Eat Local. Eat Often.

New Ben E. Keith Foods campaign aims to support restaurant, food service industry

Ben E. Keith Foods has been a part of the fabric of Fort Worth since the beginning of the 20th Century. The company, as well as the city, has been through a lot in that time.

The company has just announced a Customer Support Campaign aimed at the many restaurants and others in the food service industry impacted by COVID-19.

The new campaign has a pretty simple slogan: Eat Local. Eat Often.  The campaign initiative is a direct impact effort to support and raise awareness for restaurants, the food service industry, and local communities across the country, according to the company.

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Eat Local. Eat Often. aims to encourage continued patronage both during the COVID-19 pandemic through curbside pickup, delivery and takeout and beyond during recovery. Eat Local. Eat Often. aims to support the sustainability of the restaurant industry and the institutions that greatly contribute to the communities they serve.

“Eat Local. Eat Often. is an initiative in support of the restaurant operator,” said Mike Sweet, president of Ben E. Keith Foods.  “They are a key part of our business, but even more importantly, they are a key part of our society and our culture in this country,” When we move beyond this shelter in place environment, and businesses begin to re-open, we know it will be a different landscape, and one in which we will need to support our industry more than ever.  And there is no better way to support that than…Eat Local.  Eat Often.”

According to NPD Group’s restaurant census, ReCount, about 97% of U.S. restaurants are now under some level of restrictions, with most prohibiting dine-in service. In addition to organizing this campaign, Ben E. Keith has also created a COVID-19 resource page on its website to help restaurants operationalize and navigate the business environment during this time.

“The restaurant industry has always played an essential role in our society,” said Dallas Hale, president and CEO of Shell Shack, a Dallas-area restaurant.  “From personal life events to celebrations, restaurants have been the center, a place for connection.  Now, more than ever, we are calling upon our communities to help the restaurant industry survive this pandemic.  Support local, support people, support our future.”

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As part of Eat Local. Eat Often., customers are encouraged to order takeout from a local restaurant, pick up a meal curbside or purchase a gift card to use in the future.

Established in Fort Worth in 1906, Ben E. Keith is the nation’s seventh largest broad line foodservice distributor and operates today with eight divisions shipping to seventeen states throughout the country.

The Fort Worth Business Press spoke to Sweet about the campaign and how the current pandemic is changing business for Ben E. Keith and the restaurant industry.

FWBP: Tell us about this campaign and why Ben E. Keith decided to begin this.

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Mike Sweet:

It’s something that we’re really excited about. Our core customer is the restaurant operator, the independent restaurant operator. And as you know, family-owned businesses, they’re a lot of times, second-, third-generation businesses. Also, a lot of times they’re the chef, they’re the owner, they’re the bookkeeper, they’re the host, a number of things. Our relationships with our customers are more than just transactional. They’re strategic. We’re a part of their business, and obviously during this time it has certainly affected the restaurant operator. And for us, it’s a call to action, to help the restaurant operator in every way. Certainly, they’re a part of our business.

They help us in our business and have for 113 years. But more than anything or just as important, I would say, that they are a key part of our culture, our community. They’re the people that, we go there to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries. I proposed to my wife at a restaurant. We go there for job promotions. We go there to celebrate. We just felt it was important to use our platform, use our voice in any way possible to encourage the community, our fellow citizens, to go out and to dine and to trade when possible with these businesses during this time. We’ve called it Eat Local, Eat Often. And this will be a campaign not only that was kicked off during this time, but it’s going to be sustainable. It’s something that we’re going to continue to do once this is over. As they say, the end of the beginning. It will be a new normal, the landscape will look a lot different and they’re going to need our platform to help raise awareness more so even afterwards.

So, during this time we’ve published a number of videos. The third one was (last week) and we’ve seen some great traction from it. But I think it’s also important to note that in these videos we obviously encourage people to get out in different ways. But the video we did last week highlights the importance that restaurants practice in terms of food safety and they have been practicing food safety well before the COVID-19 pandemic through a number of things that they have to do for local and state requirements, ServSafe and some other guidelines that they have to practice. But we wanted to educate the public on that, just to remind them saying, look, during this time, restaurants have always practiced safe practices and so to make the community and the people of Fort Worth and other markets feel comfortable about trading with these restaurants.

FWBP: I’ve noticed a few restaurants that are out there advertising. Raising Cane’s has a commercial where they talk about food safety and cleanliness and I think that’s something we probably took for granted a bit.

Sweet: Absolutely. Raising Cane’s is a customer of ours and their model has actually done well during this time and they’re a great operation and they put a big importance on food safety as do the independent restaurants. It’s just we felt it was important to make sure people know that and not only that, just help them in any way we can to give them a platform or to use our platform to help tell their story and encourage people to when they can and they’re able to, to get out and eat local.

FWBP: When I first saw this release, one of the first things I thought about was the fact that, and you mentioned it earlier, Ben E. Keith started in 1906.

It wasn’t much longer before, and of course Ben E. Keith was very involved in getting Fort Worth involved in the preparing for the First World War and then so that you had wartime conditions there. And then World War II and then the Depression as well. So, the company has been through quite a few, I would say key events, where the public has had to make changes to their lives.

Sweet: Absolutely. I was talking about this the other day. It’s the fact, just like you mentioned Bob, that we’ve survived all these different events in our history, but none of them were more… It came so fast and so sudden, if you will. In a lot of ways, you could prepare for, of course I wasn’t here back then, but you could prepare for the World Wars and even to some degree the Great Depression.

But this was something that just came fast and sudden. We’ve had to make adjustments just like our customers and other businesses have. Being a proud Fort Worth corporate citizen for all those times, for all those years, one of the reasons for this campaign is we felt we owe it to the restaurant community to help them in any way we can.

FWBP: Aside from some restaurants I’m sure aren’t selling as much, but are you seeing some other changes in what people are ordering or anything like that?

Sweet: That’s a great question. We have. We’ve seen a lot of restaurant operators get into retail items. For example, we would sell a restaurant operator, not only their normal items that they order from us, but now we’re selling them hand gloves and toilet paper or toilet tissues, other kind of cleaning supplies that they are now taking and selling to their customers. When a customer calls in to pick up a dinner for a family of four, some will say, “Well, given that you spent $40 with us or whatever the case is, you get a free roll of toilet paper.” Or in some cases they’ll sell while you’re placing your order. “Do you need any toilet paper for your house or do you need any cleaning supplies?” That sort of thing.

They’ve also gotten into new items that they can sell. They also have, and I think this will (continue) – talking about a new normal -with the advent of DoorDash and Uber Eats and the like, you will see more operators gravitate towards having a service or a particular types of meals that will cater for pickup or for curbside or to go.

A lot of them now have designated parking spots or they had even before this, but now I think you’ll have more restaurants gravitate towards that.

FWBP: The ones I’ve been to, they’ve all been a little bit different, but you can tell that they’re learning a lot.

Sweet: Yeah. They are. A lot of restaurant operators are by nature very creative people, very innovative, very artistic, certainly chefs and that sort of thing. And so, their entrepreneurial spirit combined with their creativity, we’ve seen a lot of people turn to that. I think that will be needed coming out of this.

FWBP: Ben E. Keith was carrying cleaning supplies and such before this?

Sweet: We were. We carry over 25,000 different items in what we call food service size, not retail size. Most of our items are in bulk. However, in that inventory, it’s everything from produce to proteins to grocery type items to paper goods and in that does include a full line of cleaning supplies from bleach to dishwasher, laundry detergent, those kinds of things.

But we’ve been able to break down some of those cases, so in turn they would be able to sell to a family and that sort of thing.

FWBP: How else are you getting the word out about this campaign?

Sweet: We’re doing it a lot through social media. Our 3,500 employees, all of them from drivers to people in the office to our people in the warehouse to our sales reps, majority of them have social media accounts and they are doing a number of, with their groups, posting this hashtag Eat Local. Eat Often., and with that includes links to the videos.

We’re really focusing in on that right now, but we have plans to look into print as well as other forms of media. And then also our trucks are our billboards, if you will. They’re moving billboards. They’re going all up through Fort Worth right now. That’s a great way to further expose people that don’t even know who we are. If they see on their truck something like Eat Local. Eat Often., that’s going to, we hope, continue to spread the word of the importance of eating out and supporting our restaurant operators. Restaurant operators, they’re the first ones that we call to donate at a charity, a school auction or that sort of thing. Boy, they need, as do all small businesses doing, but they need our help more than ever.

I will say that we are seeing, just in the few weeks that we’ve launched this campaign, a number of employees, friends of employees, of course restaurants, now have participated in this Eat Local. Eat Often. My email box is flooded with pictures of customers holding up signs in their kitchen saying Eat Local. Eat Often. It’s just really great to see and just want to do whatever we can to spread the word.

FWBP: Anything else you’d like to say?

Sweet: That’s really what we’re focused on right now. Of course, we’re doing a lot of other things during this time both within our company and then planning on what the future, the new normal, will look like. We’re of course all practicing social distancing during this time, but we’re meeting constantly and using this time to think about when we come out of this, how we can be a service, continue to be, what new services and products can we provide to our customers to help in this time and given the new practice of social distancing, what that will look like.

FWBP: It will be interesting to see if some restaurants have to change how they’re set up and things like that.

Sweet: It will. I think during this time is the state governor lifted the alcohol to go laws and you talk about creativity. We’ve seen a lot of customers offer margaritas to go. They’ve offered cocktail kits. We have a customer that, and I’ve just learned of this kind of technology recently, but there’s an app and it’s similar to Zoom, I think it’s called, oh, hold on just a second, it’s called House Party where people get on and have these virtual happy hours. And we have some customers that are creating cocktail kits for their virtual happy hours that they have with their friends. Those kind of things have been creative things that they’ve done during this time.

I think once we get back to a new normal, if you will, I think that will probably be pulled back. But I think you’ll find restaurant operators will find new ways of, like they always have, to continue to be relevant in our communities and culture. I mean, if you go back from everything is food, there’s food trends continue to evolve. Whether it’s from gluten free, which isn’t even a trend anymore, but sourcing local product or now one thing that’s real popular right now is the plant-based Impossible Burgers and stuff like that.

Those things will continue to evolve and allow them to continue to be very appealing and relevant for our citizens. Again, my thought is, coming out of this after people have been practicing social distancing for so long, that they’re going to want to get out and meet with their coworkers or friends and what’s one of the main places to do that?

That’s restaurants.

I think I read somewhere the other day from, since the beginning of time, people have gathered. They’ve gathered for worship, for fellowship, for celebrations, for grief, and they also gathered for food. And I think that’s a common thing I think we all look forward to, at least I know I do. I know after being confined with my family, I think we’re all ready to get out and do that.

FWBP: I’d say one of the common Facebook posts I see is along the lines of, “I’m going to eat so much Mexican food when I get out of this.”

Sweet: Right. I know. I look forward to standing in line at Joe T’s in the near future.

They’re busy despite this, but I know they’ll be busier on a nice spring afternoon day like this.

Eat Local. Eat Often.

The Ben E. Keith Foods customer support campaign aims to support restaurants and the food service industry through the pandemic and beyond. To view videos related to the campaign, visit Ben E. Keith’s Twitter and Facebook pages:

Mike Sweet