I know what's good.
August 28, 2009 1:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a buyer for a restaurant?

I've decided I'm done with being a desk jockey. The steady pay is nice, but the drudgery isn't.

I'd like to work in the restaurant business, but as a "buyer" for a restaurant or other establishment. I'd like to put knowledge I will have gained working on a farm to practice in an environment where I'll be able to basically tell restaurants "This is what you should be buying because of x, y, and z," or just do the buying outright. I'm open to the supply side as well.

Going back to school is a possibility, but not preferable, though my lack of a business background will probably necessitate taking some classes.

Is this possible? Does such a position exist? I'm sure I'm missing a lot of details as this is conceptual - please feel free to plug holes. Anecdotal evidence particularly appreciated.

Some deets: 23, in NYC, journalism background, currently working as a paralegal in BigLaw.
posted by chan.caro to Work & Money (4 answers total)
Every restaurant I've ever worked in ... and I worked in several through college, at all the price points ... food and beverage purchases are made by the chef, executive chef, sommelier or food/bev manager, purchasing from several trusted purveyors (some corporate, some direct from farms or farm collectives) that specifically sell into restaurants.

If you're not already a chef/sommelier, if there's an angle for you to take, it's with these purveyors, not the restaurants themselves. This might not be quite what you want though -- this is essentially a sales job, some of it entry level.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:21 PM on August 28, 2009

Many large restaurants or other food service operations (think a local college or hospital) often employ procurement or production managers, who are in charge of the food ordering. That being said, these people ALWAYS have a food service background as a cook or chef, and also either help with or are in charge of staffing, kitchen management, and other parts of the business. You would have to work at a huge operation to be in charge of procurement and procurement only, and honestly you aren't going to get that job with your (lack of) experience.

Your best bet, if you want to have influence on what restaurants are ordering, would be to get a job as a food service sales representative. Basically, this job entails you working for a large food distributor (think Sysco or US Foodservice, among many, many others), selling food to local food service locations. Restaurants rely heavily on their sales reps to decide what to purchase, and you would have influence over a lot of different locations, instead of just one.

The downside is that you will make very little money to start, but if you are good and gain a lot of accounts you can become quite wealthy. I know DSRs (distributor sales representatives) that make upwards of $200k/year, just by selling food.

If you have any questions, let me know. I am not a DSR, but I work very closely with them for my job and know the ins and outs fairly well.
posted by suburbanrobot at 2:28 PM on August 28, 2009

At every small to medium sized restaurant I worked at, the chef (often me) did all the food purchasing, through various national and local vendors. If you want to have an influence on what restaurants are buying, be that local vendor. At my last few restaurant jobs, we used a small produce company that was pretty much a two man operation, and I trusted their judgment and integrity to know that the produce they were offering me was the best they could find. They had relationships with some of the smaller organic farms in the area, and could offer me the kind of produce that the big national vendors couldn't even dream about. They kept me up to date with what was coming into season, what was good right now, and anything special or unusual that they had found. In short, those two guys probably had more influence over what went on the plates at dozens of area restaurants than all the big food vendors combined.

The only places I worked at that had actual purchasing agents were very large hotels, in the 500 rooms or larger catagory. Most places run on too tight a margin to have someone on the payroll that does nothing but basically shop for food.
posted by ralan at 3:02 PM on August 28, 2009

When you buy from Sysco or other supplier, you can get stuck with some okay-but-not-great stuff. You're seldom in a position to refuse delivery unless it's bad. If you refuse delivery, you don't have food to sell unless you can find an alternate source, which is a lot of hassle to get in time before service.

When I used to work in restaurants, there was one in town that was extremely upscale, and had a particular chef and a very particular owner. Being stuck with okay-but-not-great food was unacceptable. So, they hired a forager.

His job was to wake up insanely early, drive a truck way down to Boston, go to all the markets and buy the necessary food for evening service. He was a former sous-chef and had been to culinary school; he knew what was fresh, what was in season, etc. Still, his choices were restricted by the set menu and the specials the chef wanted to have.

So, yes, there is a job like the one you described. It's rare, and from what I can tell, requires a solid background in cooking. I second ralan's advice. It's much easier and probably more satisfying to be the local boutique vendor.
posted by ifandonlyif at 5:23 PM on August 28, 2009

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