Elliot Fread grew up surrounded by food. “I always loved the food business,” he says. “I always wanted to be in it.” His grandfather was a restaurateur and Canadian TV celebrity chef in the 1950s, and his father, a graduate of the Cornell Hotel & Restaurant School, later focused on hotel and industrial restaurants.
But Fread craved a more direct relationship with his customers. “I really love to see people’s faces and feel their reactions when they eat my food. So I wanted to try something different.”
“Something different” has grown into Bimmy’s, the largest New York-based wholesale fresh food kitchen serving the NY Tri-State, Boston, and Philadelphia region, which Fread founded more than two decades ago. Recently, we talked with Fread about how he developed Bimmy’s from a humble beginning retailing wrap sandwiches into a bold leader in today’s industry.
Our conversation revealed several ways that food processors and their suppliers can help establish and maintain successful business practices. Fread’s expertise is especially pertinent as consumers continue to demand more and more fresh prepared foods.
But Fread’s principles hold true across all sectors of today’s ever more competitive food processing market. Here are four ways food processors and suppliers can meet the challenges to come:
- Say “yes” and anticipate customers’ needs
- Focus on a core philosophy
- Develop solid relationships with business partners
- Recognize and embrace industry trends
Say “yes” and anticipate customers’ needs
The food industry is extremely competitive. Approximately 21,000 companies must compete in a $760 billion industry. To remain successful, they need to stay ahead in areas including efficiency, new products, seasonal fluctuations, and government regulations. Bimmy's has been successful by being relevant and staying open to new ideas while retaining a core focus on quality.
Fread’s story starts modest…
More than twenty years ago, a friend introduced him to Syrian lavash—a thin, pita-type bread. He started experimenting with it at home.
“I would take some turkey, maybe some coleslaw, pickle, Russian dressing, and just kind of roll it up and eat it,” he says. He found his roll-up sandwich very convenient for eating on the go. “People call it a wrap today,” says Fread. “At the time I called it a hand-rolled sandwich,” he adds. “The only ‘wrap’ at that time was ‘rap’ music.”
The novel construction of the sandwich also appealed to him. “I liked the concept: getting all the flavors in every bite intrigued me.”
Once he opened his initial retail store in New York City, his customers were intrigued as well, and press write-ups attracted even more attention. It was at this point that Fread reached what would prove to be a critical juncture in the development of his business. “One of the things my father taught me was to never say ‘no.’”
So when people started to ask if he did wholesale, “I said ‘Of course I do!’ I didn’t, but I had to say yes. I stayed up all night and figured it all out—the pricing, the packaging—and I brought samples the next day and they gave me an order.” Encouraged, he began approaching more potential customers, and his business grew.
“After about a month, people started to say, ‘You know, these are great! By the way, do you do regular sandwiches?’ And I said ‘Of course I do!’ I already had the ingredients, all I had to do was change the bread, right?” Fread investigated bakeries, brought his customers samples, and got more orders.
“About a month or so after that, the question was ‘Hey, do you do salads?’ Of course I have all the ingredients….”
“After the salads I figured I’d better start thinking ahead a little more,” he said. What followed were the products that complete his wholesale and catering menu today, everything from corporate breakfasts and lunches to evening social events: side salads, pasta salads, soups, dips, yogurt parfaits, charcuterie and cheese, Middle Eastern plates, and more.
Fread credits a great deal of his success to anticipating customers’ needs and wants, as well as top-drawer ingredients. “Quality at a fair price has been key.”
But none of it would have happened without his father’s philosophy of saying “yes.” Because of this can-do attitude, Fread has been able to use his first retail shop as a virtual springboard. Today, Bimmy’s employs more than 100 people and makes more than 10,000 sandwiches, salads and wraps every day.
Focus on a core philosophy
Successful companies often have strong, central principles that can help guide the business through even the toughest industry challenges. Fread’s slogan arose both from his life experience and his commitment to quality.
While the name of the company is Bimmy’s (after Fread’s nickname as a Catskills resort waiter), their slogan, “Food Made with Love,” has more significance.
As a young man, Fread did a lot of volunteer work with Native Americans. “Whenever I went to the reservation, I always found myself in the kitchen somehow. And it was there where the elders—mostly grandmothers, 80-, 90-, 100-year-old women—taught me to always prepare food with love,” he says.
What’s more, Fread learned that “preparing food for people is a sacred responsibility. For a kind of wild kid from Brooklyn that was a new concept.”
Fast forward to the opening of Bimmy’s Hand-Rolled Sandwiches. Fread continued working hard to maintain a high level of quality and care. And soon, his efforts began to pay off.
“Years ago I had a customer in Philadelphia who asked me if I would bring food down for the Philadelphia airport,” he says. The company’s consistently high-quality ingredients, along with Fread’s attitude, made a compelling case for delivering food all the way from New York. And that’s what Fread told friends who finally asked what makes his products so special. “It kinda just rolled out of my mouth: it’s food made with love.”
And there it was: a brand-new slogan, born from the values and philosophy at the core of the business.
Develop solid relationships with business partners
While high product quality can draw people to a business, strong business partnerships are essential to continued success.
When asked what’s important to him in a business partner, Fread sums it up in one word: “integrity.”
For him, values come before product. “When I look for partners—and my vendors are my partners—I look for people who understand who we are first and what we want. Someone who wants to work together to grow both of our businesses. And then we talk about which product would work best for us.”
Sometimes this necessitates forgoing short-term profit. However, Fread maintains that it bolsters the long-term health of the business. “If you try to get as much money as you can for a product, you’re somebody that I won’t deal with more than once or twice.”
On the other side of the coin, Bimmy’s has worked with some of the same equipment suppliers for decades. “I’ve been with my paper supplier for 21 years,” says Fread, “and some meat providers for 10 years.” He credits that longevity to intentions and values that align with one another. “We can all make money. You don’t have to cheat anyone or charge too much money to be successful. That was never my definition of success.”
In business, of course, solid partnerships can translate into healthy profits.
“I know we buy quality product, and it’s not going to be the cheapest on the market. What I do look for is a good, fair price for the quality I want. Someone with integrity understands that.”
Fread also values suppliers who are proactive in keeping him informed about new products and technologies. “Suppliers help me the same way I help my customers, which is by staying up-to-date with products and consumer demands.”
For example, he says, “my paper supplier constantly calls me up and says, ‘Hey there’s a new paper on the market, do you want to try it? I’ll send you some samples.’ That’s why I have been dealing with my paper supplier for more than 20 years. I tell my vendors they’d better stay on their toes, because if someone else comes to me with a better quality product and you didn’t tell me about it, I will change vendors.”
In the spirit of fairness, Fread holds himself to the same exacting standards. “I believe a relationship is a give and take. So, yes, I ask our vendors to be on the ball, to bring us new products and new opportunities. But in exchange for that, we will pay our bills early.”
He realizes his standards can be hard to achieve, but that makes them all the more worth it. “I’m probably your nightmare customer,” he says. “But the flip side of that is that if you do your job, I’ll be your customer for life.”
Recognize and embrace industry trends
Strong, relationship-oriented connections between suppliers and processors can help food companies keep up with the latest trends. Fread identifies food safety and “clean” products as two of the industry trends making the most impact today.
Safety must take priority
Regulatory changes (and there are a lot of them) can create stress. It was one of his business partners who helped Fread’s company get a head start on safety. This, in turn, generated new business opportunities.
Bimmy’s was an early adopter of some of the stricter food industry regulations, long before any deadline approached. Fread says a proactive equipment supplier alerted him to the how food safety guidelines were changing.
“I have a Weber slicer,” he says. Years ago, Weber hired a consultant to give a series of lectures on food safety, and Fread took notice. Through the lectures, Fread saw “that food safety was going to become one of the largest components to being in the food industry.” Bimmy’s soon became both a USDA and SQF Level 2 facility–one of the first processors to do so.
Clean products mean good business
Food safety is definitely a driving force in the industry. So is consumer preference.
Fread notes in particular the sharp growth in consumption of natural foods and the trend toward clean products. While it is a broad term, “clean” is understood to mean preservative-free and antibiotic-free (ABF) at the very least.
Bimmy’s has responded to this trend. “We’ve shifted and changed many things, from oils to sun-dried tomatoes to chickpeas, to move away from preservatives. We’ve also moved more and more toward ABF products. We’ve changed from traditional to clean label soup stock. And we’ve gained more business because of that.”
Using clean ingredients does cost more. So in addition to watching trends, Fread looks at ways to make these foods more affordable. “We refuse to compromise on quality, so we try to shop really well.” Another way they reach a lower price point is by reducing portion size.
The origin and resolute growth of Bimmy’s can serve as a model in many ways. Following one’s creative instincts is as important as welcoming new challenges. And adhering to the core philosophy of a business supports the strong, integral partnerships that lead to mutual success. It’s a tall order, but one that will pay off for everyone in the long run!