Supply Chain: Back to Basics at Shirazi Distributing
Welcome to Supply Chain, where we go behind the plate to get a feel for the day-to-day of Boston’s most relied-upon restaurant purveyors.
Before Shirazi Distributing was the go-to for dairy and dry goods in this city, it was one man and one refrigerated truck, which served as both transport and warehouse.
Ebrahim “Abe” Shirazi came to the US from Tehran to attend college, and he left with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American wife and a degree in civil engineering. When things started to get heated back in Iran—in the days leading up the overthrowing of the Shah in the late 70s—they returned Stateside once more. Engineering jobs for recent undergrads with little to no experience were scarce, so Shirazi returned to an industry he knew from working his way through college: restaurants.
Soon after, he purchased Lieb’s Deli in Belmont Center from the original owners, continuing business as usual for 15 years. When his landlord refused to renew his lease in favor of a big chain moving in, he reacted quickly and bought his retiring distributor’s route, planting the seeds for what would eventually become Shirazi Distributing.
He would drive around Harvard Square in that aforementioned truck to his customers—ice cream truck style—find out what they needed, then run out to the truck to find it. At night, he would plug it in to keep his product, which was all kept in the back at all times, cold. That was 25 years ago.
These days, Shirazi keeps an experienced eye on proceedings from a sunny yellow office above his Newmarket Square warehouse along with his son, Josh, who joined the family business after completing grad school. When Commonwealth and Steinbones chef Steve “Nookie” Postal and I roll in from a quick stint next door at Specialty Foods, the two of them greet him like an old friend.
“The big joke in my family is that I have an MBA in finance, and now I’m a milkman,” Josh tells me as we troop back downstairs for a look around. Abe, who has been listening quietly behind his desk, grins and shakes his head.
Josh is being modest of course—the Shirazis are much more than milkmen. In addition to milk, they deal in all the usual kitchen pantry suspects: King Arthur flours, fry oil, coffee shop syrups, canned goods, a smattering of Middle Eastern products, cocoa powder from East Boston, blocks upon blocks of Cabot cheeses, and, more recently, Spindrift, the Charlestown fruit-based soft drink manufacturer.
“I always say, imagine Sysco, and now imagine the opposite,” Josh says over the whir of the cooler engine, and Postal snorts out a laugh. “We try to be as different as we can in that regard. We’re small, not big, we’re family-owned, and we offer a ton of local products. It’s all very personal.”
One such client is a little more personal than any other: Josh’s wife is the owner of Crema Café in Cambridge. The duo met through a longtime Shirazi devotee, EVOO in Kendall Square, when she approached the owners about finding purveyors.
“When they opened, I used to intentionally screw up their orders so that I would have to go over there and fix it,” he says, grinning. “I’d leave stuff off the truck, then wait until I got a call. The staff started noticing something was up when the dairy guy started showing up with beers at closing time.”
Though not everyone can expect beers at the door after service, they’re deadly serious about customer service. It’s something many companies preach, but don’t necessarily practice, but for the Shirazis, the proof is in the pudding—or rather, the round-the-clock flexibility.
“If someone calls me on Thursday afternoon and says, ‘Josh, we screwed up and forgot to order,’ I’m still going to bring it,” he says. They regularly keep two drivers on call, ready to do an afternoon run if something goes wrong with the original order. And sometimes, if you’re really in a pinch, he’ll shop for clients, picking up pots and pans and including them in the final tally.
In that way, the crew at Shirazi is absolutely part of a restaurant’s team in the kitchen. According to Postal, that kind of support can be hard to come by— when you find it, you hold on to it.
“Not everything that you see behind the scenes of a restaurant is going to be super sexy like boxes of fresh ramps,” Postal says. “Sometimes it’s just about the basics. You need butter, milk, and flour, and you need it in bulk. These are the guys you want helping you out in that regard.”
“Plus, there’s too much to worry about already without having to worry about whether your purveyors are fucking you too,” he adds. “There are too many moving parts.”
Shirazi nods. “You’ve got to get a core network of purveyors that you’re comfortable with and who you can call for anything. You have to trust them,” he says. “We’re like baseball umpires. If you don’t hear us or know about us, we’re doing a good job.”