Positioning is everything

Foodservice distribution representatives should realize the importance of product positioning. A majority of operators are now acquiring food products on the basis of its versatility. To position products effectively, reps should provide customers with more ideas for using center-of-plate items. They should also learn how to reposition items currently in stock. For menu styles, an upscale, midscale and downscale product positioning strategy will work well.

When are flour tortillas not merely Mexican menu staples? When they’re wrapped around deli sandwich fillings…topped with grilled vegetables and shaved parmesan cheese as a gourmet pizza…sliced into strips and baked for a crispy salad topping…baked with layers of cheese, grilled vegetables, tomato sauce, and steamed spinach as a new-wave lasagna.

Versatility is demanded of foodservice products today, and manufacturers go to great lengths to portray their products as chameleons able to meet a variety of menu needs.

In most cases, however, it’s up to the DSR to act as interpreter. The ability to translate a single product into a multitude of menu possibilities is a skill that transports reps from order takers to business consultants. It also guarantees increased order size and maximum account penetration.

The name of the game is positioning. DSRs who hail from culinary or restaurant-operations backgrounds have an edge. They’ve been trained to think like operators and develop creative menu items while keeping inventory and food cost in check.

But, even nonculinary sales reps can become skilled at product positioning. All it takes is a dose of creativity applied with savvy selling techniques. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that it works for virtually any product category and extends to a multitude of cross-sales opportunities.


Effective product positioning is especially important with center-of-the-plate items. This category may also be the easiest to begin with because the range of COP is limited but the products are extremely versatile.

Typically the most expensive category of operator purchases, these items hold the most opportunity for success. Reps able to get the center-of-the-plate business often enjoy domino-effect sales in other product categories as well.

When focusing on COP positioning, it’s critical to remember that most operators today aren’t interested in solo products. That is, they’re in search of items that have multiple uses on their menus.

“There’s been a big change in how operators look at product positioning over the past four or five years,” notes Ron Garrett, corporate chef for Thoms Proestler Co., Davenport, Iowa. “They’re no longer interested in bringing on a multitude of new items to expand their menus. The costs are just too high.

“They still need menu-expanding ideas,” Garrett adds. “But, they have to get more mileage out of fewer products. DSRs need to be aware of that and gear their sales efforts accordingly.”

Garrett, who regularly works with reps and customers to develop new menu items, suggests that DSRs carefully analyze customers’ menus before introducing center-of-the-plate products. The more ideas for how to use a particular item that the rep can go in with, the better his or her chances of success.

“We have to be able to suggest COP products that can be used as regular dinner entrees, specials, luncheon entrees, salads, and/or sandwiches. Show the operator creative ideas for extending the use of a product and you’re much more likely to make the sale,” Garrett says.

Ed LeBlanc, corporate chef at Doerle Food Services, New Iberia, La., agrees, adding, that evaluating products from a cross-market standpoint is also effective.

“For instance, we carry a low-end marinated-steak product that we sold primarily to family-style steakhouses. We decided to position the same product for nursing homes, a big segment for us, and have had great success.

“Nursing homes are, of necessity, extremely cost-conscious. We’d never expect to be able to sell a steak product there,” LeBlanc adds. “But because this is a value-priced product, and is pre-marinated to make it especially tender, we introduced it to these operators. They’re always looking for new items to feature as specials, and this fit their cost parameters. Because of effective positioning, we now sell more of this steak product to nursing homes than to steakhouses.”

Conversely, LeBlanc notes that the light-and-healthy boom generates strong opportunities to position what have traditionally been healthcare products to other industry segments.

“Dovetailing on ComSource’s Lite Source program, we’ve been able to market products like oil-free roux, water-packed fruits, and low-sodium/low-fat items outside of the healthcare segment,” he says. “Even white-tablecloth and family-style operators are demanding lighter, more healthful ingredients.”

Another example of successful cross-market product positioning at Doerle involves catfish. Although it is traditionally a low-end product–served fried in family-style restaurants throughout the south–Doerle reps position the product to white-tablecloth customers.

“Competition and general economic conditions have put a tremendous squeeze on these operators,” LeBlanc says. “More than ever, they’re looking for quality products that are low-cost and high-profit. We introduced a frozen catfish fillet and suggested ways to prepare it for upscale presentation. Many of these customers now offer it grilled or sauteed with light signature sauces. And they don’t have to worry about the tremendous fluctuations in quality and pricing on fresh seafood. It’s consistent, easy to prepare, and very profitable.”


New-product introductions aren’t the only time that DSRs should be applying positioning-focused sales techniques. Careful study should also be made of products currently featured on customers’ menus. If sauteed chicken breast appears as an entree option, for example, suggest more ways that the operator can use the same product to expand and enhance the menu.

Grilled and topped with greens, sliced tomato, and condiments, it becomes a lunch or light-dinner sandwich option. Sliced and fanned atop salad greens and fresh-cut vegetables, it becomes an attractive entree salad. Baked with fresh herbs and roasted vegetables, it’s yet another entree selection. Cubed and skewered with vegetables, it becomes a light-and-healthful shish kebab.

Positioning products–COP or otherwise–as such versatile players has benefits beyond menu expansion. By using fewer products in more applications, the operator is able to reduce inventory needs, ordering, receiving, and prep, and turn inventory quicker. The end result is lower labor cost and higher food quality because quicker turns means fresher product.

When considering a specific product, DSRs should make a written or mental list of a number of things that it can be used for, as well as the market segments for which these uses are appropriate.

They also should consider various preparation methods that can be used to prepare the item. Many products, for instance, can be roasted, grilled, braised, sauteed, stir-fried, or broiled. By varying the preparation style and accompanying items, the operator expands the menu while still limiting items stocked.

The dishes made with red potatoes pictured here illustrate how different preparation styles applied to the same product can yield varied results.

Boiled, cubed, and blended with salad dressing, chopped parsley, and onion, red potatoes become a side salad that jazzes up simple sandwiches. Quartered, deep fried, and served with dipping sauces such as sour cream and salsa, they’re a great casual, mid-market finger food. Roasted with garlic and herbs, red potatoes are an attractive and delicious side with meat, poultry, or seafood suitable for white-tablecloth menus.


In developing product-positioning strategies, apply “U.M.D.”–upscale, midscale, downscale–thinking. The average full-line DSR’s account base spans each of these levels, and many products can be targeted to all three.

Truly effective positioning may require breaking habits and changing assumptions about the suitability of various products for various menu styles. It also requires creative brainstorming.

Take shrimp. Often considered an upscale item, shrimp can actually be marketed to a variety of menu styles. Because prices can fluctuate significantly, reasonably priced product is often available.

The photos above illustrate how a single shrimp product (IQF 16/20) can be positioned for three menu styles–as a casual shrimp-salad sandwich, a mid-scale entree with fettuccini and vegetables in Alfredo sauce, and an upscale special with shiitake mushrooms, steamed asparagus, and rice pilaf.

By positioning a COP item such as shrimp–or catfish, steaks, chicken fillets, pork medallions, etc.–to more varied operators, DSRs can increase average order size and boost profitability.

The example of flour tortillas can also be used to illustrate creative positioning. Typically considered simply a Mexican menu item, flour tortillas have far more versatile menu applications and can be positioned to operators outside the Mexican niche.

The photos above show three varied applications suitable for a range of menu styles, from a downscale Mexican quesadilla appetizer, to a deli roll-up sandwich, to an upscale grilled vegetable pizza using the tortilla as a crust.

Each dish offers low food cost, easy preparation, and a number of cross-sales opportunities–cheese, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, black olives, black bean or other prepared side salad, jicama, deli meats, lettuce, grilling vegetables.

Coming up with ideas to present to customers based on creative positioning becomes easier with practice. Once DSRs develop a positioning mindset, product-usage possibilities begin to flow and opportunities can be recognized.

“More and more, DSRs have to make creative positioning part of their sales effort or they’ll be left behind,” notes Doerle’s LeBlanc, formerly a DSR as well as an operator. “Just going in and taking a customer’s order without offering ideas and solutions isn’t what their job is about anymore. Reps have to be able to sell services and demonstrate that they understand customers’ needs and concerns. Inventory control, food cost, and menu development are all key areas that can be impacted through skillful positioning.”

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