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John Cawley, President of Pacific Gourmet

A Message From Our President – John Cawley:

I was recently instructed to watch a TED Talk meant to inspire one toward reaching corporate nirvana. The speaker used such noteworthy figures as Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, and Orville and Wilbur Wright to illustrate his points. In each case, he noted the compelling reason they rose above their field (literally in the case of the Wright Bros.) was that they were motivated more by the why of what they did than by the how or the what. I don’t intend to summarize Simon Sinek’s thesis, but it has become the most popular TED Talk to date so feel free to check it out.

If you, like me, are not quite of the visionary ilk of a Steve Jobs, you might feel humbled by assuming the same holy ground as these great men. Whether through noble intent or obsessive compulsive behavior, they realized their dream. I for one resent the notion that only near religious zeal can make one produce a worthy result. I think that equally, a simple dissatisfaction with the way things are can be motivation enough to make things better.

Now for the real why of Pacific Gourmet.

In the late 1970’s, my soon to be wife and I both cooked in French restaurants in San Francisco; Christine worked with Jacky Robert at Ernies’s and I worked with René Verdon at Le Trianon. We had some kids and I wisely decided that the United States needed to produce its own French style eau de vie. I guess I didn’t have a strong enough answer for why because the how soon became obvious, as in, how to go broke fast. I threw in the torchon, worked a few more restaurant jobs, and in a desperate quest for income, went to work for an importer of French food products. I soon became frustrated with their casual regard for the chef’s needs and decided I could provide a far more attentive level of service. So in 1986, I jumped ship to start Pacific Gourmet.

I had previously spent several years traveling in India, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and so recognizing the younger chefs interest in expanding their reach, we started supplying basmati rice, sumac, vadouvan, ras al hanout, and other items that could only then be found in certain ethnic markets, if ever at all. I won’t say we helped start the U.S. movement toward a wider global cuisine, but I won’t deny it either.

In the meantime, most of the other specialty food importers that were around at the end of the millennium have either ceased to be or sold out to larger entities. This is the trend that continues today. The new hybrid is a broad line/specialty distributor that would be all things to all customers. The model is one bent on nationwide reach hoping to capture the largest market share possible. The benefits are obvious, but unfortunately, they mostly accrue to the distributor, not the customer. Economies of scale mean better prices for the company, but not necessarily to end user.

Common practice among the larger distributors is that of tiered pricing, wherein a larger business or chain receives more favorable pricing leaving the smaller clients to maintain the higher margins. They cannily offer loss leading products on a floating basis which help to obscure this inequitable practice and give the customer a less than accurate sense of the overall value they provide.

Finally, the one size fits all, profit preoccupied mindset certainly doesn’t benefit the diner either. If every restaurant or bakery, from Miami to Seattle, has the exact same uniform choice of products, the regional variety that we have learned to enjoy is thrown out the window. Suppliers have to be responsive to the local needs of restaurants and bakeries they serve. Further consolidation by large companies can only rob us of the unique character of the regions in which we live.

Pacific Gourmet will continue to provide an alternative to the mass market mentality that is becoming prevalent in our trade. And while hardly pretending to assume the mantle of Dr. King, we hope you can appreciate the that the reason we do what we do is so you can more easily do what is you do.

The What – The best products at the fairest price with the most conscientious level of service.

The How – Listening to the specific needs of our customers and educating them and ourselves to the origins and production methods of the foods we sell.

The Why – We want to be a useful and important collaborator in putting the best possible ingredients in your hands for the best possible culinary outcomes.