From a quick snack to a multi-course meal, when you order food away from home, a member of the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) probably delivered the ingredients. IFDA’s members provide groceries and related products to professional kitchens in restaurants, convenience stores, colleges and universities, hospitals and many other venues.
Two of the biggest challenges IFDA’s members face today are how to attract and retain good drivers and how to cope with government regulations, says Mark S. Allen, president and CEO of IFDA in McLean, VA.
While most companies that operate truck fleets are struggling with the national driver shortage, foodservice distributors face an extra challenge: finding drivers who will not just deliver product, but also unload it for customers as well. “It’s a physically demanding job,” Allen says. “But it pays well.” And unlike their peers in long haul trucking, drivers on foodservice delivery routes go home at the end of each shift.
To make those jobs even more attractive, foodservice distributors need to get creative, Allen says. “For example, according to our benchmarking, about a third of delivery routes today have a second person on the truck who helps to unload but doesn’t need a Class A Commercial Driver’s License.”
Broader use of information technology might help, too. “Younger people expect technology in the workplace,” Allen says. “The in-cab technology that distributors are investing in today is helpful for the driving environment and might be a way to attract people into a job that has been essentially the same for many years.”
On the regulatory front, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might soon require measures such as new energy-saving technology on truck engines and aerodynamic skirts on trailers. Since foodservice trucks rarely spend hours at a time traveling at highway speed, those requirements don’t provide a significant return on investment, Allen says.
Labor regulations, such as new record keeping requirements from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), also impose burdens, Allen says. “It’s often difficult to understand where the real benefit is, other than requiring distributors to invest resources to track things we’re already doing.”
One new set of regulations that doesn’t badly encumber IFDA’s members arises from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a federal law passed in 2011. “Most distributors already have the procedures and processes in place to comply,” Allen says. “They just need to make sure that those processes have been documented, in case of an inspection by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).”
Foodservice distributors that work with third-party trucking companies, however, do need to make some changes to comply with a part of FSMA called the Sanitary Food Transportation Act. “They have to communicate to the carrier their expectations around the movement of that product,” Allen says. “That would include, for example, pre-cooling the truck, any temperature monitoring that needs to be done, or how a product needs to be loaded.” To help with those and a wide range of other business challenges, IFDA’s members have invested heavily in several kinds of technology. Routing software leads the list: according to IFDA’s research, 94% of foodservice distributors use routing solutions to create efficient, predictable routes. Second is GPS tracking, which keeps customers informed about when to expect their deliveries. Eighty-one percent of foodservice distributors use onboard computers today, and 77% use electronic logging devices (ELDs), Allen says. “Of course, all distributors will soon have to use ELDs to comply with hours of service regulations, so that number will go to 100% in the foreseeable future.” The fifth technology that draws major investments from foodservice distributors is the handheld barcode scanner.
Distributors are also implementing e-commerce technologies, allowing their customers not only to place orders online, but to evaluate and compare products, build menus, track incoming orders, pay their bills and explore their order histories. Increasingly, they’re designing their e-commerce sites to work on tablets and smartphones as well as on computers, Allen says.
To add greater value to e-commerce in foodservice, IFDA is working with food manufacturers and restaurant operators on standards for describing food ingredients, nutritional factors, allergens and other useful information. “For example, the operator placing an order will understand which products are gluten-free and can segregate products accordingly,” Allen says.
As younger people continue to enter the restaurant industry as owners and chefs, they’re increasing demand for technology-based tools, Allen says. “As distributors, we’ve got to not only keep up with that, but stay out in front.”
(Mark S. Allen is President and CEO of IFDA)