From New York, with love

by Larry Aylward
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The phrase “food made with love” sounds like something from the peace movement of the 1960s. But 50 years later, the saying is back in vogue as the slogan for Elliot Fread’s business, Bimmy’s, a wholesale gourmet sandwich maker based in Long Island City, NY.

Fread is the founder and owner of Bimmy’s, which offers more than 100 sandwiches (chicken salad on walnut raisin bread is a favorite), wraps (chicken caesar is popular), paninis, salads and other foods.

The 50-year-old Fread, a third-generation chef who grew up in Brooklyn, is a stickler for quality, only purchasing the best food components money can buy for his sandwiches. This includes meat products from Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Michigan Turkey Producers and Philadelphia-based Dietz & Watson. Bimmy’s recently struck a deal with Michigan Turkey Producers to have a line of turkey and chicken products made to its specifications.

What does Fread demand in a top-line meat or poultry product?

“As clean a product as possible with as little pump and additives as possible,” he says.

Bimmy’s, founded in 1994, has grown into one of New York City’s largest wholesalers of high-end sandwiches. Bimmy’s employs about 80 people and has annual revenues of about $10 million.

“More people are moving toward quality, freshness and healthy eating,” Fread says. “I set high-quality standards early on, and we have slowly built our reputation on that.”

Bimmy’s sandwiches are currently sold in airports, gourmet food stores, coffee bars, health stores and even drugstores. Bimmy’s are located in 44 units of Duane Reade, a drugstore chain in metropolitan New York. Dean Cohagan, Duane Reade’s category manager of fresh and frozen food, says Bimmy’s offers creativity and quality with its product, but at a value. For example, its wasabi chicken sandwich is fresh, healthy and a value at $6.49, he adds.

“We’re seeing a huge success with the program,” Cohagan says, adding that people who buy Bimmy’s products range from tourists, residents and commuters. “Bimmy’s will grow with us.”

Fread is serious when he talks about food made with love; it’s not just a slogan.

“It’s our working philosophy and our way of life at Bimmy’s,” he says.

Fread says people ask him what his secret is to making a sandwich taste so good. When he tells them the secret ingredient is love, Fread admits people look at him funny. Then he explains that Bimmy’s uses the best and freshest ingredients, prepares the food with care and provides service from the heart.

And people understand, Fread says.

Growing up on food

Fread is a foodie through genetics, if that’s possible. His grandfather, Hans, owned a four-star restaurant in Toronto and was one of Canada’s first celebrity chefs, hosting a live cooking show in the 1950s. Fread’s father, Ronald, worked as the food director for a large hospital and won awards for some of his creations.

When Elliot was 10 years old, his dad taught him to make crepes. When his parents had neighbors over for dinner, Ronald would pay Elliot a few dollars to make crepes for dessert.

“The neighbors would say, ‘Wow, these are really good,’” Fread recalls. “They wanted to hire me for their next dinner party. So at 10 years old I was an entrepreneur, making my own crepes and sauces. That was really my first taste of business.”

He was just a kid, but Fread dreamed of opening his own restaurant. But if he wanted to live his dream, his dad told him that he needed to become a great cook.

Fread attended some culinary schools after high school, but his dad told him that gaining cooking experience was the best teacher. So Fread went to work as a short-order cook. He then moved into finer cooking and continued to progress.

When Fread explored opening his own business, he thought sandwiches and comfort food would do well in Brooklyn. At the time, Fread was 29 and dating a woman with a Lebanese background who introduced him to Syrian pita bread. Fread, who often ate on the run, would make lunch from a piece of the round, thin pita by placing turkey slices and pickles on it with a dash of Russian dressing. He’d roll up the bread with its ingredients and eat it.

Eventually, it hit Fread that he might be on to something with his creation.

“I thought…this could be really interesting,” he says. “So, I came up with this concept of the hand-rolled sandwich. I thought it was completely different, and that I could create all these different sauces and flavors.”

Fread began selling the hand-rolled sandwiches, featuring low-sodium meats, in his friend’s Manhattan coffee bar, and Bimmy’s was born.

“What I created was what people call ‘wraps’ today,” Fread says. “The only difference is that 21 years ago the only wrap was rap music.”

One day, a customer at the coffee shop asked Fread if he could sell his sandwiches wholesale. The customer was a café owner in Manhattan. Fread told him he could, but he knew nothing about selling wholesale at the time.

“Having someone buy a premade sandwich was the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.

But Fread wanted to make it happen. He says he went home and stayed up most of the night making samples to present to the customer the next morning. It resulted in Fread’s first wholesale order.

“My head was spinning,” he says. “It was a whole new market for me.”

Fread decided to pursue other customers. He rented a small space in Manhattan to open a small kitchen. Soon, the orders began pouring in. As that occurred, Fread vowed there was one thing he wouldn’t change: He wasn’t going to add preservatives to his sandwiches or package them in a modified atmosphere to make them last longer.

“Our product has a two-day shelf life,” Fread says. “That’s exactly what I’ve stuck to for all these years. It’s what sets me apart.”

The ingredient of love

Well before Bimmy’s began, Fread was part of a group that did volunteer work in the community, distributing food to hungry and homeless people. The group also sent food to an Indian reservation in upstate New York. Fread and the group became friends with some of the Indians and were invited to a ceremony on a reservation in Arizona. At the time, Fread had no idea of the impact it would have on him personally and professionally.

Fread volunteered at the reservation’s commissary during his visit, where most of the Indian women worked, and helped them prepare food for the reservation’s residents. He was amazed at the care and joy they took in preparing the food.

“It was a sacred responsibility for them to prepare food for their people,” he says. “That stuck with me from that day forward.”

The reservation was where Fread learned that quality is crucial in the food-making process, and that food shouldn’t be processed with too many preservatives and chemicals. It was also on the reservation that Fread said he learned to make food with love.

About a year after opening Bimmy’s, Fread decided to adopt the “food made with love” moniker. At first, Fread figured his employees would think he was “nuts” for telling them that they had to make food with love. But they bought into the philosophy.

“I told them that I wanted them to be happy when they made our food because they’re feeding people, which is a sacred responsibility,” Fread says. “They said they understood. I received the complete opposite response that I thought I would.”

Jeff Rubin is one employee who has bought into the concept. Rubin, who owned his own deli for 20 years before selling it, joined Bimmy’s as its general manager three years ago.

“We shared a similar philosophy in being customer-oriented, providing great quality food and making food with love,” he says. “Quality sells itself.”

Rubin points out that Bimmy’s still wraps its sandwiches by hand as part of its quality initiative.

“You don’t see that much in our industry anymore,” he adds.

Growing the business

Seven years ago, Fread moved the business to a 20,000-sq.-ft. space in Long Island City near Queens for a much cheaper rental price than in Manhattan. But like a lot of businesses, Bimmy’s hit a road bump a few years ago — the Great Recession — and sales suffered.

“The recession hurt everyone,” Fread says. “I watched companies close and change their products to make them cheaper and cheaper. We stayed on track with a quality product and selling it at a fair price.”

Fread also worked on making the business more efficient. In doing so he purchased an automated meat slicer from Weber Slicer North America.

There have been other business challenges. Two years ago, Bimmy’s declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the result of a class-action labor case. Fread can’t comment on the matter, but says the company will come out of Chapter 11 at the end of the year and is poised for growth.

A reason for that is that Bimmy’s has become a USDA-inspected facility. A few years ago, Fread realized he was leaving some business on the table because his facility was only state inspected. He decided to convert the operation to USDA-inspected to grow the business and to be better positioned for future trends, including potential new food-safety regulations. Bimmy’s completed the process earlier this year.

“It has been a whole new learning process, and we’ve had to retrain our staff,” Fread says.

In the short term, Fread plans to expand into New Jersey and Connecticut. While he believes the company is poised for future growth, Fread is in no hurry to overtake Subway.

“I’m a very old-school business person in that I try to move slowly, and I’m not greedy,” he says. “I like to take on an account and make sure it’s running perfect before I take on any new business.”

Speaking of new business, and after much consideration, Fread decided to try the vending machine business – on his terms. While vending machines have often been regarded as serving up sandwiches made with mystery meat, Fread is trying to change that. He has agreed to sell his products through vending machines in large companies and firms whose employees desire healthy and fresh sandwiches. Healthy and fresh vending is a growing trend.

Another trend Fread sees is that more operations like Duane Reade are beginning to sell high-end fresh food. Fread has gone to Duane Reade stores to watch customers purchase Bimmy’s products. He says more consumers are studying nutritional labels than ever.

Fread believes more people are willing to spend more for quality as long as they consider it a value. He expects consumers will be impressed with the products supplied by Michigan Turkey Producers, including buffalo chicken, Cajun fried turkey, oil fried chicken and others flavored with a maple-chipotle mixture, a special herb rub and a balsamic-fig coating. Everything in the line will be antibiotic-free, which Fread says fits perfectly with the company’s food-made-with-love concept.

Because he demands quality, Fread will always have high food costs. But he says he’s not hung up on maintaining high profit margins.

“We don’t work on high margins, but we work on offering a quality product at a very fair price,” he says. “I’m happy with that. It leads to growth, which leads to creating jobs and a better economy.”

And it all starts with a business slogan that’s straight out of the ’60s.

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor from Medina, Ohio.

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