(Sept. 24) ST. HELENA, Calif. — During the past year, Sysco Corp., Houston, has been quietly devising a plan to bring locally grown, specialty products to large foodservice operators through its new Internet ordering pro-gram called ChefEx.

The company finished a beta test in July working with 1,000 ingredients from 100 specialty product suppliers and a few foodservice operators who could order the artisan items online.

It recently gave the green light to expand the program to bring on more regional specialty suppliers to meet the growing demand for locally grown produce from its large operations, said Steve Schimoler, general manager of culinary business development.

He unveiled Sysco’s new program to a group of nearly 30 chefs and foodservice representatives at the invita-tional leadership forum Flavor, Quality and American Menus sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America, St. Helena, and the University of California-Davis, on Sept. 13.

Schimoler founded Chef Express in 1999 to help chefs get local specialty products and to help small growers find a market. He found that distribution was difficult — until Sysco bought the company a year ago.

ChefEx delivers the small quantities using Federal Express or UPS.

“With much of the product, the only way it could survive distribution is through this next-day quick turn-around model,” he said.

He believes that within a year, the company can amass a large enough group of suppliers to develop a solid national system of regional product. The ChefEx mission is to work directly with farmers, he said.

In 10 years, the whole purchasing system could be vastly different.

Three of Sysco’s 86 broadline centers handle produce procurement and quality assurance for the product that goes to each of the centers.

“The next generation would be an additional layer to that, which would focus more on real-time regionality and seasonality by using this system that is more directly driven by (restaurants) purchasing (product) than a buying arm purchasing it,” Schimoler said.

CUSTOM SUPPLIERS

Next, Sysco hopes to amass a group of custom suppliers that, through research and development with restau-rants, can develop customized meal components using the restaurant’s specified ingredients, Schimoler said.

For example, if an operator wants to go organic and selects a menu item of penne pasta with organic roasted tomato sauce, fresh basil, julienne grilled chicken and cheese, Sysco, working with suppliers, could source the products and create parts of the meal to deliver to the restaurants.

“We know the convenience world isn’t going away. … Our food world is changing. It will require manufactur-ers to make products that are better and safer — inspired by chefs,” he said.

BECOME A PARTNER

The plan would make Sysco more than a distributor — it would become a partner with volume operators in developing menus using green zebra tomatoes, organics or whatever unique items the operators want to use.

“If I needed 250,000 pounds of organic green zebra tomatoes for (X company), I couldn’t find them now. But if we start now building a network of integrated supply and demand with prudent direction, a year from now we could talk … and ensure that we can create the supply and create the specs that meet the needs of our industry,” Schimoler said.

Sysco, the largest broadline foodservice distributor in North America, reported in its latest financial report that fourth-quarter sales had risen 17% to $8.14 billion from $6.97 billion last year.