Prices around New York City may be high, but $1.20 per ounce of nasturtium blossoms has to be ridiculous -- for bouquets. For culinary garnishments, though, it is the going rate at Flying Foods International Inc., a Long Island City, N.Y., purveyor of specialty food-stuffs that it gathers from farmers and fishermen around the world. Other exotic edibles (some barely, to be sure) include green-lipped mussels, rascasse rouge, quail eggs, buffalo-milk mozzarella, mache, pissenlit, salsify, and blood oranges. Strange fruit to an apple-pie palate, but for the company's young founders and co-chief executive officers -- Walter F. Martin II, 28, Andy Udelson, 26, and Paul Moriates, 26 -- the proof is in the pudding. Flying Foods's sales have risen faster than a souffle, and this year, only its fourth, they will probably hit $5.75 million in a specialty market discovered by the principals themselves.
They weren't there first, however, History shows that Marie Antoinette hit on a similar nosh niche. But the masses weren't into trendy cuisine then as they were in 1981, when the three friends, tapping a few weeks' restaurant-supply experience at an import company that was going under, decided to test the waters of self-employment.
Interviewing the city's creative chefs, they determined that many top-ranked kitchens were hamstrung by food distributors that dealt only with a given region's fare. To help distinguish their menus, the three were told, gourmet restaurants would welcome a polyglot mix of native ingredients that could be ordered from a central source. Provided, of course, that the distant goods were delivered at a specified time, in just-picked, just-slaughtered, and/or just-caught condition.
Hey, no problem. All you need is a truck and a bank account -- neither of which is urgent if you can cajole vendors to finance operations. Sure enough, they found a Dutch catcher of Dover sole who agreed to ship on 30 days' credit. With a month to settle, the trio then booked orders. The deal was that if local chefs got fresh flesh instead of the frozen stuff they were used to, it was only fair they pay COD. Recalls Udelson of the subsequent eye-opening lesson in cash flow, "The sole arrived at midnight. We had the money by noon the next day, and it was in the bank by two." And 29 days remained.
Good thing, too. There was a heat wave when the next load arrived -- in sodden cardboard boxes. The fragrant fillets were hauled up to a nearby apartment, where, like the new fathers they were, the partners took turns changing ice all night. Another shipment, discreetly labeled "Restaurant Supplies" to satisfy air-cargo queasiness, dripped onto some furs. There went the easy money. By winter, the company's slender working-capital position had not improved. Neither had its working conditions: This time the perishables were threatened by frost, so the crew fired up a hibachi in the back of a truck. It wasn't a recipe for overnight success.
That dawning is why Flying Foods swallowed $30,000 in bad debts in 1984, a trade-off against their discovery that for every dollar a kitchen would spend out-of-pocket, it would commit to $10 worth on credit. The growth from such preselling has led to sending buyers as far away as New Zealand and Senegal. Now shipped in dripless containers and shelved in a refrigerated warehouse, where it is attended by 30 employees, inventory turns three times a week. "It has to," explains Martin, "or it reeks."
But guaranteeing freshness to fussy clients results in spoilage that eats into an average of 3% of revenues. It is a diet that Flying Foods's already slender net ($120,000 on 1984 sales of $4.48 million) can ill afford. But the company has concocted a margin stretcher of its own. In a race against time that would have even hardened commodity players reaching for their Alka Seltzer, it has taken to speculating on spoilables. The owners recently constructed a Streetlike trading floor where, calling up cooks like so many boilerroom hucksters, a sales team peddles viands that were acquired only a day or two before. How did its agents arrange good terms, given language barriers with the French, Italians, and Manhattanites? No problem, says Moriates. "Money talks."