It's hard to miss the large green and white warehouse off Meeting Street in Charleston's upper peninsula. The opening of the area's sixth US Foods CHEF'STORE — a one-stop-shop that spans over 50,000 square feet and sells more than 5,000 items from food products to kitchen equipment and supplies — has some members of Charleston's culinary community shifting, ever so slightly, in their seats.
Should our local purveyors be concerned? Depends on who you ask. Representatives of US Foods, two nonprofits, two restaurant supply stores, and two chefs have weighed in. And while these conversations reveal some anxiety about the ever-present competition between national chains and local suppliers, there's an overwhelming faith that independents will adapt and maintain as they always have.
"We've already seen the local-washing that national companies tend to do," says Lowcountry Local First director of marketing and communications Jordan Amaker. "We're going to be advocating to our restaurant members and food buyers to remember relationships and remember the impact their dollars have when they spend it with organizations like Limehouse Produce or GrowFood Carolina [US Foods' warehouse store is located midway between these two on the peninsula's eastern edge]. Those businesses do so much to give back to their community and to support local farmers and charities."
With more and more consumers trending toward convenience, independent businesses may have to rethink their sales strategies in order to compete: "We understand that the market has to adjust to people's needs and it will," says Amaker.
The situation, though, is more complicated than competition alone. US Foods offers numerous additional products and services that many Charleston restaurateurs already utilize. Plus, also located on Meeting Street Road is the national members-only "low cost foodservice supplier" Restaurant Depot, which stocks everything from wine and spirits to clothing and refrigeration. It's hard to draw the line between where supplier competition ends and consumer benefit begins.
Location Details Limehouse Produce Co.
"I believe we've done our research in talking with restaurants in the local area and determining the kinds of things that they're looking for, and we're going to make sure we have it for them," says CHEF'STORE VP Josh Waters. "We think of Charleston as one of America's great food cities. With this business concept, we put the chef and the restaurant owner first, and we really believe it's going to be an asset to them."
Unlike Costco or Sam's Club or Restaurant Depot, CHEF'STORE does not require a membership fee, making it accessible to the home chef and more affordable for pros. Slow Food Charleston chair Carrie Larson sees the greatest benefit for food trucks, caterers, and personal chefs: "They've had to shop around for good prices and local, unique products and may find the convenience very alluring. This could translate to some loss of sales at farmers markets, but I don't think it's going to have a significant impact on the growers that we've all come to know and love."
But there's more to consider than the impact on farmers and food sellers alone. CHEF'STORE will sell equipment alongside their food products. Charleston's independent kitchen equipment suppliers say they'll continue to rely on superior service and relationships built over decades to sustain them. "They're obviously a huge player. We know this will affect us," says Daniel Perlmutter of Berlin's Restaurant Supply, "but our customers lean on us and we lean on our customers. It's really a more specialized service than just trying to compete off of price with one of the largest players in the country. When you're in an emergency situation, you have the cell phone number of someone here in town rather than a 1-800 number. We're hopeful that people will know that local makes sense for everyone."
Location Details Berlin's Restaurant Supply
Temmey Novit, GM of restaurant supply store FRS Charleston, isn't too worried either: "We compete with the internet and big box stores every single day," says Novit. "To be at this for three generations and still going strong is pretty amazing. We're not fearful. We do different things than CHEF'STORE. We do design work for new restaurants and renovation. We actually draw out restaurant designs. We deliver. We inspect. We assemble. These are all specialized services."
Situations will pop up where cost and convenience rules, but local businesses, those known as friends and partners over the years, will remain important. "There is absolutely nobody local that will lose my business," says Chris Stewart, owner and executive chef at The Glass Onion. Stewart was excited to learn of this CHEF'STORE opening. He already had an account with US Foods, and the physical presence of the store will make his day-to-day much simpler. "I'll be able to get in my car, drive over there, and actually look at whatever it is that I might want. The convenience is fantastic."
This won't alter his local allegiances, though — he plans for practical balance. "I'll continue to buy the things that I do from US Foods which are things that I can't buy locally. For produce, I use Limehouse. I buy directly from a number of famers. When it comes to equipment, FRS is my go-to. When it comes to pork and chicken, Keegan-Filion Farm doesn't need to worry. But all in all, the new store is exciting. If I run out of toilet paper or heavy cream, I can run over there and get it really quick."
Chef Kevin Johnson of The Grocery shares similar sentiments: "My only reaction to hearing about the store was that if we need something on the fly, we'll be able to go get it. We try not to be in emergency situations, but they do come up. We elect to buy from who we buy from based on quality and sustainability and deliciousness of the ingredient more than anything else. If you can get something for cheaper, sure, but it's also important to build relationships rather than just being an account number. Limehouse has taken care of us and listened to us for 16 years now. I can't imagine it any other way as far as I'm concerned. There's a level of service that is worth something to us."
At the end of the day, the Charleston culinary community expects an inevitable coexistence. Chefs and restaurant owners are our local faces as much as our suppliers, and convenience is an important consideration for their bottom-line, but suppliers should take comfort knowing that those who buy local do so for a reason. They aren't likely to end those long-established relationships lightly.
US Foods grand opening event at 1510 Meeting St. has been delayed due to Hurricane Florence.