Here, There, Everywhere

How SYSCO got to be the company that distributes food to everybody.

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click to enlarge THAT TRUCK AGAIN: SYSCO's ubiquitous big rig. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
THAT TRUCK AGAIN: SYSCO's ubiquitous big rig.

Every morning, in the parking lots of restaurants and hotels across Tampa Bay, workers in white big rigs unload pallets of brown boxes.

Nothing identifies the nameless men and their trucks except for five letters: S-Y-S-C-O.

The products inside those brown boxes feed children in schools and grandparents in nursing homes. The trucks ship ingredients for value meals to our favorite fast food dives and deliver the makings of gourmet dinners to our four-star restaurants.

SYSCO — an acronym for Systems and Services Company — is North America's largest food distribution company and has more of an impact on our food supply than nearly any other company in the country.

And the food distribution giant is only growing larger.

Chances are you have eaten something from a SYSCO truck. It would be hard not to. SYSCO provides more than 400,000 businesses with meat, produce, frozen food and an assortment of cooking basics like spices and oils.

It is the sole provider of supplies to Wendy's fast food restaurants and the chain of Hilton hotels. Many hospitals and nursing homes order from the SYSCO catalog, as do elementary schools and state universities. Even a large number of high-end restaurants and bistros use SYSCO for at least basic supplies.

Exactly what these places order from SYSCO is harder to determine. The company does not publish its customer list and did not return calls for comment. Local restaurant owners and chefs are less than eager to provide details.

"I buy the basics from SYSCO, but I try to deal with them as little as possible," says Chris Ponte of Café Ponte in Clearwater. "I better stop before I say too much."

The company doesn't confine itself to mass-market products. It offers high-end alternatives, too, like organic vegetables and fair trade coffee. SYSCO has even introduced a program in New Mexico and Minnesota to buy produce from local farmers and distribute it across the state. Just the sheer volume and variety of food has led many reluctant restaurateurs to opt for SYSCO instead of dealing with multiple small vendors — kind of like shopping at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Some restaurants in the region, like TooJay's Original Gourmet Deli in St. Petersburg and Tampa, use SYSCO exclusively.

"We use SYSCO for almost everything," manager Tom Gervais says, naming off items from chicken fingers to vegetables. Even the paper products come from the white trucks.

Other eateries will use the distribution giant for items they can't find anywhere else.

For example, Fortunato's pizzeria in downtown St. Petersburg uses SYSCO only for their hoagie rolls.

In some cases, SYSCO's main selling point is reliability; smaller vendors tend to have wildly varying schedules.

"I think [SYSCO] is the most constant," says Martin Ribas, owner of Taqueria El Maguey in Kenneth City.

SYSCO also offers name recognition.

"I went with SYSCO because I knew about them for a long time," Ribas says. "[When I first started] I really didn't know any other companies around."

Even the organic and vegetarian fast food chain EVOS, a company that prides itself on being the healthy alternative to older chains like Wendy's, uses the same distribution company as its competition: SYSCO.

SYSCO holds only 15 percent of the food distribution market, but that may change soon. Since the company's inception in 1969, SYSCO has gobbled up more than 100 smaller companies, 25 of those in the last four years. Now, company officials are building nine massive distribution centers, in addition to the local centers in every state, to get food to customers even faster. In our area, the centers can be found in East Tampa and Palmetto.

The constant growth has forced some restaurants to use the giant even though they initially resisted the idea.

"We were dealing with two smaller purveyors who recently got bought by SYSCO, but we are trying not to be swallowed into that beast," says Jeremy Saccardi, sous chef at Vernona at the Ritz Carlton in Sarasota.

SYSCO has even rolled out a new program, "iCare," to cater to the independent restaurateur, vowing to take in $2 of independent restaurant revenue for every $1 in chain store revenue.

But as the company grows, so does the shroud around its business practices.

In 2000, during the debacle over genetically engineered Starlink corn, SYSCO refused to answer shareholders' demands for an internal investigation into whether the company had distributed any of the corn. SYSCO also does not release an environmental report nor does it have a public animal welfare policy, according to Calvert, an investment management company that provides information about various industries.

And just as Wal-Mart is branching out into industries like banking, SYSCO is moving into other avenues besides food.

Last year, SYSCO teamed up with Netopia to provide restaurants with wi-fi access. The move will put them in direct competition with a similarly named competitor:

Cisco.

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