Operator to Greenhorn TM, Kate Elliott at US Foods,
My first year and a half.
What would I have done differently as an operator
if I would have known what I know now?
Kate Elliott began her foodservice career at 17 in the kitchen, without any formal training, of a white tablecloth restaurant and worked her way up the ranks to executive chef, management, owned her own restaurant, and managed an outdoor concert arena venue. But after 20+ years, Kate decided she was ready to have more time with her kids and family in the evenings. She put her feelers out and landed at US Foods, so her career began 2 years ago, putting her selling in only COVID conditions which has taught her to be able to handle anything, very volatile markets, product outages, government lockdowns, etc.
Managing a kitchen is organized chaos and she feels that is what she has been doing daily as a TM. A lot of the skill sets are the same, building relationships with vendors and customers, managing crisis, marketing and costing food, looking at inventory… all the things she did as an operator, she now must do as a salesperson. Also, like in the restaurant, you have different customers and a different approach to building relationships with those folks and regulars. It is similar in sales because of having different customers daily and building relationships with each of these people, in addition to all those who you work with. US Foods has a great immersive training program spending a day with each of the positions and people, it is a chain of people, responsible for getting the products out to the customers who you rely on.
Kate has considered COVID times a blessing because anything that comes down the line, she has learned to pivot and have a greater understanding of the supply chain and how it works. The team organization she came with from the kitchen helps with her work now. As a chef, they had to reproduce the same dish over and over for the customers, and now must do that for her customers, showing up at the right time and being consistent and reproducing that experience over and over.
What has been the hardest thing since transitioning from being an operator to foodservice sales (and in COVID times)?
Kate: I strive to be a consultative seller and it is really frustrating seeing operators struggling and stuck in their ways, scared, and paralyzed by the current conditions. But it is also heartbreaking to see people’s inability to change or to embrace change, as we know that what doesn’t bend, breaks. There are those who refuse to order online or are not applying for PPE because they do not think they qualify. For me to know there is a fix and not being able to get them there is incredibly frustrating. To not show my frustration to them and not be condescending or dismissive with them about it.
Totally surprising to me was that cheese is traded and there is a block market! It is my job to inform my customers of these types of things because that is why prices fluctuate. They need to understand it better, so they have all the information.
What has been the hardest thing day-to-day?
Kate: Collecting A/R. This was not an easy thing to do during these difficult times.
Is it difficult selling to people who were “already your friends” and to suggest a precooked product versus an item they fully prepare themselves?
Kate: Yes, it can be hard selling to friends who I already knew and developing a business relationship with them. It is harder hearing “No” from friends.
But because of the labor struggle, it is actually an easier time to suggest a precooked product to them. You can celebrate their valuable skill set and time in a way to suggest a precooked or sous vide item, such as chicken with a 92-day shelf life because it could save them valuable time to go to the local farmer’s market or continue making their own vinaigrette or sauce. Speed scratch, when a portion of the plate is pre-made, has a real place in this environment.
Product knowledge – – were you surprised by all the products available, and how are you learning the next item?
Kate: I am not surprised about by all we have because I have been dealing with US Foods for the last 9 years when I was in the field. Regarding the new products, it is more about maintaining the relationship with the brokers because if they know I am paying attention to their products and servicing my customers on the level of processing rebates and finding new products, they reach out to me and keep me informed. Plus, we have a COP specialist and food fanatic chef who teaches us about new products, why we brought it in and why it is better. It is about absorbing, respecting, and being open to the knowledge of the people around you versus thinking you know it all.
Is there anything you would have done differently if you had known then what you know now?
Kate: Understanding the supply chain… having a greater understanding of how the product gets here, the chain it goes through, how the costs were calculated, having a better understanding of the market. I now send customers the Farmer’s Report even though it is on our site because they are more likely to scroll through it and understand and see the difference in pennies if they are deciding between two places. They are going to choose the one who is putting more info in their hands. Even the customers who do not want it, find a way to frame it so you can give it to them.
How do you work with your peers, and has it changed in two years?
Kate: Absolutely, it has changed. I am not as frustrated because I know who to go to for what. Embracing my DSM who has gotten me to a different place than I was. What I can control. Respecting the job everyone does, the team concept. Trusting the people around me because I have a better understanding of what everyone does enables me to do a better job for my customers.
Make it interactional as opposed to transactional. Keep customers and make our lives easier by giving customers as much info as you can so you are not dealing with upset customers because they already understand the supply chain. It is working ahead and preparing your customers, forecasting, so the conversations are not as difficult.
Be a Resource and SELL SOMETHING!