Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the complexity of the modern global food distribution system. Let’s take a minute to consider something simple, like a morning cup of coffee from your favorite local shop. As a consumer, you’re buying a single item from a single supplier: your latte. But to create that item, the coffee shop had to build relationships with innumerable bulk food distributors. After all, somebody had to supply the milk, the espresso beans, and the flavored syrups that magically fuse to create your morning pick-me-up.
Though they rarely garner much fame or attention, bulk food distributors serve an integral function in the continuity of our food industry. They often work quietly behind the scenes, supporting the makers, entrepreneurs, and risk-takers of the food world.
Since the beginning, we’ve known that we wanted Northerly to fulfill two functions. First, we wanted to make sure that we could deliver fresh-from-the-farm oats directly to our customers. That meant by-stepping grain silos and bulk buyers to ensure we delivered a high quality, single-source product. Second, we wanted to become a go-to bulk food distributor for bakeries, breweries, food startups, markets, and restaurants across the country. As both a bulk distributor and a DTC seller, Northerly has a few distinct advantages.
Understanding the role of bulk food distributors
To know what sets Northerly apart from other bulk food distributors, we first have to understand what a bulk food distributor is.
When we use the term “bulk food distributor,” we’re not necessarily talking about bulk food stores (though we’re happy to sell our oats to those too!). Typically, food distributors serve as intermediaries, connecting food producers—or in our case, farmers—with food operators, like retailers or restaurants. Distributors often supply to both aspects of the food industry—retailers (grocery stores, convenience stores) and others (restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc.). They can range in size from one-truck operations to large, multinational corporations.
When we’re talking about food distributors who deal in large orders of shelf-stable bulks, we’re talking about broadline food distributors. These one-stop shops offer a wide variety of bulk goods. And while they certainly have their advantages—among them, convenience—they also have their drawbacks. After all, they principally serve as middlemen between farmers, retailers, and restaurants.
As M Source Ideas notes, “In the US, the [bulk food distribution] industry is highly fragmented, with Sysco capturing 17% of the market, US Foods with about 9%, Performance Food Group with 5%… The rest are spread across a host of smaller, regional players.” This fragmentation is a big part of Northerly’s success. It allows us to address gaps in the supply chains of larger companies.
So what sets Northerly apart from other bulk food distributors?
Like we already mentioned, consumers can get Northerly oats through two avenues. They can buy them directly from us, or experience them in their favorite baked goods, beers, beauty products, and granolas. And that gives us some distinct advantages when it comes to providing both a high-quality product and an exceptional experience to our customers and vendors alike.
Our CEO Isn’t Just a Distributor. He’s the Farmer.
Northerly’s CEO, Clayton B. R. Wolfe, is a fifth-generation farmer. And he takes great pride in the quality of Northerly’s rolled oats. To guarantee a high-quality product every single time, he’s honed in on every aspect of the supply chain. It’s not often that your food distributor knows where, how, and when a particular staple crop was grown. It’s even more unlikely that they’ll be able to send you a picture of the fields during the growing season. But it’s precisely that culture of transparency that Clayton has worked so hard to cultivate.
The benefits of buying directly from the farmer are multitude. First, there are fewer roadblocks to getting reliable information about the food. Do your customers want to know if the farmer used glyphosate during the growing process? We have those answers (hint: the answer is no when it comes to our rolled oats). Need to know the thickness of the oats or the moisture level of the oats post-production? We’ve got that information too. And we’re proud to be able to offer it up to our consumer-level and business-level buyers.
Your opinion matters
Another benefit of buying directly from the farmer is that your input shapes our practice. Because we’re in the business of selling our crops directly to our partners, we’re able to work closely with them to tailor the crop to meet their particular needs. In fact, our buyers are already changing the way we do business. At the request of our partners and customers, we’re currently working to provide certified gluten-free rolled oats. And, after hearing overwhelming demand for organic oats, we’ve begun researching ways to grow sustainable, organic oats near our headquarters in Scottsdale.
Because we’re the farmer, not the middleman, we’re also able to give you more control over the end product.
We also hear your feedback about the product directly and can make adjustments as needed in the field. Need more oats? We can fulfill orders of any size, from 2lbs to full truckloads (44,000 lbs). Our scalability gives us a distinct advantage over bulk food distributors who are serving as the liaison between farmers and businesses.
Our oats are single-source
From the beginning, we’ve known that we wanted to sell our oats, in our bags, through our distribution channels. This sets us apart from other bulk food distributors, who often have multiple purchase points from farmers around the country.
We might be biased, but we think you can taste the difference in single-source oats. But it’s not just all the effort we put into each bag. It’s also the consistency in quality, texture, and flavor. All of our oats are grown in the same fertile, Canadian soil. And, perhaps just as importantly, every bag comes from the same growing season. They undergo the same weather fluctuations, from warm summer days to early fall cold snaps. As a result, there’s a consistency in the quality of the oats that other bulk brands often can’t replicate.
Another benefit of single-source oats (and buying directly from us, the farmer) is the sustainability aspect of our supply chain. Our crops go straight from our farm, to our processor, to the warehouse. From there, we distribute them to customers across the country. By cutting out unnecessary steps in the supply chain, we’re reducing our carbon footprint and safeguarding the sustainability of our oats. Which brings us to the next differentiator between Northerly and other bulk food distributors:
Our focus on sustainability
From seed to well past sale, we look for ways to reduce our environmental impact. Whether that means using the latest advances in AgTech to grow our crops, or spending months finding the perfect compostable bags.
And our sustainability mission only continues to grow. In the next five years, we want to bring our processing and packaging in-house, so our oats can go straight from the fields to our facilities, and then out the door to our buyers and partners.
Plus, we’re looking for innovative ways to reuse our bulk packaging. For example, near our headquarters in the Phoenix area, we’ve been partnering with breweries who use our rolled oats. To facilitate eco-friendly delivery, we’re researching zero-waste fiber drums that are sustainable, easy to clean and reuse, and reduce packaging waste.
Whether you buy a two-pound bag for your home pantry or a 2,000-pound bag for your production kitchen, Northerly has got you covered. As a small business ourselves, we’re committed to supporting the creative visions of our partners. Whether you’re making breakfast more wholesome, brewing up some innovation, or taking care of breakfast so your clients can take care of business, Northerly is here to help. Get in touch today to see how we’re raising the bar for bulk food distributors.