Foodie by Nature

Richard Armanino, director of sales and buying.

Richard Armanino of ItalFoods, Inc. discusses California cuisine and ItalFoods' role in it, filling niche markets, and the ingredients of success

Food is Richard Armanino’s passion. From his childhood years working in his parents’ business, Armanino Foods, to opening a coffeehouse with two of his brothers, Armanino has treated his job as his hobby. Now, Armanino serves as the director of sales and buying at ItalFoods, Inc., a California-based importer and distributor of primarily Italian products, but also Spanish, French, Greek, and local products. Profile chats with Armanino about the role ItalFoods plays in the niche California-cuisine food market.

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What is California cuisine?

I don’t know if anyone can really define that; California cuisine has gone through several different phases. In the 1970s it had a French influence. Then, in the mid-to-late ’80s, Italian foods became a very popular emphasis of California cuisine. Polenta, risotto, sun-dried tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar all became very in vogue. And this was not just at Italian restaurants. Those ingredients could be found at any white-tablecloth restaurant. In the 1990s, you had a little bit of Spanish influence, and today it’s become Mediterranean with a local flair.

How did ItalFoods come to be involved with California cuisine?

It stems from people traveling, which they commonly base around food. Food Network has brought a lot of knowledge to the consumer, and food magazines have become very popular over the last 20 years. I remember an article in Bon Appétit magazine about garum, a fish sauce from Rome. That one article created enough demand for us to start importing it. It might just be the social networking that’s prevalent in all industries today.

Has it been beneficial for ItalFoods to serve an unfilled niche in the food market?

Absolutely. The food market is always changing. Sometimes we fail with items the first time around, but five years later we bring them back in and they work. Timing has a lot to do with it, the marketing of products, even the economy has something to do with it. ItalFoods’ outstanding reputation in the industry makes sourcing very easy. I get calls every day from people in Italy who say that there’s a new hot item that’s doing well in a particular region. As opposed to having to go out and turn every stone and search for something new, they come to us quite frequently. We have a backup, almost a bottleneck of new items coming in. Hopefully if you have 10 new items, one or two stick and become a trendy new item.

What advice can you offer to other food distributors?

I believe that everyone you’re dealing with (in our case the suppliers, the retailers, and the restaurants) should be profitable. We’re each just a link in the chain, and we have to work together. For example, many people would love to visit a store and sell a pallet of olive oil from their back room, and then go back a month later to see how the store is doing. I’d rather send 10 cases and see that store manager every week. Therefore he’s not tied up with inventory costs in his backroom, you’re building rapport, and you’re managing his business as if you’re a partner. There’s many times when we’ll cut orders from our customers, telling them that they don’t need to hold that much, or that it’s not going to turn that quickly. That’s how we deal in business.

What are the next steps for ItalFoods?

We’ve been fortunate enough to have continued growth over the last five years, every year, and I foresee maintaining that in 2012. Our current strategy is to align our distribution area differently so that we can better serve it. We’re expanding into the outer areas of our distribution and canvassing those areas a little bit better. We’re also working more closely with our sub-distribution network and getting a better understanding of their coverage. We’re expanding our product lines and working to understand our current lines better: maybe trimming a few items out and replacing them with things that might be more profitable for everybody. Hopefully the end results will be continued growth. We aren’t looking to skyrocket our sales: it’s incremental growth that we’re happy with.