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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 11 months ago

Venerable food brokerage firm navigates supply issues, succession plan

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Food industry brokers are caught between logistically challenged manufacturers and retailers dealing with shortages that drive up prices. One area firm finds its place in the middle.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

As pandemic-driven supply-chain issues plague the economy, little-known “middleman” companies have taken on newfound importance. One such firm, Bay Food Brokerage, is headquartered in Tampa — and though you’ve likely never heard of it before, you’ve benefited from its relationships with grocers such as Winn-Dixie, Publix and Harris Teeter.

Founded in 1993 by Cammie Chatterton, 58, Bay Food Brokerage is now jointly owned and operated by Cammie and her 34-year-old son, Chris Chatterton, who’s in line to become president and CEO in four years, when Cammie retires. Chris, the firm’s vice president of operations, graduated from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, interned at Raymond James Financial and seemed destined for a career in finance before joining the family business.

‘People don't realize that almost all the products in a supermarket have a broker behind them.’ Chris Chatterton, vice president of operations at Bay Food Brokerage

“I wanted to be a difference maker,” Chris says, “but I also wanted my mom to be as successful as possible. So I asked to come into the business, which is something I thought I would never do. It was not part of the plan.”

A global pandemic was not part of the plan, either, and the food manufacturers represented by companies like Bay Food Brokerage have suffered from rising transportation costs, labor shortages and higher prices for raw materials and packaging. That translates into higher prices for consumers at the grocery store.

“Is our food system broken?” Cammie asks. “It is not. If it were broken, you wouldn’t be able to find any products on the shelf. Is it bent? Yes, it is — no doubt about it.”

That bend presents significant hurdles for food brokers, where some, such as Bay Food Brokerage, have had contracts canceled by cost-conscious manufacturers seeking to save money by trying to deal directly with retailers. In response, food brokers have made some pronounced shifts. 

First and foremost, say the Chattertons, a crisis can be a time to show your true value to clients.

“We have a full team in the field,” Chris says. “That not only helps out the manufacturer by rotating and making sure products are on the shelf, but it also helps the retailer out because every day they are challenged from a labor standpoint.”

In addition, with 47 employees spread across its Tampa headquarters, working from home across the U.S. Southeast and a satellite office in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bay Food Brokerage runs a lean and nimble operation that can quickly respond to the needs of both manufactures and retailers.

“From a manufacturer’s standpoint, the biggest reason you would use a broker is the fact that we already have a team in place to cover the geographic area that you would want,” Chris says. “From a retailer’s standpoint, it streamlines their communication. We have so many [product] lines that we represent. People don't realize that almost all the products in a supermarket have a broker behind them. So it's easier for a buyer to pick up the phone and call us. He can get through a lot of his business on one phone call.”

Bay Food Brokerage, in its early days, dealt only in perishable food categories — meat, dairy, bakery, etc. For Cammie, that was a time of isolation and self-doubt, as the industry was almost exclusively made up of men.

“Our attorney at the time did a search and he could not find any other perishable food broker in the entire country owned by a woman,” she says. “It was hard. A couple of other women came along after me, but they worked for other people. They didn’t own a company. Hopefully what we endured helps women today.”

Recently, Cammie and Chris expanded the firm into the consumer packaged goods sector —the nonperishable items in the center of the grocery store. That turned out to be a shrewd, prescient move, given the huge demand for such products during the pandemic. It helped propel the company’s revenue from $5.48 million in 2019 to $6.93 million in 2020, up 26.4%.

“We’ll be close to $8 million this year,” Cammie says, “and we expect to be over $9 million, maybe $10 million, next year. We’ve had double-digit growth every year, except for one year, and that was single-digit growth. We’ve never not had a growth year.”

Soon enough, it will fall to Chris to keep the Bay Food Brokerage engine humming along. But Cammie doesn’t plan to ride off into the sunset — the company’s succession plan calls for her to stay on as a consultant for 10 years.

“They might have to turn off my email,” she says with a laugh.

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