Corporate director of Purchasing
China grill Management Inc.
in the Mix interviewed Joel Feigenheimer about the responsibilities and difficulties of purchasing for the 20 multifaceted restaurants that make up China Grill Management.
1) ITM: Joel, you have developed product specifications and bar programs across multiple food and beverage concepts. How is it done – where do you start?
JF: Well, let’s say we are “developing” product specs – this all continues to be a work-in-progress. We simply started at the units themselves, reviewed their actual product usages, changed what we didn’t like, and built the spec programs backwards to catch up. Now we continue to fine tune each operation. Everything is unit and concept driven. We try to service the concepts with products that reflect each operation, whether it is Russian, French, Asian, or American inspired. We don’t blindly pick a product and mandate to the teams that this is what we have chosen because we know best. (We aren’t the government!) We cultivate continual local feedback and change specs to correspond to our new needs. We find quality products in both food and beverage that support the specific concept. For example, just because a wine is highly rated doesn’t mean it will fit all our varied concepts. We had to custom build virtually every buying program to fit our mix of concepts.
2) ITM: The CGM group is very diversified. How do you manage to keep continuity in product from city to city?
JF: We try to insure continuity through communication with our units. Keeping continuity on alcohol is relatively simple because from a product standpoint, Stoli is Stoli everywhere, but the same may not hold true for fresh snapper. So we constantly review the performance of vendors and insist on our particular spec. We find that by limiting our vendor bidding pool to the top tier category vendors in every region, the quality level of our products stays consistently high. When you support a vendor, they will support you. If tuna is in tight supply, our tuna vendor knows we have been a great customer for years. They will insure we get great product. They call us in advance, tell us if there is an impending issue, and steer us into better supply or product.
3) ITM: I understand you purchase the food items as well as the alcoholic beverages. Which one takes more work and why?
JF: Without a doubt, food is harder. Alcohol doesn’t spoil and the branded beverage products are identical from London to Los Angeles. The brand owners spend millions to position and market their product. Most of our work of finding quality or high-image product is done by the beverage suppliers. The key with beverage is to find the new hot products that no one knows about. But that’s fun. Food is fresh, fragile, and requires much more care. In the U.K., we buy lamb from the lamb guy, salmon direct from Scotland, butter and jams from France…it’s amazing. In the states, it’s much more centralized. The vendors are bigger, the challenges are greater with food safety, traceability, and now the trend toward natural, green, or sustainable products or practices is really moving quickly…as well it should. Food and its tangents just require much more digging to insure consistent quality.
4) ITM: So every time a menu item, drink or wine list is changed, do you need to secure the supply for that item as well as pricing? How does it work?
JF: Certainly we review any concept or menu change to see if it has major implications, just as the operation itself would do. That isn’t so hard because specific menu item changes are not wholesale changes to product requirements. Depending on the product, we may or may not get involved on a corporate level to secure product or pricing. For example, we have many single concept units. If the unit is adding one item, I probably won’t get involved. If China Grill or Asia de Cuba were to change a major menu item, then I would likely support any nationwide changes. Pricing, too, is dependent on the volume and breadth of the changes.
5) ITM: How often do you visit the outlets in the 10 cities and do you try to see the distributors, or do you let the outlets deal with that?
JF: My original mandate was to review every city at least once per year. I try to stick with that as the education of my teams, the relationship building with old and new vendors, and the review of operational and vendor practices and procedures drive this never- ending process. Food vendors and beverage distributors sometimes change ownership, product lines, visions, service levels, and quality commitments as they either grow or disappear. Only with constant review can you keep your finger on the pulse of the vendors and the units. Even though we build our beverage programs with the suppliers, it is very important to keep local distributor relationships. Again, that way we get local feedback from another perspective. The more real-time local input, the better we can respond in the market, whether through food or beverage trends, marketing ideas, or other regionally-driven issues. But the units must deal with the distributors locally and we would never stand in the way of that local relationship, as long as they value and respect our overriding national mandates.