Food Wholesaler Beefs Up Profits With Ordinary Shoppers

Blue Ribbon Caters To Businesses, But Public Can Phone In

January 26, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

A new North Laurel grocery wholesaler is hoping today's cost-consciousness will add a new dimension to his bulk food business by attracting ordinary shoppers in addition to commercial customers like restaurants and hotels.

But Blue Ribbon Food Service, located in a warehouse off of Whiskey Bottom Road, is no Price Club, where customers canwalk in off the street and shop like they would in their local supermarket.

The company, which grossed about $5 million in 1991, carries everything from produce -- which is stored in a gigantic refrigerator/freezer that consumes about half the warehouse space -- to cleaning and bathroom supplies.

The 33-year-old business moved from Washington to its new 12,800-square-foot warehouse in August to be convenient tocommercial customers not only in Washington but also Baltimore and the corridor between. The new store is more than twice the size of itsformer operation.

And while it welcomes ordinary shoppers -- in addition to its mainstay of restaurants, hotels and institutions, suchas hospitals and nearby prisons -- customers can't yet walk in on impulse and shop, said Jordan Spector, who owns and operates the business with his father, Jerry Spector. Customers must call a day in advance to place an order. Blue Ribbon fills "bulk" orders as small as 10 pounds of ground beef or a gallon of barbecue sauce, or larger orders, like 113 oranges for $12.50 -- about half the retail price.

In about a year, the Spectors hope to open a walk-in retail outlet in theWhiskey Bottom Trade Center similar to that of some large county food warehouses, like Smelkinson-Sysco in Jessup, which sells at bargainprices mainly to get rid of broken cases and overstocked items.

Until then, anyone who wants to throw 40 hamburgers on the grill for about 38 cents a patty can call ahead to Blue Ribbon. Blue Ribbon alsorents equipment, such as large grills, to handle such jobs.

The warehouse stocks about 3,000 types of items, all of it "pretty genericstuff; not a lot of name brands," said Spector.

While it is generally cheaper to buy in bulk from a warehouse, buyers should do their homework before rushing to phone in an order. Spector concedes his prices aren't always better than sale items in grocery stores.

For example, last week Blue Ribbon was selling 96 rolls of toilet paper for $27.96. The same amount of store-brand paper at Super Fresh works out to $21.36.

The main advantage for customers, Spector said, is that people can save up to 50 percent ordering wholesale. In today's economy, he expects a growing number of shoppers will be interested inbuying in quantity.

Spector estimates that in Washington, about 10 percent of Blue Ribbon's business was to such non-traditional customers, like families entertaining at large cookouts and offices organizing company picnics. Since moving to Howard County, such sales have comprised about 4 percent of Blue Ribbon's overall business, said Spector.

The main advantage Blue Ribbon has in attracting household shoppers, he explains, is to keep the cash flowing in a time of lagging payments from commercial customers.

"A (commercial) customer used to pay in 30 days. Now he's paying in 45 days, so if you can generate this off-the-street business, it's a good business to have," Spector says.

While individual customers help, they are far from the backbone of the business, however, and Spector expects commercial customers will keep Blue Ribbon in the black by themselves.

In the three years before the business moved from Washington, it grew about 20 percent each year, he said. He expects it will continue to grow at that pace.

"I built this facility knowing that we could triple business without having to expand," Spector says.

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