The Many Hats of Distribution Man

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Joe sat across from us in his the fluorescently lit office, his employees shifting products into boxes on the other side of his two windows. He leaned back, and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling as he thought about what he was going to say: “Let me tell you an anecdote, I won’t use any names.”

Joe is pretty much the only farm to table food distributer in central Texas. He got his start because he “wanted a life change” and he “likes food”, which feels like a simple and honest way to start a business.

“I used to bring food to this one restaurant guy” Joe’s story wove among his own thoughts of how to explain a thing to two earnest and unknowledgeable grad students. I scrambled to take notes, piecing his words together, while my research partner facilitated the interview with a stoic, yet curious face.

Joe proceed to tell us about how he lost business from one restaurant owner, because the man started buying his food straight from the farmer instead. He knew this because he would see the man at the Farmer’s Market buying directly from the same farmer he would deliver food for. The twist however, was that this restaurant owner ended up coming back to Joeohn, asking to do business again. The restaurant owner had experienced a series of food orders that he had throw out due to a less than perfect appearance of the veggies.

The restaurant owner ended up losing money, not saving, by bypassing the distributor. And he told Joe, “I know you won’t screw me” as his main catalyst for returning as a client.

Joe told his last part of the story with a hint of pride in his voice. It’s always nice to be the guy that provides value, the guy that can be trusted. However, what I learned from this story is that Joe has another role I didn’t realize before. Joe is the mediator between farmer and buyer, with the task of knowing the wants of the restaurant buyers, wants that are apparently unknown to many farmers. He wears the hats of Quality Assurance Guy, Interpreter, Supervisors, as well as Delivery Man.

There is more than a distance gap between the person on the farm and the person with the chef’s knife. There is a mentality disparity, with very few people acting to bridge the two ways of thought.

Joe, along with another person we spoke with on this topic, expressed the importance of educating farmers on how to work with restaurants. As though the concept of frequent communication and honest management of expectations was a foreign concept. The truth is, although most people (farmers and restaurant owners included), would tout the importance of effective communication, rarely it is executed well. And that can be said across multiple types of business and human transactions.

“You don’t sell a 7 pound zucchini to a restaurant, you give it to the pigs. Some farmers don’t get that.” Joe noted.

A farmer’s proximity to the earth gives them the attitude that all food from the rich soil is valuable. A restaurant owner’s proximity to the customer, breeds the attitude that food must be pretty. And a customer’s distance from the farm is what created the “pretty food” expectation in the first place.

The reason this anecdote was significant is because it caused a shift in my thinking. Distance, perhaps, is the ultimate communication barrier, because it provides the context from which we communicate. Even with all the technologies in the world to shrink the gap, none of them can account for the breakdown in communication that happens when two people are looking at the world through very different lenses.

This became the focus for our research project. We began listening for these invisible gaps in the food value chain that were hiding behind the multiple desires, value systems, and definitions of common words our participants shared with us.

“Distribution is key!” Joe repeated this last phrase. I think he is right, but for more reasons than the physical movement of food products. Distribution is key because the communication gap, not merely the distance gap, is still so large. Those moments of connection when food travels from one man’s hands into another’s is the opportunity for insight to pass between professions. And it’s these same moments of connection that my research partner and I aim to learn more about.

-Kaley