Relying on expertise

by Steve Krut
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The foodservice industry has become a bigger stage with fewer but more polished and well-heeled players. That’s why it’s refreshing to see a small company continuing to grow by hanging its hat on old-fashioned service.

Reliable Brothers Inc. is one of those small, independent companies that has remained in its Albany, NY, base, but has continually innovated to keep pace with, and in many cases stay ahead of, the larger competition.

Manager Ben Anderson is kindly philosophical about those national competitors:

“We think they do a good job and appreciate them,” he says. “But their strengths make us keep refining and improving what we do. We see our biggest opportunities through the individualized service, knowledge and expertise we bring to the table.”

The fourth-generation purveyor delivers portion-cut meats within a 70-mile radius from its 13,000-sq.-ft. processing facility located in an industrial park in the Albany suburb of Green Island. About 650 active hotel-restaurant-institutional (HRI) customers are serviced two to three times a week by its small but efficient fleet of seven trucks.

But it is Reliable Brothers’ custom-cutting-and-service approach that keeps the business a notch ahead of the field.

“We try to offer same-day delivery and will make every effort to get a last-minute order on a truck,” Anderson says, adding that “if it hasn’t left yet, that order is on that truck.” This is not the norm in the HRI trade.

‘Green’ thinking

“Everything we do is with an eye toward greater efficiency. With soaring fuel costs, we’ve gone to the most efficient type of vehicles. When we built the new plant 10 years ago, we were thinking ‘green’,” he explains. “We are powered by hydro-electric throughout. Five years after it was completed, we changed the entire plant-lighting system to get one that was more cost-effective.”

He points out that Reliable Brothers places great trust in its employees, including the drivers, whose feedback is critical to adjusting routes.

“They really are family to us and we’re proud to say we’ve never had to lay off a single employee,” Anderson says. “They see and interact with our customers daily and know where we need to change in the way we do things. We have very little worker turnover and value every employee greatly.”

A peek at the firm’s website (reliablebrothers.com) reveals an almost unbelievable variety of products, a list 17 pages long! It includes beef, pork, veal, poultry and seafood – the stock of most purveyors. But the list also boasts an array of deli items, cheeses, appetizers, vegetables, pastas, sauces, soups, desserts, dressings, breads and wraps, paper and miscellaneous supplies, such as eggs and pizza boxes. They offer suckling pigs, ready-to-cook fresh pastrami and even have a crawfish-andouille ravioli in their nuovo pasta section.

While most HRI suppliers list standard portions available, Reliable Brothers feels a potent plus for their business is their willingness to also make those cuts to the customer’s exacting specifications.

Family history

The company traces its roots to 1935 when the Armenian Buchakjian family purchased an existing business in Albany’s center-city outdoor farmers market. They were known as Reliable Brands and featured dairy and produce in addition to the meats they custom cut for the city’s restaurants and diners. Anderson grew up as a friend of the family, particularly of brothers Kyle and Van Buchakjian, now vice president and president, respectively. Their father, Richard, who is an owner, is one of five key personnel who staff the office, lending greater credence to Ben’s claim of strong product knowledge. The firm changed its name to Reliable Brothers Inc., when the new facility was built.

“We don’t have a call center that’s answered by someone out of ‘the know,’” Anderson elaborates. “The calls come to one of us in the office and we take each call personally. We value the customer’s time and they don’t have to wait for a callback when it’s inconvenient or too late for their order. They appreciate being able to talk to the owners directly.”

Ben asserts the ownership believes in and practices a “hands on” approach to running the business. He spends a lot of time in the warehouse, meeting with drivers, updating training information and assuring that safety measures are followed to the T. Kyle does much the same in production areas, devoting constant attention to see that the standards they set are followed in practice.

Reliable purchases from major beef suppliers, gets it pork from Indiana and Canada, and most poultry from the Del-Mar, Va. region. But it also purveys American-raised Wagyu Kobe beef and recently found sales booming when it added a line of Certified Hereford meats.

The company sells to and works with community college and trade school culinary programs. The family owned business believes that exposure to its product lines helps new graduates better understand the quality and customized choices in its inventory. Kyle Buchakjian adds that many top chefs once worked for others and that “word of mouth” plays a major role in growing and sustaining their business.

Less than three years ago, the firm opened a second website (rbsteaks.com) that is geared to home chefs, retirees and consumers seeking “higher quality” meats and foods. Although the family describes the site as “still in its infancy”, its sales are soaring with steak, roasts and other meat specials being shipped across the continental US. These retail accounts can also pick up orders at the plant. Reliable estimates this area now accounts for 1 percent of its volume, but it hopes it will continue to grow over the next few years.

The company has been producing a raw corned beef brisket for the past five years that customers can cook to their own tastes and finds it rated as the best around.

Maintaining efficiency

With 34 employees, including five meat cutters, the purveyor maintains a USDA-inspected processing area, with grinding and packaging operations. Equipment is always eyed toward getting the most efficient systems in place, and the firm recently added a new Risco 205 stuffer. About 20 percent of the products it sells are processed within the plant, including an expanded line of sausages.

Reliable recently teamed with an area brewery and local customer chefs to perfect a dark beer sausage with peppers and onions. Anderson says the family works to keep tinkering with products until they are perfect.

The HRI trade can be volatile and Reliable approaches new accounts with an offer of seven days for credit sales.

So while the HRI competition may include those who cater to the big-box stores or offer an inventory of 20,000 products, Anderson says his firm taps into its product and customer knowledge to create a custom environment that gives its clientele what it wants and in the exact quantities it needs.

Some may refer to that as niche marketing, but for Reliable Brothers, it’s just being an old-fashioned, one-stop butcher shop that is thriving on a competitive stage.

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