Specialty Food Brokers Support Makers & Buyers
MADISON, Wis. — During the COVID-19 pandemic, specialty food brokers continue to keep communication flowing between cheesemakers, buyers and retailers on store trends, sales, and commitments, while using their knowledge of the supply chain to keep track of any disruptions that may occur. Now more than ever, these brokerages are taking on additional responsibilities to support the supply chain.
According to Dianne Keeler Bruce, owner, president, and CEO, DKB Sales & Marketing, a specialty food broker has the ability to help cheese manufacturers become more efficient in their delivery to a customer, and thus their role remains flexible, often going beyond their regular responsibilities. Keeler Bruce and Michael Reich, senior vice president of center store marketing and business development at Hanson Faso, shared their insights in a webinar Aug. 4 hosted by the Specialty Food Association.
Keeler Bruce says today’s brokers are expected to monitor costs for clients to sell, manage, spend and trade; communicate market and category trend information; participate in the management of supply chain logistics; analyze syndicated or customer supplied sales data and convert the data into actionable information; and act as a communication bridge providing manufacturers and customers with information on each other’s policies, programs, and strategic initiatives.
In the wake of COVID-19, brokers are taking on a more active role in administrative support work including presentation preparation, new item formwork, promotional formwork, deduction management, order processing and management, and cost change, according to Reich.
“Most brokerages have to have more knowledge of the supply chain, including logistics now than they had to have before. Scheduling pickup appointments is something that we regularly do now; that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago. Maximizing order size efficiency is something that we have to do now,” Reich says.
“You really need as the supplier to be accurate with the information you are giving to customers about when something is going to arrive, and you need to be keeping your brokers up to date on that because they’re telling the customer what they can expect, whether it be a shipment of the product or when a new product is going to be available to the market. Your brokerage is really going to be your biggest champion for holding a spot if there’s a delay or making sure your product gets where it’s supposed to be,” he adds.
There is no longer one definition of a “broker” in the food industry, according to Keeler Bruce; however, loosely defined, a broker is an independent salesperson or sales organization that represents a number of manufacturers as their representative with a specified trade class. A specialty food maker often will hire someone based on their needs, and this might be by region, class of trade, or it could be a combination, she adds.
“Communication is now more important than ever with what’s going on with COVID-19. We need to keep our buyers’ managers more informed about what’s going on because they report it to the people that are keeping stock. Any kind of information needs to be passed on, and as brokers, we are the best conduit for keeping people informed,” Keeler Bruce says.
• Working with brokers
Specialties Inc., A Fromartharie Co., based in Millington, New Jersey, is an importer and distributor of specialty foods, working closely with about 15 “best of class” specialty food brokers on the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast. In the past, Ron Schinbeckler, president, Specialties Inc., says the company has been more of an agent/broker working with several cheese companies to build distribution networks around the United States.
“The brokers now help us execute because to have a sales team out there in the field is very expensive,” Schinbeckler says. “The brokers we work with are more attuned to supermarkets than specialty stores, but there is a whole network of specialty distributors out there all across the country that need help getting the product in front of the customer, and then working with a customer to communicate to the producer what and how the retailer goes to market.”
Schinbeckler says that his company along with its two regional managers, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Richard Kessler and broker partners function to help the producers, especially in cheese, be aware of what the competitors are doing price-wise and understand whether their prices are low, high or just about right because going to the market today is different than it used to be.
“In many cases, our brokers were kind of like the arms and legs for these retailers that were pressed really hard to keep the shelves stocked and to keep the product moving through the channels. I think they did a tremendous job, and a lot of the things they were doing were not their responsibilities, but they jumped in and did it anyhow,” Kessler says. “I know we had some brokers that were basically offline helping the stores keep the products on the shelves for their guests and customers.”
• Keeping product moving
Kessler says most specialty brokers have a lot of flexibility built into their game plan, which enables them to pivot quickly and do everything required to keep channels open. He says the broker’s role is about keeping active in the whole distribution channel and making sure products flow smoothly.
“In the dairy and cheese category, brokers are critical. They can add insight, they can add a stronger voice to the artisan cheesemakers and to the product itself that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Kessler says. “I think that with the pandemic, and a lot of the labor being rescheduled to do other things, the specialty food brokers rise to a new level of necessity and critical need.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers have less personnel in-store, and store labor is greatly reduced, Schinbeckler says. Brokers communicate the needs of the market to the producer and then communicate to the retailer about what the trends are.
“The stores are now looking more and more at exact weight items,” Schinbeckler says. “A lot of the domestic producers are producing these items now or even cut-and-wrap items, so the store labor is significantly reduced to save money and allow less potential contamination.”
Specialty food broker Horizon Specialties, a sales, marketing and merchandising organization based in Northern California, works with suppliers and retailers to identify the mix of products and move them from bulk products that had to be cut and wrapped in stores to pre-packaged exact weight products offered from the cheesemakers, according to Mike Repetto, president of Horizon Specialties.
Additionally, with many of the cheesemakers who had a concentration of foodservice business that went away overnight due to COVID-19, Repetto says Horizon Specialties had the ability to work with its retailers to help move and alleviate the product that was already in the pipeline for foodservice and get it sold into the retail sector in a pre-packaged format. He adds that brokers stay informed about any disruption of the supply chain that may occur so that there are no surprises and minimal impacts to retail sales.
“We keep cheese companies up to date on market conditions, trends and what is needed at the store level to help move their product or work to find solutions to best sell and modify their current go-to market strategy to what is needed in each market given the ongoing changes, especially in the perishable perimeter of the store,” Repetto says.
Repetto notes that each market is different and distinct, and brokers contribute to what is needed in the current environment as well as monitor shopping habits and other changes in real time so adjustments and forecasts can be changed immediately.
In the absence of in-person national trade shows that retailers often would attend, such as the Summer Fancy Food Show and International Dairy Deli Bakery Association Show, Schinbeckler says it’s even more important to have communications with key retailers about products.
“A lot of small, artisan cheesemakers have been making marvelous, world-class products, but they don’t have a lot of resources to get their products to market. Those specialty food brokers that are high in dairy like to pick up the small producers and give them a bit of a cache with the buyers to showcase something new, which also helps the producers who don’t have resources to hire a sales manager or a couple of sales people,” Kessler says. “The brokers already have those resources that act in this place and serve that function very admirably.”
Kessler notes that true specialty food brokers are always looking for unique items to pioneer, like artisan cheese, to improve their portfolios with more seasonal and timely items that are hard to get and have a place in the marketplace. He adds that brokers are instrumental in helping small, start-up producers get their products to market.
“To those artisan cheesemakers, keep doing what you’re doing, don’t give up hope and look for that broker that will partner with you and ride that highway to success along with you — that’s the key,” he says.
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Source: Cheese Market News – Specialty Food Brokers Support Makers, Buyers Amid Pandemic