BelCanto Foods

With its industry experience and knowledge of quality products from around the world, BelCanto Foods has established itself as a master importer of gourmet cuisine catering to consumers who appreciate the finer things in life. The Bronx, N.Y.-based company is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Chefs’ Warehouse, a group of specialty food companies across the country that have been sourcing products to restaurants, hotels, caterers, manufacturers and gourmet stores for more than 20 years.

A distinct ability to source high-quality, hard-to-find gourmet items enabled BelCanto to grow quite rapidly. Today, the company has operations in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and is known by high-profile chefs as the go-to distributor for high-end foods.

In 2000, The Chefs’ Warehouse acquired BelCanto Foods, a family business specializing in gourmet items from the Mediterranean basin. When its owner Lou Todaro opted to retire, the company “chose to acquire it as an import arm,” CEO Christopher Pappas says. “We knew each other for many years; we were a client of theirs.”

The acquisition opened many doors for The Chefs’ Warehouse, he notes. “It gave us access to many specialty imported products that we felt we could sell to our existing restaurant customers, and we felt we had the sales system to grow the network of distributors BelCanto had built,” Pappas explains. “It allowed us to diversify a bit and provided us with some great relationships with historical importers to the United States.

“Working with great suppliers – such as Iliada Olive Oils, Galloni Prosciutto, Bertagni Pasta, Manicardi Vinegars and Delouis Vinegars – has provided BelCanto with the ability to be solution-oriented, with the highest-quality product,” he adds. After a systems and technology upgrade, “We’ve strengthened a number of the sub-distributor relationships and have created a company that provides a value-added solution to our customers as opposed to a typical importer who is looking to find a niche product and bring it in,” Executive Vice President Jim Wagner notes.

Product Knowledge

BelCanto Foods is able to stand apart from its competition by dedicating itself to customer satisfaction. “We work directly with our customers to find what areas of cuisine they are looking for in the market,” Wagner explains. “We really try to offer a solution to the customers as opposed to them just purchasing a product from us.” The company prides itself on having a keen knowledge of rare delicacies and, internally, “is highly focused on product knowledge,” he says. “We like to take advantage of the opportunities that our suppliers present to BelCanto’s employees to travel abroad and learn about those products so they can share those experiences with our customers.

“We are consistently looking to enhance our employees’ skill base not only through travel, but through education,” he adds. For instance, one of BelCanto’s staff members attended Cornell University’s Community Agriculture and Food Systems Development Food Certification program. “Given the type of products we import, it was important to have that person on staff,” Wagner says.

Historical Roots

Another characteristic that distinguishes BelCanto Foods from other importers is its roots, Pappas explains. “Lou Todaro was one of the original importers of what I call ‘the food revolution’ that started 30 years ago,” he notes. “That was when people started to ask for and consume more high-quality products than the standard ones found in the supermarket.”

That objective was realized years ago, when newly arrived immigrants longed for the ingredients of their native lands, but were unable to find them in the United States. “Many of the products that Lou chose to import, to this day, are backbones to many of the great gourmet stores in America,” he says.

For instance, BelCanto was one of the original importers of buffalo mozzarella, a unique mozzarella cheese made from the milk of the domestic water buffalo, as well as Fontina, a pungent and intensely flavored Italian cheese that has been made in the Aosta Valley of the Alps since the 12th century. The company says it also was one of the first importers of rare olive oils made exclusively in Liguria and Sicily.

Expanding Geographically

With The Chefs’ Warehouse as its parent company, BelCanto was able to expand its product offerings and import items from locations outside of the Mediterranean basin. “The roots of BelCanto are definitely in the Mediterranean region, but over time, we’ve started to bring in a number of products from South America, as well as Asia,” Wagner remarks.

“We are trying to be a leading-edge importer by consistently adding new vendors and new products to the mix,” he continues. “We work hard to identify where the market is going and find products that will fill particular needs in the marketplace. “For instance, we have an organic olive oil from Chile that has had tremendous success in the market.”

The company has seen an increased interest in Spanish products over the past few years, as well as authentic Asian cuisine, which consumers are beginning to enjoy and be able to differentiate items specific to a region, be it China, Japan, Thailand or Indonesia, he points out.

Organic products have increased in popularity, as well. “It’s as much driven by what our customers are looking for as it is what we feel the market will bear in terms of quality,” Wagner states. “We are certainly not a mass market importer – we put a high emphasis on quality and the story behind the product, as well.”

Looking Ahead

In today’s economy, it’s becoming increasingly necessary for importers to place an emphasis on value-added products, Wagner says. “Similar to a lot of businesses, there are challenges in the economy that we face every day,” he says, explaining that even though BelCanto looks for areas to trim costs, marketing is not one of them.

“It’s absolutely beneficial to continue to have strong marketing. We have not reduced our marketing budget for 2009 and going into 2010. “We’ve taken this recession as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the customers who haven’t worked with us historically and really educate them on the value proposition that we offer, which is really a strong value against cost proportions for our customers,” Wagner continues. “So, we’ve actually grown our market share over the past year as we continue to acquire new customers.

“Our main focus is being able to provide solutions to our customers and given the breadth and depth of our supplier base and the history we have built up over the years, we can usually fulfill any value price quality requirement of a customer,” he says.

“We have long-term relationships with both our customers and suppliers and have actually had a strong 2009. “We will continue to introduce ourselves to customers that we haven’t worked with before and think 2010 is going to be a great year.”