Celestina Blok ///// Business Press Restaurant Reporter
Ben E. Keith Co., the eighth largest food-service distributor in America, opened its fourth distribution center in Texas in June, making eight distribution centers total for the 107-year-old Fort Worth-based company. Located on 82 acres in Missouri City just south of Houston, the new center will serve a market that was previously serviced out of both Fort Worth and San Antonio. “We’re really excited about moving that business into that new facility. It’s helped us a great deal,” said Mike Roach, president of the Ben E. Keith food division. “It’s a culmination of a fold-out strategy that we’ve been executing for a number of years. We built that base of business to the point where we could construct a distribution center in that market.” Contiguous expansion has been a strategy of the company’s growth throughout its history. Founded in 1906 by Ben E. Keith, the company began as primarily a produce distributor for North Texas. Keith first took orders on tablets and made deliveries via horse and buggy. In1928 during Prohibition Ben E. Keith became an Anheuser-Busch distributor for non-alcoholic items and is now one of the largest beer distributors in the United States. Today food-service distribution centers exist in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “From those eight distribution centers we service an 11-state area,” said Roach, who joined the company in 1980. “We’re continuing to enlarge our footprint and expand into othercontiguous markets by developing sales forces.” Roach says that acquiring and developing staff with knowledge and experience in the food-service industry became one of the company’s biggest priorities, especially as the company began looking to expand beyond servicing only retail outlets and grocers. “I’ve seen a lot of change. In 1980 the Ben E. Keith food division was called the produce division. Most people knew us from our fruit basket or holiday basket business,” Roach said. “Coming from being primarily a retail produce distributor, we didn’t really have a large core of individuals who had knowledge and experience in food service, selling to restaurants and hospitals.” Another priority became developing the company’s portfolio of products. Roach estimates the food division might have offered about 5,000 items in the early ‘80s. Today that number is 22,000, based on the offerings out of the company’s largest distribution facility, which is located in Fort Worth. “Training the sales force, having the knowledge and expertise to buy and sell that many product lines, and of course having the space and the modern distribution centers that are required with the multiple temperature zones that we need, those were all big challenges,” Roach said. “Intertwined with that is acquiring the technology to support the business analytics process now. We’ve come a long, long way on the technology side.” Another key to Ben E. Keith’s continued growth has been the company’s go-to market strategy and decision to brand itself as a full-fledged supplier for food-service venues, which includes anywhere one can get a prepared meal. “We weren’t recognized by the restaurant industry for anything other than being an outstanding produce company,” he said. “So we had to build that brand.” And as a farm-to-table movement has developed over the past decade, where consumers are paying more attention to the origin of ingredients, Roach says adapting to operators’ desires to buy from local sources has been important. “We’ve worked with local growers, local artisanal cheese manufacturers, local farmers, and home-grown companies to provide that local flair that’s on trend today,” he said. Technology will play a large role in the future of Ben E. Keith, especially for the company’s sales force, Roach says. Continuing to pursue the multi-unit restaurant operator is also a focus. Today Ben E. Keith employs 3,200 in both the beverage and food divisions and has more than 30,000 customers. Growth will continue to be organic but Roach says the company is always on the lookout for acquisitions that might be strategically important to capture market share in existing markets. “Our growth can be attributed to our conservative approach to the marketplace, but also to our ability to maintain that culture that was at the heart of what Mr. Keith himself wanted to bring to the marketplace,” Roach said. “Also embedded within that culture is a willingness to change and the ability to be nimble and react quickly to the market.”
How did gardening lead Ben E. Keith to a partnership with Anheuser-Busch? In the 1920s more people were growing their own produce in the summer. That cut into the food distributor’s sales, so Ben E. Keith met with Adolphus Busch in St. Louis. Ben E. Keith then became a distributor of the brewer’s products, which helped boost sales in the summer months when produce sales were slow.