Touring the Sysco kitchen
I had heard of the Sysco kitchen briefly while we were doing market research for The Local Kitchen but had honestly kind of dismissed it in my mind almost immediately. When I thought of Sysco I thought of some huge industrial building with semi trucks idling outside and those big heavy strips of plastic that hit you in the face when you walk into some massive freezer lined with white boxes. And don't get me wrong, I'm sure Sysco has a facility that looks pretty much just like that. But the Sysco kitchen was not what I imagined at all.
First the kitchen is located on 4th st, sharing a neighbourhood with locally owned hairdressers and shops. When we walked in we were met by Glenn Schreuer, Business Review Specialist. He told us about what they did at the kitchen and the types of entrepreneurs they usually see. He was animated and spoke about a lot of the same hurdles and issues within our current food system that we want to help solve with our kitchen. Then we saw the actual kitchen, filled with sunlight and a huge island that just makes you want to pull up a stool and visit. And if you were going to stay for a visit, you'd have an awesome person to talk to. Tom Brownbridge is the corporate chef for the Sysco kitchen and this guy knows his stuff. Plus it sounds like he's had enough culinary adventures to hold the interest of anyone lucky enough to engage with him. I asked him some questions a few days later.
J: Hi Tom! Thanks so much for letting us invade your space the other day! We were really impressed with you and with what Sysco does. Do you mind us asking you a few questions about yourself and your gig here?
T: It was nice meeting you all the other day, and I love helping people, so anything you need don't hesitate to ask, it's kinda my jam.
J: I'm curious as to what your background is and how you ended up with Sysco?
T: I actually wrote and illustrated comic books till I was 33. I studied visual communication in Medicine Hat, took graphic design and then worked at an animation studio. Once that was over, I self-published comics for about 6 years. After my comic reached an end, I wanted to try something new. I took the professional Cooking course at SIAST. Because I was older (not necessarily wiser) and I knew the industry could be cut throat, I had to make sure I stood out. I left the course with distinction and found my first job at Boffins Club. From there I worked my way up in the industry very fast, which I take pride in. It came at a cost, but in a mere eight years I went from Executive Chef at a reputable hotel here to the Corporate Chef you see today.
J: Quite a winding tale! Creativity is obviously in your blood. How long have you worked for Sysco as their corporate chef?
T: Interestingly I have only been doing this for 7 months. I've been on the receiving side of these sessions as a chef myself and found them invaluable. The process of sitting across from knowledgeable chefs and industry consultants like the STIR team always helped spur creative solutions to existing issues that every restaurant faces. I was living in Belize last year, on the island of San Pedro running an independent restaurant, when I got word they were looking for a new chef for the Saskatoon test kitchen and dream jobs like this don't come around too often. So I packed my bags and returned home.
J: How long are your Sysco classes/presentations typically?
T: Sessions tend to vary. Typically when we have customers booked in its customer centric to their specific needs. Sometimes it's that they simply want to see a new product or see a quick solution to an existing problem. If we have the product in stock, they can be in the next day and out the door under an hour. For more in depth analysis into their operations and what we describe as a showcase menu, which is where I'll create 6-7 specific menu items for them to try for their operations, can take anywhere from an hour to two, depending on the customers' needs and what they wish to discuss.
J: What kind of dishes do you cook?
T: Every STIR analysis is a team effort. It starts with the consultant, the Marketing Associate (MA) who deals with that customer everyday. After the customer reveals to the MA their existing issues or ideas, the MA then consults with the chefs to create the showcase menu. Within the chefs, our STIR team specialists are able to assist in menu development and analysis to bring the full scope that are specific to that individuals operations upfront. So, the dishes are simply key centric to the needs of what the customer is needing or wanting. We have ranged from anywhere from Filipino cuisine to your classic independent family restaurant.
J: Do you design the menus?
T: If you're speaking of actual menus in which we assist in the actual design of restaurant menus, yes. Glenn Schreuer, our lead specialist can create creative, modern menu design. If you're speaking of the showcase menu, I do create those, along with the entire team to make sure the right showcase is being presented. The last thing we want to do is waste the customers time with an improper reading as to what they wish to see. Their time is valuable and we want to make sure the right showcase is put in front.
J: What is your favourite kind of cooking to do?
T: Personally, I've always considered myself a glorified food truck operator, which is to say I'm a lover of modern street food. But not being too modest, I find myself excelling in Caribbean Asian fusion or American soul food. I think being in this position allows me to be more adaptable and a chameleon of sorts.
J: What are you currently "cooking up"? :)
T: Just finished some sessions today, and while summer can be slow, there's always something from Sysco that we get ready for. In November we are teaming up with Beam Suntory to pair bourbon with some cool gastropub ideas for our customers.
J: Pretty awesome. You seem like you'd be a blast to take a class from. Maybe we'll poach you to teach a class or two at our kitchen if you're interested!
T: I'm a pretty humble guy, but I will say that I've taught classes before and I love engaging people, laughing and learning. So if you ever need a chef, gimme a shout, I'd love to help!
I think the majority of people have this overall feeling of distrust for large food companies these days, with good reason. But it was really encouraging to see Sysco, such a major company, listening to its customers and generally appearing to want to see them succeed with their businesses. Visiting their website I was met with TONS of helpful info for people in the food industry, from articles on menu planning to social media suggestions.With companies like Sysco putting their focus on the people behind their products and less on their profits margins hopefully we can regain some of that trust we've lost along the way.