Where Wholesaling is a Piece of Cake
Featherstone Foods prides itself on making wholesale bread and baked goods distribution a piece of cake. This year, the premier New York bread wholesaler celebrates 35 years of business in the city…
Featherstone Foods’ online ordering, speedy service and impeccable quality are tremendous advantages for chefs and caterers, who all know the frustration and time constraints of dealing with multiple suppliers. And the company’s convenient invoicing system itemizes selections regardless of bakery, saving hours of precious time on paperwork. Indeed, Joel Schonfeld and his team proudly relieve the catering industry of all proverbial millstones involved in ordering baked goods.
With a vast range of breads and sweets from over 25 top NYC bakeries, the company offers daily record-time delivery from multiple bakers. Its overnight manager’s shift starts at 10pm to ensure that each order is dispatched on time, while a sophisticated GPS system keeps deliveries on track every step of the way, seven days a week.
Featherstone Foods’ 20 000 square foot warehouse is based in the Bronx, slightly north of Manhattan, and distributes in a 100-mile, or two-hour radius. The company delivers to Philadelphia in the south, the Hamptons in the east, the hills of New Jersey in the west, and north to Westchester and Connecticut.
The team behind the label is as diverse as its offering, and works together as a family. There are folks from all over the world, including Ghana, Norway, Peru, Chile, Pakistan and Brooklyn – around 50 in total. Some employees have been with Featherstone Foods as long as 15 or 20 years, and the sense of goodwill and positivity is palpable. Every single person gets an office birthday party topped with a fabulous cake and a gift. The President not only composes a parody unique to the occasion, but he sings it too. “It’s fun and it really makes us a family. We’re here every day; you’re here and then you’re home. So we try and make it very pleasant,” says Joel. With happy vibes inspiring everyone, ‘no’ becomes obsolete. There is even a ‘no NO’ sign in the office to remind everyone of the team’s can-do ethos.
Although his style has mellowed a lot, Joel still sees himself as very hands-on. For the first year, he did everything, including deliveries. This is why he appreciates how hard everyone works. At Featherstone Foods, one swallow doesn’t make a summer and everyone is an appreciated, important part of the business – like Maty Dioum, who Joel regards as the glue that holds the office together. About six years ago, Joel also hired two contributors who allowed him to stand back and see the bigger picture. Dave Zigler had worked as a purchaser in the hotel industry, and with his background and credibility, the company’s hotel client base has grown tremendously. Eli Richman had his own baked goods business in the 80s, and after handling production for the company who bought his business, he decided to join Featherstone Foods.
The journey that led President, Joel Shonfield, to the wholesale bread industry was an interesting and, perhaps, fateful one. Joel started off with a very successful run in the fashion industry as a trained fabric designer, in the late 1970s. He loved it, but he saw little of the large sums of revenue he generated for the company. He built up the business from about $200,000 to about $2,000,000 in value but didn’t have much to show for his work. After some time at a fabric mill in Japan, he returned to America and decided to resign.
It was 1982, and Joel was living in Manhattan and working as a waiter. A friend became a manager of a bakery called Hot and Crusty, which belonged to people from Zimbabwe. They were the first to bring European breads to New York City, and they soon noticed that Joel was a good salesperson. They suggested that he start up a bread wholesaler. Today, he laughs at the memory. “I told them I don’t know anything about bread, but that’s what I ended up doing,” he says. For two years, he didn’t sleep much, because he did everything himself. He took orders, did deliveries, expanded his bakery portfolio, got some more drivers and before he knew it, he had 35 drivers and around 20 bakeries on his books. The timing was superb. Although he had to borrow money from a friend to buy a van with a hole by the gas pedal, New York City saw the dawn of celebrity chefs and he was set to soar – despite getting wet in the rain.
“Up until then, bread wasn’t really important, but in the 1980s, when chefs became celebrities, their restaurants became very famous and bread suddenly became an important part of the equation,” Joel tells us. Restaurants like Le Bernardin, Gotham Grille and Montrachet all wanted the best bread. It was the perfect time to get started, and the business really took off. Today, Featherstone Foods’ client profile comprises mainly whole foods companies, bigger corporate caterers, country clubs, and similar.
It helps that the company is extremely versatile. If a client wants a baked product that isn’t in its collection, Joel and his team will go out and find a bakery who will create exactly what that client needs.
With rising costs, ordering from Featherstone Foods just makes sense. You get prompt delivery, save heaps of time, and get superb service at the same price as you would at the bakery. “When we have a new prospective customer I’m with them for an hour. I take what we call the exciting, ‘wow!’ items. An hour might be a long time, but it gives you a customer for life. It’s worth investing an hour in your customer,” says Joel. He believes in being creative when it comes to introducing new products. “Nobody’s interested in a dog and pony show,” he says. “It is important to know who your customer is and to adapt to his or her needs.”
This creativity also shows in many of the company’s products. Featherstone Foods has a pretzel crossed with a croissant and a sandwich called a pullapart, which is a long, scored loaf that allows one to make a whole load of two-bite sandwiches in one go, rather than wasting time on making individual sandwiches. Of course, an NYC bakery business wouldn’t be the real deal without bagels. Featherstone Foods carries three different ranges, and the most popular one is the hand-rolled, boiled bagel. Donuts are also back on the scene in a big way featuring some very unique artisan donuts, available in a variety of flavors and sizes.
Joel’s advice for young start-ups is to get into something that you love – things will happen from there. He also believes in treating one’s workers like you would like to be treated. The company is as generous to charity as Joel is with his advice. There are a few good causes close to his heart, but the company mainly supports the Ronald McDonald House for children with cancer, as well as one of Paul Newman’s summer camps for children with cancer. “We like to contribute where we can see it makes a difference,” he says.
Featherstone Foods considers itself to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the local food industry, which on the whole doesn’t really have the time to go out and talk to people and scour the market. The attention the company pays to its customers reflects in its continued growth. Its vision for the future is simple: utilizing all the new technology available in a big way.
Instead of increasing its already large footprint, the company prefers to focus on increasing the size of its orders, because the company believes in supporting its customers all the way. With this incurable passion for service, the team at Featherstone Foods is set to supply New York City with more than just its daily bread for a very long time to come.