Much is changing at BiRite Food Service Distributors, but many things remain the same. This year marks the company’s fiftieth in business. BiRite completed a major acquisition in 2012, topped $320 million in sales in 2014, and has become the twenty-first largest food-service distributor in the United States. What started with two workers has grown to employ more than 310. That’s because those first two employees—cofounders Victor and John Barulich—built their reputation on quality and customer service. Now, two new generations of Barulich are working together to carry that legacy forward.
In his adolescence, Zack Barulich spent most Christmas breaks and summer vacations in the BiRite warehouse, where he and his siblings learned all aspects of the business from the ground up. But none of the Barulich children were handed the keys to the kingdom—they each had to earn a spot in the family business. Zack’s father, Bill Barulich (CEO), and uncle, Steve Barulich (president), had a rule. “Before coming to work here full time, we had to work outside the company for a few years, gain that experience, and understand what it’s like to be accountable to someone that you’re not going to have dinner with afterwards,” Zack explains. He studied accounting and finance at the University of San Diego, became a certified public accountant, and accepted a position at a local CPA firm.
After nearly three years “on the outside,” Zack joined his siblings Aaron Barulich (general manager), Nathan Barulich (vice president of operations), and Lauren Barulich (purchasing associate) at the family business, becoming BiRite’s assistant director of finance.
The Jeanne and William Barulich Family Foundation
As BiRite celebrates fifty years in business, the Barulich’s family foundation celebrates its tenth anniversary. The family created the foundation in 2006 as a way to give back to the community that has supported BiRite for so long. Each year, the foundation’s trustees (Zack, Nathan, Aaron, and Lauren Barulich) each award sizeable grants to various local organizations that assist underserved children and youth populations in the Bay Area. One group the foundation supports is First Graduate, a San Francisco-based college success program that helps students finish high school and become the first in their families to graduate from college and ready to pursue meaningful careers.
“I always had a desire to come back and work in the family business,” he says. “I’m proud of the company my grandfather built and that my dad and uncle have worked so hard to improve and grow. We all feel a duty to continue it, especially in today’s corporate world where family businesses frequently fall victim to mergers and acquisitions,” he explains. A third generation is in place at BiRite, and the younger Barulichs are working to redefine their roles. “We don’t just want to take over and continue the status quo. We want to take risks and improve BiRite just like the second generation did before us,” Zack says.
Zack spent three years learning from BiRite’s chief financial officer before accepting the position when his mentor retired in 2012. Since then, Zack has worked to make finance a more approachable part of the company. “Most people only come to the finance department when there’s a problem, but I want people to come here early and often and use our input to make better business decisions,” Zack says. “My team can have a real impact on the success and future of this company.” He’s reworked data and reports, replacing clunky jargon and huge blocks of text with readable charts and digestible graphics.
Fifty years ago, the company’s founders developed personal relationships as they delivered high-quality ingredients to local restaurateurs. While the first generation started with simple canned goods, the second and third generation started offering food, disposables, chemicals, and equipment—everything a restaurant could need. BiRite has grown over the years, but its current leaders pay homage to their predecessors through their approach. “This company was built on personal relationships, strong customer service, and an appreciation for each and every customer. That’s not going to change,” Zack says. Because most clients are still in the greater Bay Area, seventy miles from headquarters, BiRite can respond quickly if rare mistakes occur or special needs arise. Independent operators account for nearly 75 percent of BiRite’s total business, which has grown 10 to 15 percent in each of the last five years.
Part of that growth comes at the hands of the younger Barulichs who have implemented new and innovative processes. “We’re surrounded by San Francisco’s tech companies, and we’re tying their innovations into food service,” says Zack, adding that BiRite has increased efficiency, lowered cost to customers, and reduced errors by removing paper from its warehouse. Warehouse employees now use tablets and voice-activated headsets instead of printed sheets and pencils.
They’ve also found improvements outside of technology. After acquiring a produce company in 2012, the Barulichs started a specialty department to appeal to San Francisco’s renowned gourmet chefs and food enthusiasts. The new department offers fine cheeses, olive oils, and more. “We’re adding more selections of high-end foods in a region where top quality is king,” Zack says. “We’re working to show our customers that we can be experts in napkins and arugula. A broad range of quality products will keep them happier and keep them with us for the long haul.”
Each year, BiRite gathers its employees for an appreciation dinner and awards ceremony. “We celebrate what my grandfather instilled in this organization, our employees are the foundation for our success,” Zack says. Many who gather each year have been with BiRite for fifteen, twenty, and even twenty-five years.
After fifty years, the organization is in good hands, and the third generation is hoping to continue the family business for years to come—Aaron and Nathan are married with kids, Lauren got married in 2015, and Zack and his husband welcomed their first child in December of 2015.