Power Players: Back To Basics
With 54 years of experience in the food distribution business, Gene Sutherland, 74, president and owner of Sutherland’s Foodservice, Inc., doesn’t need economic forecasts to know what’s going on with the economy. “In tough times people buy more eggs and potatoes,” he states. “Our egg business is very good right now.” The company’s sales to fast food outlets has increased during the recession as more and more families limit dinners out to restaurants both inexpensive and quick.
Though hardly rocket science, there is a science, of sorts, to anticipating changes in consumers’ buying patterns and reacting appropriately. Several years ago, Sutherland’s Food-service took note of the trend toward buying locally grown, organic food and combined it with the “local knowledge” of the egg market. Becoming distributors of Eggland’s Best, a brand of premier organic eggs and egg products, dovetailed neatly into the increased demand for eggs.
Sutherland’s Foodservice, Inc., is recognized as one of Atlanta’s top 100 privately owned companies and the last independent broadline foodservice distributor in the Atlanta area. Sutherland himself is a respected leader in the industry, serving as a member and past president of the board of directors of the Atlanta Produce Dealer Association as well as a past chairman of the Georgia Agribusiness Council and the Agricultural Exposition Authority. He serves on the governing board of Wood-ward Academy and as vice chairman of the Community Capital Bank.
He received the 2004 Southern Crescent Vision’s Career Success Award from the Clayton College & State University Foundation for leadership and vision in his field.
A native Atlantan, Sutherland attended high school at Georgia Military Academy and Woodward Academy before joining the family business, full time, in 1956. “I went to Georgia State for one quarter, but Daddy needed me to work,” he says. “There was never any question that I would work in the food business.”
Sutherland’s parents founded the company, then called Sutherland Produce, in 1947. His father, A.W. Sutherland, worked for the Kroger Company for 16 years as an assistant produce buyer and transportation manager before being hired away to another food company in 1945. “That lasted about a year,” says Sutherland. “When he talked to Kroger about getting his job back, they said, ‘Why don’t you go into produce distribution? You know the business and we’d buy from you.’ Kroger was the first account this company ever had and we still have them today.”
Sutherland remembers the company’s first location in downtown Atlanta. “They were in a tin building on Hunter Street, which is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, “ he says. In 1957 they relocated to Murphy Avenue and two years later migrated to the state Farmer’s Market in Forest Park, where they’ve been ever since.
In the 1960s, because of a lack of local egg production, Sutherland’s Produce decided to take matters into its own hands. “There weren’t as many laws about where you could own chickens at that time so we had about 12,000 chickens in McDonough,” recalls Sutherland. The company did pretty well with eggs; but egg production didn’t suit the neighbors. Suther-land’s divested itself of its flock and shifted the company’s emphasis to produce distribution.
In 1986, the company purchased Rich & Morgan, the largest independent grocer in Atlanta, establishing itself as a full-service, broadline food distributor. Currently, the business is fairly evenly divided among large retail chain customers, like Kroger; and high-end restaurants, including the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group; fast food outlets, like the Varsity; and other organizations, such as school systems, hospitals, hotels and the University of Georgia. The name was changed to Sutherland’s Foodservice, Inc., in 1992; the company handles 6,000 to 7,000 different food and non-food products.
Sutherland is proud of his family business, which includes his wife, Joan, their four children, a son-in-law and one grandson. He has seen remarkable changes in the business, especially the advent of computers. He’s seen more regulation, too. “There’s been a tremendous amount of legislation in the food industry,” he says. “But it’s all for the good because it’s for the good of the consumer.”