As the Division President (Eastern Canada) of Affinity Group Canada, Vince DiMaria oversees the development and upkeep of business relationships and strategical executions between distributors, manufacturers and restaurateurs in the Canadian foodservice industry.
At Branding & Buzzing, we’re proud to have worked with Vince and his team for over 5 years, providing digital marketing and program support to various brands and businesses under the Affinity umbrella including Jarritos Canada. We also stand very thankful for Vince and Affinity Group’s ongoing support of our agency’s latest endeavour, Canada Takeout, a movement to help keep restaurant doors open throughout the currently unpredictable pandemic year.
We recently caught up with Vince to see how current events have shifted Affinity’s approach to foodservice operations, and how the industry can continue to move forward.
How would you describe your role(s) at Affinity Group?
Vince DiMaria: Affinity is a family-owned business, including myself, my wife and my son. First and foremost, we are a sales agency. We used to be called brokers at one time, now we represent about forty different companies in different parts of the country. Our agency has a staff of over eighty people and has representation in every province and region of the country. Our staff live in their markets with offices countrywide.
We are involved with suppliers at different levels, some are strictly feet on the street, others are major brands like Jarritos and Martin’s Potato Rolls with whom we are the importer and logistics managers in getting products from point a to point b.
At Affinity, your foodservice specialties include retail/industrial account coverage, sales, marketing, menu generation, operational insight, culinary ideation, etc. How did the approach to these change after the major closures and foodservice reformations that came with pandemic restrictions and procedures?
As an example, in April within the foodservice industry, our outbound shipments were down 85%. In March, we were down closer to 20% or 25%, this is due to COVID hitting in the middle of that month. We lost almost two months of sales because distributors shipping to restaurants had full warehouses before COVID and then customers had stopped buying one hundred percent. There was plenty of inventory and nobody buying.
[At Affinity], we minimized our layoffs to as few as humanly possible knowing that our business was down 80%. I’m glad to report that as of August first, we are back 100%; everyone who was affected is back to work.
It’s affected us in the sense that we’ve lost a tremendous amount of money, but we’re committed to this business for the long-term, so we’ve had to re-invest whatever we needed to keep the business in full.
As far as the foodservice industry is concerned, I don’t think it’ll ever get back to one hundred percent of what we had by doing what we did pre-COVID. It’s going to be different. I certainly think we are going to be back to where we were 12 to 24 months from now but doing different things. Customers and restaurants are already doing things differently, just look at Canada Takeout. Restaurants are now adding more meal kits, being creative with their catering and it will continue to evolve.
When it comes to trend analysis, what trends have you currently noticed taking place?
Right now, there’s a big push for either pre-packaged goods or simpler items that don’t require a lot of work in the back-of-house of a restaurant. There’s also a trend leading toward more comfort foods. The healthy-eating part [of dining] has always been very important for a consumer at home but not so much in the restaurants.
Looking at your operator relationships and clientele base, what do their needs look like now, with many reopening or re-strategizing their businesses?
Their menus are becoming simpler, based on how they can execute in the back-of-house. They want to make anything as simple as possible so that they can do less but do better. There is also a trend of requests by our customers for ideation assistance on takeout, usually “help us figure out different ways we can do a take-home meal kit to cook from home or grab ‘n’ go for delivery or pick-up.”
At Affinity, did you need to restructure your approach or services in any way to meet these needs in the shifted foodservice climate?
We were calling on four hundred customers (restaurant operators) a week, not including the retail side of our business. Our change came in doing a lot of live-streaming training sessions. We made arrangements to get fresh samples safely and quickly to customers and then arrange a time where one of our chefs, our reps and the customer could do a virtual session on prep, features and benefits, etc. That’s been a huge shift for us.
We’re increasing our marketing initiatives and determining further efficient ways of getting information to more customers. We also have more chefs on staff than ever. Also, we currently have a connection with Canada Takeout and are as committed as ever to keep on pushing the initiative because I believe it’s as important today as it was on March 14th.
As older businesses reopen, and new ones continue to pop up, how do you see Affinity and its clients best bouncing back and rising to new opportunities and challenges?
As the business is still shrinking a bit, manufacturers and clients are looking at making sure their costs are reduced or balanced. We are a very cost-efficient way of getting a supplier’s news out to the trade. So, for us, it’s an opportunity because our services are an effective way of getting products to market all while delivering messaging coast-to-coast very easily.
People are trying to control their expenses and by using agencies such as ourselves, we can put them in check. There are going to be a lot more manufacturers who will need to reinvent themselves and are going to kick the tires more than they ever would have. That’s where we come in.
How can restaurateurs best maximize their efforts when opening doors for the first time, or reopening their doors after any emergency situation?
Like any good business people, they’re going to need to reinvent themselves. In the restaurant business, it’s already a tough space at the best of times, with very low margins. Folks were closing their doors already well before the whole COVID crisis. I think that the ones who are nimble are already paying attention to what customers are saying and a lot will be said for shrinking menus. Restaurateurs who understand the business are prepared more than ever to put quality over price, and those are the ones who are going to survive.
When you’re ordering food, your choices are bigger than before. Instead of being limited to the choices just around the block, you now have digital ordering capabilities and can order from basically anywhere. Businesses need to stand out somehow among this and I suspect that quality will trump price. If you order something online, you’ll likely forget how much you paid for it, but you’re likely to remember if it was a good quality meal or something you really enjoyed.