Foodservice Equipment Reports
Publisher's Viewpoint

The Challenges Of Supplies And Tabletop Sourcing

I’ve been hearing often the past few years about the issues confronting the global supply chain for sourcing durable supplies, tabletop and servingware. Our annual FER Smallwares & Tabletop Awards, which are featured in FER’s November issue, always remind me of these issues. Put simply, not much of this stuff is made in North America. And that’s causing huge headaches for everyone—especially the big restaurant and global hotel chains and the distributors and manufacturers who supply them.

As I mentioned in last month’s editorial for our Worldwide Buyers Guide, a friend at a major chain-oriented dealership explained the issue to me years ago. Big chains have become increasingly dependent on limited-time offers or menu changes to boost sales. The time frames for the decision-making processes are getting shorter and shorter. Meanwhile, many of the products needed for the rollouts are made in China, Poland, Turkey or, increasingly, India, but mostly in China. And the lead times just don’t match the speed-to-market demands. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all suppliers at both the manufacturer and distribution levels. And I’ve heard this, too, from major chain supplies buyers.

As I also mentioned, the issues have become even more prominent in the past year. The long West Coast dockworkers strike and slowdowns in late 2014 and early 2015 exacerbated the logistics delays. I’m told a number of chains—and their suppliers—had to pay to fly in product during this period as ships sat in the ocean off of Long Beach, Calif., and Seattle. And now, the recent slowdown and disruptions in the Chinese economy have sourcing experts worried that we have become too dependent on manufacturers there.

These are not easy problems to fix. I’ve been around a long time. When I first worked for Restaurants & Institutions and then became chief editor at Foodservice Equipment & Supplies Specialist, I hung out a lot with the likes of Marty Shellenberger from Syracuse China, Reed Hayes at World Tableware Int’l., Ron Kasperzak at Commercial Aluminum Cookware and Bob George and Bob Fishman at Oneida Ltd. I saw flatware made in Sherrill, N.Y. Dutch Ashton took me on a tour of the Libbey glassmaking factory in Toledo, Ohio. I visited Homer Laughlin, Shenango China and Hall China in the West Virginia-Pennsylvania “clay valley.” Most of this “capacity” is now gone, or rather has “emigrated,” to Asia and a few other spots for commodities and Europe mostly for high-design items. However, European manufacturers are not unaffected. I visited the Shanghai Stainless headquarters in 2005 and saw items from a number of major high-end European brands.

But things are evolving. We are seeing a bit of repatriation, what the supply-chain folks call “onshoring.” It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Big buyers do rule. The problem is they often want the best of both worlds: that is, economy and service. Sometimes, it’s hard to have it both ways.

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