How to Find the Right Vendors for Your Restaurant

No restaurant is an island. For your restaurant, you’ll look to architects, designers, produce suppliers, POS and table management systems providers, laundry services, plus lots of others to help get up and keep running. Whether you’re making the selection for the first time or re-evaluating current partners, it’s important to make these selections carefully – but what is it exactly you should be looking for?

While you may have an idea of what service or product you need, choosing from the sea of vendors wanting to work with your organization can be overwhelming. Asking yourself, “What do I want in a partner?” is a great first step, but sorting out the answer to this question can be challenging. In talking with restaurateurs across the country about how to be a good partner, three key themes have stood out to me:

Get on the Same Page

Having aligned goals and visions is essential for a successful partnership. You and your potential new partner should be on the same page about what the project is, what you need them for and what you’d like to achieve by working together. To ensure this, look for a partner that values collaboration and demonstrates that principal by taking the time to get to know you and your business. Martin Lindstrom, the author of Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends, encourages companies he works with to “spend extended time inside their customers’ habitats.” This could be visiting your restaurant regularly to see the project firsthand or checking in frequently to see if anything has changed.

Another way to create alignment with vendors you may work with is to meet them or even invite them to come to the restaurant so they can get to know you and understand your vision. Robert Mescolotto, the founder and owner of Hospitality Construction Services, who recently worked on acclaimed chef Mike Isabella’s restaurant Pepita Cantina took time to get to know the brand before getting under way and explained his process. “The key point for the initial meeting is knowing, first off, what the chef or restaurateur intends on producing. That comes from seeing plans and understanding what the client is going for, but also visiting their existing restaurants and getting a sense of their menus and the variety of ingredients they use. To understand the service, you have analyze the flow of the space and be familiar with the restaurant in general.” He continued, “We don’t like to begin the construction process until we know the client and are fully aware of their project goals. There’s the understanding of the blueprints and the plans, but it’s also about getting to know what pieces are most critical to the client. Getting to know the client is just as important as getting to know the blueprints.”

When a vendor takes interest in you and the ins and outs of your business, it’s likely you’ll be aligned on the project and define the success of the partnership in the same way.

No Pinocchios

The great chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson once said “Cooking is in an honest profession where you cannot hide and let others do the work for you. You have to show up, work hard and prove you can do it faster and better.” But why not hold everyone you work with to the same standard?

Choosing a vendor that’s upfront and honest will also help create alignment. If you come across a potential partner that promises you everything under the sun, it’s okay to be skeptical – in fact, it’s a good thing. In order to figure out whether or not they’re truthfully representing what they can provide, ask questions about their resources and be clear about your budget and needs. It’s important to feel that a vendor isn’t just telling you what they can provide but what they can’t provide too. Request references and talk to other restaurants that work with them to see whether they are happy and are getting what they need from the service. Companies that are honest about their capabilities and potential shortcomings are ultimately a better fit than those that promise you the moon but cannot deliver. Don’t forget though that honesty should also be reflected onto what you tell them — make sure you’re not holding anything back either.

Get Yourself an Expert

When you bring in a third-party, you’re typically doing so because you’re looking to bring expertise and services to your business that you can’t provide or don’t want to manage in-house. As part of the vetting process and a good working relationship, it’s important to talk about what you want, but also just as important to listen to them and to the subtext of what they’re saying (and what they’re not saying!) so that you can have a fruitful conversation. Make sure you believe in the company you choose to bring its skills to the table, that you’re excited to listen to them and that you can trust them. There are two players in a partnership and listening to one another goes both ways.

No matter what you’re seeking out a vendor for, alignment, honesty and expertise will always be highly prioritized. Other qualities, however, may shift depending on the length of the commitment and depth of engagement. If you just need someone to come in and install a piece of equipment in your kitchen, the process of selecting that person is different than if you’re asking them to provide technology, product or ongoing services like laundry, cleaning, or accounting that will be the cornerstone of your operations every single day. Talk concretely about whether or not you’re looking for someone for a long term or short term commitment. Some vendors may be perfect for your one-off, odd job, while others have what it takes to provide the service, time and patience necessary to be a long-term solutions provider.

Choosing the right suppliers is essential for your business. While finding a new business partner can be tough, if you think critically about what you value before you do, you’ll select someone that provides the best solutions for your needs.