We frequently look at new and upcoming restaurants around the state, speculating what the impact on the local culinary scene will be as a result of the new spot. We have had one new opening on our radar for some time that will impact the food scene of the whole region in a big way.
Regardless of how locally sourced a restaurant is, almost every single restaurant orders some food from a food distributor. Ben E Keith is one of the two major distributors in the state, impacting a huge number of restaurants big and small. Chances are if you have been out to eat this week something you on your plate came off a Ben E Keith truck.
To say that the local food scene has changed in the last 5 or so years would be a huge understatement. That means a company like Ben E Keith has had to change dramatically too. The huge diversity in food distributed has changed. You now have more demand for local products, larger diversity in meats, and more careful consideration all around about what food is being put on a plate.
The changes, along with the growth in the overall food scene, mean the way of operating doesn’t always work well anymore. Anticipating the changes, Ben E. Keith announced a new facility for their Mid-South division in 2013, broke ground in 2015 on the east side of North Little Rock, and will finally move into the new facility after the first of the year.
The new space is a huge upgrade over the previous two facilities. In fact the new facility is twice the size of the previous facilities combined. After combining the two facilities along with various off site storage locations they will be at 46% capacity in the new spot.
The new facility has 20 dry docks and 33 cold docks, with an additional 24 that will be expanded in the future. They also control 72 acres around the site for future expansion.
The extra room means a higher availability of unique and custom items for individual restaurants that should help places source unique products enhancing the overall food scene.
As a part of this they installed two automated storage and retrieval systems (one in dry and one in cold storage), to quickly and efficiently process small items. The system allows for 19,000 product locations, all running on a computerized system that allows them to process small items more than 7x faster than before.
This should have a huge impact in the restaurant world. One of the frequent complaints I hear are from restaurants having to go out and find some highly specific ingredient causing them to use less, charge more, or pass on a dish where they cannot reliably source the product.
Along with the automation capabilities, the cooler side of the storage gets a huge upgrade in both functionality and overall food safety. The cold storage uses individually temperature controlled zones where food is able to be stored at an optimal temperature from 28-55°. This allows for each product to be stored for optimal freshness and quality.
On the freezer side they are able to store between 0 to -20°, with a quick free zone that moves air quickly across product to freeze rapidly, reducing crystal formation and product degradation.
Ben E Keith has always been about resources to help restaurants as well, which is the main reason we have had a long ongoing relationship with them. The new facility adds a world-class training space with seating up to 150 people, along with a new demo kitchen that is designed for training and demonstrations. The current kitchen is used frequently to help train restaurant owners and chefs across the state, the new one will make it much better to do so.
Also as a restaurant resource, there is a much better will call area allowing for quick needs between deliveries. The new area allows for faster and more efficient pickup by allowing Ben E Keith to stage all of the customer order ahead of pickup.
The new facility also is environmentally friendly. During the construction process they were able to divert 90% of the waste material out of landfills during construction. That continues once they move into the facility by careful recycling processes. They implemented a large number of energy-efficient measures, allowing for the overall facility to receive a Silver LEED Certification.
Ben E Keith is transitioning the distribution side of the business over slowly for the remainder of the year, with a full transition expected shortly after the first of the year.