How Christ Panos Foods Became a Fast-Casual Success story on the Chicago Food Scene
by Erik Cassano
The secret to the success of the Panos family business is simple: It’s wheels. That’s something you might not expect, considering that the company is in the food service space. Nearly 44 years ago, Christ Panos got out of the restaurant business and went to work for a food distribution business. There, from a single delivery route, he eventually spun off his own distribution business.
Now run by his sons, Christ Panos Foods Corp. supplies sit-down and fast-casual eateries in Chicagoland, Wisconsin and Indiana with meat, potatoes, dairy, baked goods and other prepared food items. “The business really started growing in the late ’80s,” says Sam Panos, the company’s president. “My dad used to sell to submarine shops around the area, and they started asking him to carry different things, like French fries and appetizers, so they could develop a full-blown restaurant menu.
Once we started branching out and offer- ing those different items, we really hit our growth spurt.” From its beginnings in a 5,000-square- foot building with a small industrial freezer and refrigerator, Christ Panos Foods has outgrown several facilities over the course of its history. Several years ago, it reached the point where the relatively small and comparatively expensive parcels of land available in Chicago proper weren’t adequate to house the company’s operations. So the company purchased land in Itasca, Ill., and this past fall, moved into a new 120,000-square-foot headquarters and distribution facility. “For the previous 19 years, we were in two buildings in the southwest portion of the Loop in downtown Chicago,” Panos says. “But by the end, we were bursting at the seams with all the people and volume we had. Now we have adequate space with room to grow.” Panos wants to pursue that growth aggressively — but intelligently — in the coming years, and the move to the Itasca facility is the opening paragraph in a new chapter for Christ Panos Foods. building on.
Building on Past Successes
To grow from a single delivery route to supplying food service establishments in three states with millions of pounds of food annually, you have to be doing something right. It’s the job of Panos and his team to understand and leverage what has driven the business’s success so far and figure out new ways to use those drivers to continue to succeed.
The biggest driver of the company’s success is one that drives nearly every successful company: The team at Christ Panos Foods engages in an ongoing dialogue with customers and uses that dialogue to discover holes in the market. They then use that information to develop new ways to service the market. “When we moved to our last location in the Fulton Market neighborhood, that gave us more exposure to our customers,” Panos says. “They’d see our trucks, they’d see our name and they’d see our people. That’s really when we started to develop a deeper connection to our customers and really started to find new ways to serve them.” In that time frame, Christ Panos Foods hired its first sales representative, tasked specifically with engaging customers on the front lines and developing relationships. “It’s grown from there,” Panos says. “We now have over two dozen sales representatives out on the street, interacting with customers every day, taking orders and gathering that ground- level information. On top of that, we have customer service representatives in the office, so we have multiple ways to interface with the people we serve.” The company employs 75 people throughout its three-state footprint, employees who come from a variety of professional backgrounds and bring a wide set of skills to the table. That’s by design, and it’s another key piece to the Christ Panos puzzle. “I’ve always surrounded myself with more experienced people who have been around in this business longer than I have,” says Panos, who came on board full time in 1988. “We’ve been fortunate over the years to hire people who had been in business for themselves and really understand the business.” The third component of the success of Christ Panos Foods has been its relationship with its vendors. When a company buys supplies in bulk, great vendor relationships mean better deals, a savings that Panos can then pass along to his own customers. That’s something that Panos’ experienced cowork- ers bring to the table. “They’ve brought me their longstanding relationships with vendors,” he says. “The ability we’ve had to build and maintain great vendor relationships is a major reason for our volume increase over the years.”
Plans For the Future
The factors that have led Christ Panos Foods to its current position will continue to be every bit as important in the coming years. As the company approaches its 40th anniversary, Panos is looking ahead with an eye toward substantial and sustainable growth. “We’d like to see this business double in size over the next 10 years,” he says. “We want to add more products, which will help us bring in additional customers. But we also want to stay close to our customers, because our ability to create relationships and respond to the needs of our customers is what sets us apart.” Panos wants his company to grow, but he wants to be intelligent and selective about pursuing growth opportunities. Above all, he doesn’t want Christ Panos Foods to be- come so large that the company loses touch with its customers.
“There has been a trend of food distributors merging to form these really large distribution companies,” Panos says. “That plays right into our hands, because we don’t want to position ourselves as the biggest company out there. We want those close customer relationships, and when the competition gets bigger, it helps us define our role even better, because people don’t always want to buy from the biggest.”
The company’s unique position in the market gives it the clout to compete with bigger distributors on price but still address client needs on a personal level in the way a smaller business would. “We don’t operate like a really big com- pany,” Panos says. “We carry well-known national brands for our customers, and we always try to sell them the brands they want. The big houses will often try to steer cus- tomers toward their own brands, their house brands, and we don’t try to play in that game. We are known as a national brand distributor, and that’s what we want to do.”
That allowed it to come out on top through the recession and its aftermath, which impacted Christ Panos Foods in a surprisingly positive way. With the onset of the recession, consumers opted for cheaper food options. Evenings out started to mean paper napkins instead of white tablecloths. As a distributor in the fast-casual space, Panos’ company reaped the benefits as people began turning to less expensive fare. “As silly as it sounds, the recession helped us — not to say it was a positive thing, but it helped us in a roundabout way,” Panos says. “People were trading down to fast-food options as a means of saving money, and that means more business for the restaurants we serve.”
With new fast-casual dining concepts opening seemingly on a weekly basis, fast food restaurants figure to be a major source of future growth for Christ Panos Foods.
“It’s what we primarily do, and that’s where we’ve built some of our strongest and most enduring relationships,” Panos says. “If we are to realize our goal of doubling
in 10 years, our emphasis on the fast-casual space will play an enormous role in that.”