by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest
It is no secret that over time smaller food brokers have been swallowed up by larger organizations or they have consolidated and become larger firms themselves. Now, if the pendulum is swinging back toward the small broker, Fresh Solutions of Texas is out in front of it.
Carl Riley, Randall Colmer and Larry Siarski saw a void where there should have been a food broker dedicated to fresh departments. They decided to fill that space and formed Fresh Solutions of Texas in 2016. The company’s motto is simple: “We will do it better.”
“We saw a real need and an opportunity to start a company that was only dedicated to fresh foods—meat, produce, bakery, deli, the perimeter of the store,” said Riley, who is CEO. “Basically, the trend was for other brokers to go wall-to-wall and we saw that as going the opposite direction of what the marketplace really needed. Customers wanted department-specific brokers.”
The Houston-based company with a laser focus on the perimeter of the grocery store has an impressive client list, including companies such as Cacique, Bar-S Foods, Earl Campbell Meat Products and Kountry Boys Sausage. Riley said the company’s strategy has been hugely successful.
When the business was just getting started, there were the three founders and one other employee managing the office. Today, the company has a staff of 14. Staff members call on stores as many as three times per week. That, too, is the opposite of the service many retailers experience.
“In our higher-volume stores, we are in those stores two to three times per week, which is absolutely unheard of in our industry. I don’t know of another broker that has merchandisers going into any grocery store more than once a week,” said Colmer, Fresh Solutions of Texas president and COO. “We’ve become an extension of that retailer just by the fact that our people are in there so much. They rely on them.”
The Fresh Solutions model is unique not only because its staff members are in stores so often, but also because the three owners themselves are “close to the shelf.”
“All ownership has account responsibility. We all carry the bag,” Riley said. “We all call on retailers, so we stay close to the customer base instead of being one step removed. We have weekly contact calling on customers we are responsible for.”
It is double the work for them, but so critical that they say they will never change that part of the business model.
Fresh Solutions of Texas retail specialists talk to the meat market, deli and bakery managers, the folks overseeing perimeter departments. They may go directly to the meat department to help solve a problem.
“They are physically touching the product, not just looking at it,” Colmer said. “If there’s a missing tag, that tag is going to be fixed before they leave. We work the detail of the case.”
Colmer and Riley both have retail grocery experience. They know what is needed on the retail side and understand the challenges retailers face. Their customers are strong grocers—Food Town, Fiesta, Brookshire Brothers, Seller Bros., Foodarama, Arlan’s Market, El Rio—that they collectively refer to as “the independent base.”
“Texas is still a large independent market,” Colmer said. “We call on four direct-buying warehouses, six meat distributors, 20 retail banners and 350 grocery stores. That’s our world. That’s what we’re focused on.”
While other brokers focus on national retailers like Walmart and Kroger, Fresh Solutions of Texas strives to “over-service” independent grocers, whom Colmer and Riley say have been neglected by larger brokers. Fresh Solutions of Texas went against the grain to service the independent operator.
“We all grew up in the independent world. We appreciate what they go through. It takes twice as long to earn half as much. It is very labor intensive,” Colmer said. “That’s the reason the national brokers are trending away from it, because it does cost so much to service the independent sector. We operate on tight margins and we are fine with that.”
Some of the 28 manufacturers Fresh Solutions of Texas represents are small outfits themselves. Some make items specifically for one independent grocery chain.
“Those types of clients are the ones that really get lost in a big broker house, but they are important to us,” Colmer said.
Word-of-mouth has helped Fresh Solutions of Texas grow. Clients have come to them as the cost of doing business continues to rise. Time is another factor. Retailers don’t have time to manage categories themselves.
“They rely on people they can trust to help them with that effort,” Riley said. “That’s the biggest word in there: trust. I would highlight and underline that.”
It is a core value. Fresh Solutions of Texas will not recommend products to retailers that could be detrimental to their business, and it will not represent a brand if it does not believe it can grow its business.
Riley, Colmer and Siarski worked together for more than two decades at The Vaughn Group, a fresh food broker. Riley has more than 40 years of experience in the grocery industry and the brokerage business. His first job was at Weingarten’s Grocery Co. He was a partner and then president of The Vaughn Group until it was sold to Acosta Sales & Marketing in 2003. At Acosta, he was VP of Texas Fresh Foods. He has been honored for his work on behalf of Carl Buddig, Tyson, Jimmy Dean and others.
Colmer also has more than 40 years of experience in the industry. He started his career with Brookshire Brothers, where he learned the fresh meat business and worked his way up to market supervisor. He joined The Vaughn Group in 1995. He also has received multiple awards for his work as a market and deli broker, including twice earning team honors as Tyson Broker of the Year.
Siarski has more than 35 years in the grocery industry. He spent some time in Minneapolis at Baldwin & Mattson before returning to Houston to work for Decker Foods. He joined The Vaughn Group in 1993. He also is an award-winning broker, honored for his work with Jimmy Dean, Tyson and others.
The phones at Fresh Solutions of Texas keep ringing. The company does not go out and sell itself. It doesn’t have to. Manufacturers have learned to ask their retail customers where to go for the best service they can provide. Any company can say they are the best, but the customer truly knows who offers great customer service.
Colmer said the company has growth plans, but it will be methodical about it and “loyal to the brands that we represent.”
“This is a dream come true. I don’t think any of us ever dreamed we’d become this big this quick,” Colmer said. “I think there was a hunger out there with the manufacturers that wanted another option. It shows that the vision we had wasn’t an illusion.”