5 Tips for Selling to Small, Regional Chains

Person Celebrating with Drink at Bar

Most of our industry is familiar with the “big names” in retail and restaurant chains. These are the giants that dominate our landscape, the ones that everyone knows. But, few fully understand the enormous opportunities that await in the next tier down.

There’s a whole world of opportunity in the form of hundreds of small, regional chains—both on and off-premise—waiting to be explored. While selling to these chains shares some similarities with selling to large chains, selling to these chains also presents unique challenges and rewards that can truly engage and intrigue sales professionals.

Characteristics of “small, regional” chains

The term “small” is relative, obviously. Talk to the owner of a 25-unit restaurant chain and ask if they consider their company “small.” They absolutely do not.

In the context of this article, there are several features of a small restaurant chain to consider:

  • All locations are located in a single state or metropolitan area.
  • They have one central buying office.
  • They average between 3 and 25 locations.
  • Often operate multiple concepts within the chain.

These parameters are arbitrary, but one must start somewhere.

When we use the term “small,” we do not mean a large national chain. Consider some of these numbers:

  • The Cheesecake Factory has 335 locations
  • The Kroger Company operates 2,750 grocery stores
  • Whole Foods has more than 500 retail locations
  • Outback Steakhouse has more than 700 restaurants

So, by contrast, a chain with 25 locations (or less) seems relatively small. Here are a few examples:

  • Gloria’s Latin Cuisine operates 23 restaurants – all in Texas.
  • Nugget Markets has 16 stores in California.
  • Royal Blue Grocery has 8 locations in Texas.
  • Thunderdome Restaurant Group runs eight different concepts in the Cincinnati area.

While the number of large national chains is around 150, there are well over 3,000 small regional chains.

The sheer number of smaller chains opens up many new opportunities for savvy wine and spirits brand owners looking to expand their distribution footprint.

Similarities and differences

Here are the primary similarities between large national chains and smaller regional chains:

  • One central buying office
  • Multiple locations
  • The need to differentiate from competitors
  • The need for revenue, cost control, and guest satisfaction

Here are the primary differences between them:

  • Multi-state footprint versus single state
  • Less complexity in terms of pricing and logistics due to operating within only one state
  • Smaller chains are more nimble and able to make decisions more quickly.
  • Smaller chains generally have a shorter buying cycle.

Tip #1: Accept that this is a very complex sale with a long sales cycle

By “complex,” we mean long sales cycles with multiple decision-makers.

Anyone serious about pursuing this account type should read Jeff Thule’s book “Mastering the Complex Sale.”

Securing new distribution in a small, regional chain involves many steps. It will take many “touches” across a wide range of people over a long period of time.

Any notions of simply making a great presentation or pitch must be abandoned. This game does not work that way.

One of our favorite quotes from Jeff Thull’s book is this: “The sale should be merely a byproduct of a much larger relationship.”

Tip #2: Think in terms of a “cast of characters”

Rarely does just one person make the beverage purchasing decisions. While the number of people in this internal committee will vary greatly from chain to chain, the key is to remember that you will need to forge relationships with multiple people within the organization.

The more people you meet within the chain, the better. This is where a sales execution platform (CRM system) is indispensable. You need a place to capture and store all the nitty gritty details of each person you meet.

Sales pros used to having a well-worn patch to ONLY the primary buyer will never succeed in the multi-unit trade channel.

Here are a few of the typical roles you might find in a small, regional restaurant chain, for example:

  • Founder or Co-Founder
  • President or CEO
  • VP of Operations
  • VP of Purchasing/Procurement
  • VP of Marketing
  • Corporate Chef
  • Regional Managers
  • General Managers
  • Assistant General Manager
  • Corporate trainers
  • VP of Human Resources

The more people you get to know and interact with inside the organization, the more ideas you will have to serve the chain better.

One of the most difficult things about calling on chains (large and small) is creating reasons to get in front of the key people. The opportunities to do so expand directly in proportion to the number of people you interact with.

Tip #3: It’s generally not about your products (or not nearly as much as you think it is)

This is a hard pill to swallow for most readers. Our industry is outsizedly infatuated with the product itself.

Regional chains have no problem acquiring great wines and spirits at great prices. That is not where they struggle.

They strive to find vendors who can provide a high level of service and logistics across all their physical locations.

If you can get in front of some of the key decision-makers for these chains, you would be wise to refrain from talking about the features and benefits of your products. This will do nothing to make you relevant to them.

And “relevancy” should be your end goal. To achieve this, you must dive deep into research about the chain and its cast of characters before you attempt to approach them in person.

So, what exactly IS “relevant” to a regional chain? The list might include:

  • Growing foot traffic
  • Increasing revenue
  • Controlling costs
  • Improving guest satisfaction
  • Providing a unique product selection
  • Optimizing shelf or menu space
  • Maintaining a positive cash flow
  • Keeping a close eye on competitors
  • Evolving and adapting to the ever-changing needs of their customers

Too many sellers in our industry focus solely on their products and sales goals. That approach will never work for small, regional chains. As Jeff Thull likes to say, the sale should be merely a byproduct of a much larger relationship.

Tip #4: It’s OK to contact them directly (with no intermediary)

Nowadays, all the big national chains prefer supplier partners to channel their communications and interactions through their primary distributors. This makes great sense, but it is also a common source of frustration for suppliers.

However, this “gated access” is far more porous and less closely guarded regarding the smaller chains because there are so many.

This is good news for smaller suppliers who have trouble getting attention from their distributor partners. Smaller regional chains don’t need an “intermediary” to conduct business.

This does not mean it will be easy to get in front of all the right people, but it does mean no one will stand in your way.

Your chances of success are greatly improved to the degree you accept and rely on Tips #1 through #3 above.

While we are on direct access, remember that the major chains will always be elusive for small brands. Still, the field is wide open for small regional chains and high-volume independent accounts.

High-volume opportunities abound for suppliers savvy enough to do the necessary research to uncover them.

Tip #5: Never underestimate the value of “service after the sale.”

One primary characteristic of small regional chains is that their leaders are extremely busy. As a result, they tend to be very loyal to their best vendors.

Since screening potential new vendors and suppliers is a time-intensive process. The leadership team has a lighter workload by sticking with their most trusted and valued suppliers.

While breaking into a regional chain requires much work and energy, maintaining an existing business takes less time. But it does require some effort.

Many wine and spirits brands recognize that sales team members make better “hunters” than “skinners” and, therefore, do not leave the customer support tasks to the salespeople.

Instead, they provide an extra layer of support through a role called “Sales Operations Manager.” The duties of a Sales Operations Manager include:

  • Bird-dogging inventory at the distributor level.
  • Monitoring pricing accuracy on all invoices.
  • Personally handling out-of-stock situations as they arrive and quickly fixing them.
  • Be the central point of contact for all store-level managers within the chain – a customer service hotline, if you will.

All can agree on the importance of keeping the business you’ve worked so hard to gain, but few truly understand what it takes to do so.

Examples abound of brand owners who worked hard to make placements in a regional chain but found themselves out in the cold down the road because they failed to provide the level of service the chain expected.

This is a shame because creating a strong vendor partnership with a regional chain can be a reliable and consistent source of business for years to come. It is one of the most effective ways to grow sales over the long term.

In times of stiff competition and multiple headwinds, “efficiency” in your sales process is key

One of the most powerful arguments for deploying a less-is-more approach to sales is the pursuit of efficiency in the process.

Chains are inherently “efficient” because one call point translates to dozens of points of distribution.

Chains are also efficient because the placements achieved tend to stay in place for long periods (years).

In times of intense competition and strong headwinds, efficiency becomes even more important.

The time and energy available to a salesperson is very limited. To “leverage” this time and energy, planning ahead and keeping their focus narrow is essential.

It is wiser to pursue a narrow-and-deep approach to each market instead of a wide-and-thin approach. Small regional chains are a cornerstone of this strategy.