Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How Sysco came to monopolize most of what you eat.

Like any retailer, chefs need wholesalers that distribute goods cheaply and efficiently, and Sysco's 400,000-plus item catalog conveniently sells everything a cook needs to run an eating establishment. A little more than half of their products are brand names like Parkay and Lucky Charms. The rest are Sysco-packaged items like 25-pound bags of rice, half-gallons of salsa, boxes of plastic gloves, beer mugs, dish-washing detergent, not to mention 1,900 different fresh and frozen chicken products. Whatever a cook orders is delivered straight to the kitchen door at bottom-barrel prices: One Sysco invoice I got my hands on has a 25-pound bag of Uncle Ben's Converted Rice selling for $20.95, or about 84 cents a pound, while a 1-pound box bought through Amazon Grocery costs $2.09.

All of that seems relatively innocuous—restaurants need to make a profit, after all. But Sysco also hawks pre-packaged food. While chefs have long relied on shortcuts like freezing and using canned goods like beans and tomatoes, it's entirely different to pass off one of Sysco's thousands of ready-made items—ground beef burritos, vegan tortellini, quiche Lorraine pie, tiramisu cake—as homemade.

Restaurants make a mint from serving these pre-prepped foods, since the meals can be purchased in bulk and stored in a freezer for months. A box of 36, 4-ounce chicken Kievs, for instance, can be kept in an icebox for up to 180 days. And the savings from labor costs are considerable. Each reheated Angus country fried steak will bring in almost $5 in profits. In the words of Sysco, these meals require nothing more than the ability to "heat, assemble, and serve."

Some obvious food trends have helped Sysco's rise to Wal-Mart-like dominance. In 1970, households spent 34 percent of their food budget on dining out, compared to almost 50 percent today.

How Sysco came to monopolize most of what you eat. - By Ulrich Boser - Slate Magazine
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