How To Find A Distributor For Your Food Startup

Whether you’re the proud owner of a baked goods empire or an organic farmer, here's how to find a food distributor that meets your needs.

Photo: Joel Goldstein; Source: © Macbeth Studio
Photo: Joel Goldstein; Source: © Macbeth Studio

Whether you’re the proud owner of a fledgling baked goods empire or an ambitious organic farmer, you’ll need to follow many of the same steps as you look for a distributor for your product.

Cracking into the food industry requires a fresh approach if you want your products to shine on shelves. I’ll explain key steps to introduce your brand to retailers, restaurants, farmer’s markets, schools, hospitals, and even online providers.

Sales are climbing, your customer base is expanding, and it’s becoming more difficult for your company to handle the demand on your own. This is generally the point where you will look for food distribution companies to help boost productivity and effectively expand operations.

Here are a few things to look for as you search for the right partner.


Look for the middleman

The first step to forming a fruitful union with a food distributor is to learn which company best aligns with your brand’s mission and vision. Things like freshness, quality ingredients, and the masterful production of your most prized recipes top most people’s lists.

Ask your potential distributor about the types of products they currently carry. Some food distributors produce and transport mixed inventory (i.e. conventionally grown and certified organic). Others are strictly organic providers. There are pros to dealing with both groups but, essentially, the goal is to find the most qualified distributor capable of reducing time and effort you have to commit to production, marketing, and transportation.


Photo: Caroline Attwood, Unsplash
Photo: Caroline Attwood, YFS Magazine

Helpful Hint: Do some digging to see who’s transporting your competitors’ products. It’d be nice to partner with a distributor that’s already familiar with your industry and audience.


Decide which type of distributor you’ll need

Next, you need to have a clear understanding of exactly who you’re dealing with and what they offer. All distributors aren’t created equally. It’s important to know what they are capable of handling. There are distributors who only handle transportation. Others offer marketing and sales strategies. When it comes down to distribution, you’ll also face differences in region, retail partners, and overall involvement.


Nationwide distributors

Some companies operate through a nationwide arrangement and distribute food from manufacturers and kitchens throughout the country. They boast established relationships with prominent retailers, which makes them powerful influencers across various industries.

When you expand your brand with a nationwide distributor it grants you access to a seasoned route that directly leads to retailers your target audience trust to satisfy their needs. Just be mindful, competition can be stiff when you pitch a nationwide distributor. Be prepared to prove your brand is ready to withstand such a drastic boost in production.


Regional distributors

Regional (or local) distributors have access to a smaller geographical location, so they naturally offer less brand recognition. Although regional distributors may not have access to major food chains, there are other advantages like personalized interactions and greater engagements with their contracted manufacturers.


Specialty distributors

If you’ve built your brand around a specialty food item, whether because of handling or an isolated sales area, there are also specialty food distributors that may be more experienced in handling your specific product. Specialty distributors may be more equipped to handle your product’s delicate handling needs, but it may cost a bit more to make it onto that exclusive list.


How to find a food distributor


Conduct a search

Since we’re living in such a glorious age driven by accessible information, finding distributors has become easier than ever. Start with an online search query. (Be sure to include the type of distributor you’re looking for.) Create a long list of possible partners, then narrow down your options.


Ask for referrals

Ask around to see what distributors your current retailers trust. You can also run a few names from your list past a specific retailer to get some additional insight on the distribution company’s reputation.


Meet and greet potential distributors

Attend a few trade shows and sales expos to network with successful business owners and meet distributors in person. It’s nice to get a direct feel of who the company is and how they’re prepared to help you take your product to the next level.


Build a relationship

Take all the information you’ve gathered, from online searches, retailers and manufacturers, and distributors firsthand, and identify the most promising options. As a final step prepare a persuasive pitch that piques a distributors’ interest. Your potential partnership will take shape through the power of your pitch. Don’t take this step lightly, your future depends on it.


Tips on working with a distributor

Working with a distributor can take a tremendous amount of stress off your shoulders. However, once you form a partnership that doesn’t mean your work is over. Even after you deliver the perfect pitch, and setup a meeting to discuss next steps, there are a few things to consider:


  • Sales guidance – If your distributor does not offer sales strategies, you’re 100% responsible for anything outside of step-by-step distribution.

  • Cost margins – Different services warrant different cost margins from the distributor, so be prepared to price your product accordingly. Always make sure you have a clear understanding of your margins.

  • Distribution timelines – The time elapsed between signing a contract and shipping your products can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months. Be sure to check to see how long the distributor estimates the process will take and consider how many new product launches they have to facilitate.


Even if your product is one of hundreds (or even thousands) produced with a distributor, you should still expect to feel a sense of personalization. You want to be sure that you’re trusting your legacy with a competent organization that values your brand as if it were their own business.


Joel Goldstein is a retail trendspotter, CPG strategist and best-selling author. He is the “go-to” person when trying to place a new product into retail, as well as the host of RetailSummit.live. As expert in the industry, Joel is able to advise you where your product will be best received. Connect with @mrcheckout on Twitter.



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