"A couple of years ago, a competitor of ours went out of business just before Christmas. It was great getting the extra orders, but our biggest worry was getting jar lids - normally the lead time's eight weeks or more."
Laura Flores, R&D vice president at Berner Foods Inc., Dakota, Ill., knows how important a good supplier is to a food company. Her packaging supplier and distributor pulled out all the stops and Berner, a maker of private label processed cheese products, made tons of money on those holiday orders.
"Especially for a smaller company like ours, customer service from our suppliers is very important," she says.
On the following pages are 39 stories of exceptional customer service. Our fourth annual Readers' Choice Awards are unique among food industry publications. While there are other awards programs out there, they have editors doing the choosing. We think only actual food processors can pick the best suppliers in 21 equipment and 18 ingredient categories. And we drew upon the collective wisdom of 446 processors who responded to our web-based survey back in December.
No single plant professional is expert in every category of equipment and service necessary to support today's plant. No product developer knows every ingredient and its suppliers. Where do you turn when it's time to identify a new source for one of the less familiar needs of your facility? Who do you want to consult – your purchasing department? Local reps? The Internet?
How about your peers? Some of them are pretty sharp and have been around a while. "I've been in engineering in the food industry for 36 years, so I've seen a lot of suppliers, good and bad," says Joseph Kohalmi, engineering project manager at R. M. Palmer Co., a Reading, Pa., chocolate maker. "Actually, I don't think I've ever bought a bad piece of equipment or used a bad supplier. That's because I don't let that happen. I always do the homework. We do real careful specifying of the equipment and test it before we buy."
A list such as this one is part of that homework, Kohalmi says. An engineering manager should draw upon as many resources as possible.
"You can never be too careful," Kohalmi adds. "Many years ago I was looking for a chocolate mold machine. It took me an entire year of investigating to find the right one. But 26 years later, that machine is still running."
While an ingredient buyer at a large food company said he must first look to "strategic alliance" suppliers, "We have all the flexibility we need to look elsewhere if we need to. So a list like this would certainly be consulted. We'd like to see the experiences of other product developers."
"A survey like this could only help. It's interesting to see who other people have had good experiences with," adds Lisa Kalla, R&D specialist at Gold'n Plump Poultry, St. Cloud, Minn.
"Frankly, maybe it's not so much for me because, after 41 years of doing this, I'm pretty set in my ways," said Craig Blackman, a product developer at General Mills, who lent all those years of experience to his vote. "But I think this list would be very helpful to the younger people who are doing this job."
There were numerous anonymous comments that came in with the electronic survey forms. "I have found in talking with my colleagues that customer service from ingredient suppliers is a problem they regularly have," says one respondent to our survey.
"In terms of flavor houses, there are far too many of them. I wish there was some consolidation. I am tired of turning down several of them a year, but it takes so much time to maintain them and utilize their specific talents," writes another respondent. "Everyone, it seems, has their favorites, and they are forever pushing them in R&D's way. If we don't use them, then we have made an enemy of sorts."
"It would be desirable to know the precise source of the ingredients, even the month and year of harvest," adds a processor.
"Making it easy for us to get samples in a hurry is key to whom we use," says one. Another respondent agrees: "If it isn't on our shelves already, then it doesn't have a chance to get tested," she writes.
A number of equipment specifiers sound happy with their suppliers. "The vendors are getting smarter by using sealed bearings and bellows on shafts that are in open areas," writes a man in plant operations. "Since I started in this business 32 years ago, things have improved dramatically," says another.
"I think we have a lot of excellent equipment suppliers to the food industry," still another comments. Counting all the second- and third-place finishers, the following pages contain 123 excellent suppliers of equipment, ingredients and services.
This survey may be democratic, but it's not perfect. Even though we asked people to vote only in the categories in which they felt knowledgeable, respondents may have stretched themselves a bit. The survey is not immune to marketing efforts and the power of brand recognition. In other ways, it largely reflects the installed base.
But it's your vote, not ours. We thank the 446 respondents who responded and especially appreciate those who took the time to give additional comments.
* Differences of 2% or less are statistically insignificant
1. IFF 14%
2. Givaudan 11%
3. Wild Flavors 8%
1. Kraft Food Ingredients 27%
2. Sargento 10%
*Edlong Dairy Flavors 9%
1. Sensient 33%
2. Chr. Hansen 10%
3. Sethness 5%
Dairy Flavors & Ingredients
1. Edlong Dairy Flavors 13%
3. Butter Buds 6%
Kraft Food Ingredients 6%
1. Danisco 23%
2. ADM 10%
3. American Ingredients 7%