They're hustling a deal there. You know?
Abby McAllister 20:23
Exactly. And it's, like I said, I think small brands would do best to look for a distributor first, rather than a broker because a distributor is still going to expand your reach. And a broker could possibly expand it past your reach, like past what you could muster up. And I think it's important, just as I'm sure you would tell all of your brands to grow responsibly. And I would say distributors first and then move on. If you feel like you're it could go to multiple distributors, that's when I might enlist some additional help. But if you're, you know, start with a small independent distributor, not a national, and then go from there. I think that would be the smartest way if you're looking to expand into the distribution realm of things that's not an online service, you know, that can fulfill from your place and you send it to whatever address they tell you to send it to, like an Amazon model, if you will, if you're looking to go beyond that, than a distributor is where you should start.
Georgiana Dearing 21:23
Yeah. And so a distributor just in contrast to a broker, a distributor has the warehouse and they have sales reps who are making the calls. And they generally have a much bigger catalog than the broker does because they're right there pulling products from everywhere that’s gonna serve their region, including Yeah, you know, in in food service. The distributors can also be carrying mops and the floor wash your chemicals. Yeah, yeah.
Abby McAllister 21:55
Yeah, all your chemicals and all of your all of your packaging, all of your dairy, dried goods, everything. Broadline, everything.
Georgiana Dearing 22:02
Yeah. And so is there an issue with a brand working with more than one distributor if they have…I mean, generally a distributor serves sort of a radius around their, their warehouse on the small ones, these small regional ones. So there's going to be some overlap. And sometimes more than one distributor in a region. I'm thinking in particular, like Richmond. Richmond’s got, you know, a couple small, very small, distribution companies, and that's because they define the people they call on differently.
Abby McAllister 22:39
Right. Right. And I think you'll have some brands and I'm, I'm speaking nationally, not necessarily locally. You'll have some brands that will offer deviations and pricing based on volume and stuff and you'll have some who won't, and I think that's important to tell small producers and farmers. That it's okay not to deviate your price, because you are dealing with a much higher cost of operating than a national brand. And if national brands are not offering mediations, you certainly should feel like you're in a place to say, Hey, listen, I'm sorry, like, I'd love to bring down my price. But I stand by my product. And this is what I need to get from it, you'll have to work a deal out, say if you're at a distributor, you'll have to work a deal out elsewhere, from what you're buying, because my product is what it is.
Georgiana Dearing 23:31
So, give me an example of that. I'm going to use a model just off the top of my head, but like, so a salsa brand that may have an eight-ounce jar that they're selling direct to consumer for $5. They have built in a wholesale price, built into that, right so they're they're gonna sell it into a store less than that.
Abby McAllister 23:56
They need to come down a little bit less. And that's the only exception I would say is your price model direct-to-consumer, direct-to-wholesale and direct to… I'm sorry, consumer, retail and wholesale. So, you're gonna want all of your wholesale customers, whether it's through a distributor or through you to be able to get it at the same price so that you are able to keep an eye on what your product is being sold for in the retail market to the consumer, because, you know, the last thing you want is somebody selling your salsa for $12 for an eight ounce jar because you're like, oh man, like I sold that to the person you bought it from for this amount. I don't want them doubling the price. By the time it gets to Mary Jo coming to buy it off the shelf.
Georgiana Dearing 24:39
Yeah, and in a very elementary example, which is not a recommended price point. But if it's $5, if it's $5 on the shelf in the grocery store, and the grocery store bought it for $4 then the distributor or wholesale price is going to be $3. And then you should be able to make it for two. Otherwise, otherwise you're not going to make the money off of it. And then that that's actually pretty bad. We're talking about a 20% bump along every step, which is probably not enough to truthful. You should have more. Most people want to see 30, 35, 40% off of a thing. Yeah, off of the thing they're moving through. So yeah.
Abby McAllister 25:29
And I think that is something you know, you don't want to price yourself out of business either, you know, so stand by your product and say, This is what I need to get for it. When you go to a wholesaler, or direct-to-consumer. You know, don't sell yourself short. But don't be so anxious to get into distribution that you're pricing yourself out of business. Because if your production jumps up so much, you're going to be out of business in no time and that I have seen happen, and that's just a total shame because people are very excited to get out there. They're like, Alright, that's okay. I'm going to recoup this money. It's no problem. And once they realize, Oh, wait, they sold so much so I'm actually losing all of that money. You know, and, and didn't take my costs into consideration just as I got too excited. only losing
Georgiana Dearing 26:20
I'm only losing a penny, but I sold a million of them.
Abby McAllister 26:23
Right. Exactly. And, and you don't also want to cut down on if you're someone who's you're not a farm business, but you're a producer or manufacturer of something like salsa. You don't want to reduce the quality of your ingredients either. So you know, you sell more, you're gonna want to buy more of that quality ingredients. So instead of giving yourself less money because you sold it for less, definitely, like I said, just keep your your worth at the front of your mind as well as your cost of doing business because you will get people who want your product and you will get people who will pay what you're worth. Given the right guidance.
Georgiana Dearing 27:01
And that's knowing your market, knowing your market.
Abby McAllister 27:05
Georgiana Dearing 27:06
Holy cow, Abby, we just gave like a huge course on going to market right now. I think I think we've covered so many topics, we can probably…
Abby McAllister 27:17
Let's catalog this.
Georgiana Dearing 27:20
We could probably come back to all of them and make a whole episode just about one piece of it. So my first question is, this is our first podcast. So, you're going to come back and talk to me? I would love that. That works. Good. That's really good.
Abby McAllister 27:30
I would love that. Of Course!
Georgiana Dearing 27:32
Good. That's really good. Abby McAllister 27:34
Especially if it's over cider or coffee next time. Hopefully we can get back out to the universe at some point. In the meanwhile, I have my coffee here. So now I have to settle for that.
Georgiana Dearing 27:46
Well, I want to wrap this up, because I promise not to take forever of your time. Is there one nugget of advice for food brands who are trying to reach more people, if you could distill it into one thing or a short piece.
Abby McAllister 28:03
I think some of what I already said, which is, you know, Don't sell yourself short. And the long days and long nights are absolutely worth it. Don't stop what you're doing. There are people who want to support you. And when you feel like you're completely lost, there's people who know how to take what you're making, and present it in the way that you want it presented. And I think if you just hold on, keep doing what you're doing, and eventually you'll find that person and it will be all downhill from there. You know, it'll be so easy. You'll be like, Oh my gosh, it's not those long days and hours that I'm dreading. This is going to turn into nothing. It's, it's coming to fruition.
Georgiana Dearing 28:45
So, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
Abby McAllister 28:48
Yeah, keep the hope. I mean, especially in these times now.
Georgiana Dearing 28:50
That's great. This is advice and encouragement. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking to me and I look forward to our next conversation and just getting into it over the food industry. It's been great. Thanks so much.
Abby McAllister 29:06
Yeah, I appreciate it
Georgiana Dearing 29:07
All right. Bye!
Georgiana Dearing 29:11
Thanks for listening. And if you want to learn more about how to grow your own food brand, then click on Grow My Brand at vafoodie.com. If you're a lover of local food, then be sure to follow us. We are @VAfoodie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation and tell us about your adventures with Good Food, Good people, and Good Brands