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National Food Distributors Are Gobbling Up Florida Purveyors

Who's supplying your favorite restaurant?
Who's supplying your favorite restaurant?

Over the summer, Planet Sushi in Miami Beach, an all-white space decked out with lavender neon lights on Washington Avenue, was cited by the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulations for serving "white tuna."

It's a common menu offering at speedy sushi spots across the nation. The only problem is the white tuna listed on menus isn't actually albacore, a species of tuna with milky, barely pink flesh. In many cases, it's actually a fish called escolar, an opaque-fleshed species with a texture similar to that of the real deal but with nasty side effects such as diarrhea and extreme stomach cramping.

New Times reported on the white tuna phenomenon in 2001 and again in 2012, but its lingering still begs the same question: What exactly are we eating?

That question is now more urgent than ever when considering how in recent years a number of South Florida's most successful food distributors, including many that sell to the region's best restaurants, have been bought up by national firms whose representatives refused to discuss their plans and operations following several New Times inquiries.

The most recent acquisition came in late 2016, when Virginia-based Performance Food Group (PFG) purchased Deerfield Beach's Larry Kline Meats. "Yes, we completed the acquisition last fall," Joe Vagi, of PFG corporate communications, wrote in an email. "We didn’t issue an external news release."

You may not know about Larry Kline Meats, but you've almost certainly eaten Larry Kline's meat. The long-standing family company has been one of the region's top purveyors particularly of custom cuts and burger blends to some of South Florida's top restaurants. The company faced an unexpected tragedy in the middle of 2015 when its CEO and face, Steven Caine, was killed after he was hit by a car while riding his bike in Weston. After the sale, however, many of of Kline's clients remained unaware that the company had been purchased.

"That's new information for me," says Loba's Jessica Sanchez. Kline also supplies Richard Hales' Bird & Bone in Miami Beach and is well known for delivering dozens of blends to new restaurants to try to pin down a recipe, as it did for David Foulquier of Fooq's before the downtown Miami eatery opened in 2015.

As with many of the local and national companies contacted, both Vagi and representatives of Larry Kline declined interview requests to discuss the nature of the sale and the company's operations going forward.

That's only one example of a string of deals that has transferred ownership of food distributors out of local hands, and today it's almost impossible to discern where control lies.

North Star Seafood, a supplier to many of South Florida's top restaurants, was purchased by Houston-based Sysco in 2016. Neither North Star's owners, Rick and Josh Burman, nor a representative of Sysco responded to requests for comment about how the sale would affect the company. The North Star deal weighs even heavier on diners' plates because Josh Burman has been a silent partner in Ryan Roman and Danny Serfer's Mignonette since the pair opened their downtown Miami seafood spot in 2014. Though Burman's partial ownership of the restaurant has remained under the radar and isn't even on state corporation records, a Wine Spectator award listed him with Serfer and Roman.

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Serfer, meanwhile, declined to comment on his relationship with North Star and whether the acquisition affected the day-to-day in the kitchen.

Sysco also owns produce distributor Fresh Point. Meanwhile, Gordon Food Service acquired Atlanta-based Halpern's, which sells high-end meat and seafood throughout Florida. Again, neither a representative of Halpern's nor Gordon agreed to be interviewed about the sale or the company's operations in Florida. In fact, if you see a Halpern's truck rolling around town, you might notice a lack of any signage from the company's owner.

And in some cases, national distributors might have good reason to try to hide their ownership of local and regional companies. In May 2016, Gordon Food Service was ordered to pay $1.85 million and hire 37 female applicants after the U.S. Department of Labor found the company discriminated against nearly a thousand women applying for entry-level jobs. Three months later, it was fined $54,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration for improperly transporting hazardous materials.

"This is what happens. They're trying to own everybody, to run everything; it's like a monopoly," Trigger Seafood's Jorge Figueroa says. "Once that happens, people are only going to see run-of-the-mill food — whatever the distributors can get that's commercialized and industrialized."

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