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One on One: Christa Ingalls

Seafood commodity manager, Avendra

Christa Ingalls
By Fiona Robinson
April 01, 2006

Christa Ingalls has 15 years of seafood experience, but she’s still inspired by the industry. The Seattle native decided last fall to switch coasts and move to Rockville, Md., to be the seafood commodity manager at Avendra.

Ingalls had previously worked with Avendra while she was a seafood specialist with Seattle supplier Ocean Beauty Seafoods. She decided her next career move would bring her to the East Coast and continue her hands-on education of North Atlantic seafood species and increase her value as an expert in the field. She considered job offers in Boston, but Ingalls’ chose Avendra once she learned more about it and what she could offer its seafood customers in terms of industry knowledge and dedication.

Avendra was founded in 2001 by ClubCorp USA, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corp., Intercontinental Hotels Group and Marriott International.

The company provides procurement services to approximately 5,000 customers in hospitality-related industries nationwide. Avendra’s leveraged buying power exceeds $2 billion, and it sources everything from food to hand soap to lawn care to financial services.

Ingalls controls Avendra’s seafood budget of approximately $100 million. Among the company’s 42 regional and 17 national seafood suppliers are Tampa Maid, Contessa, Foley Fish Co., Samuels & Son and Catsmo.

Ingalls is quick to credit her seafood career to her former co-workers at Pacific Seafood, where she spent 12 years and was “pushed to be the ultimate fishmonger.” She turns to friend and mentor Randy Cade, director of corporate and chain accounts at Aqua Star, for seafood inspiration.

I spoke with Ingalls in early March prior to the International Boston Seafood Show.

Robinson: What does your job entail?

Ingalls: I negotiate seafood contracts that are used by hotels, golf clubs, white-tablecloth restaurants, cruise lines and casinos.

I handle regional and national contracts. Most [suppliers] are specialized into a national distributor. [Seafood purchasing] was originally handled in two segments, one for frozen and one for regional contracting. When I came onboard, the company decided to put the whole program together and have both parts [handled by one person].

What customers are you focusing on now?

My big movement going forward is cruise lines and high-end white-tablecloth chains — they’re different from what we currently do.

Do you actively go out and find new suppliers, wait for clients to make specific requests, or both?

My contracting priorities depend on the customer’s needs. We have a process that matches customer priorities and business needs with contracting priorities. I contract based upon that plan, matching specific suppliers to those customers’ needs.  If Avendra has too many suppliers, it doesn’t benefit anyone. There’s no incentive to that supplier. If I don’t support them, they don’t support my customers. What’s most important to me is that the chef is happy.

How many other commodity managers are on the Avendra staff?

There are 12 food-related contracting professionals, more than 50 total. Our produce commodity manager has a culinary degree and more than 20 years in the foodservice industry, and our commodity manager for meat has more than 30 years’ experience in the meat business.

Why did you join Avendra?

I was working with Avendra while I was at Ocean Beauty. I decided to expand my horizons and move to the East Coast (I grew up in Seattle). I spent time becoming very involved in the culinary community. I have built some incredible chef relations as the years have gone by, assisting them with everything from menu consulting, budget planning and waitstaff training, often participating in large discussion panels regarding the industry. I have worked closely with culinary programs in Seattle to teach up-and-coming culinary students about the industry.

I said to myself, “I can sit here and go with the flow and not learn too much more or move to the East Coast and build a reputation there.” I started interviewing and asked Avendra for a reference. Their seafood specialist position was open and they asked me to apply.

After I fully understood what Avendra was, I realized that I could use my passion and industry knowledge to educate my customers and those around me while continuing to further my expertise. It was just a great opportunity to share what I knew of the industry that you wouldn’t always learn from a supplier.

How do you bring new seafood suppliers to Avendra?

If I plan to contract with a new supplier, I go to their location. We have a regional food advisory team. When we go look at a particular market, the team consists of chefs in the area, field support people, regional contracting, quality control and myself. We might have 10 suppliers in that area [that want to work with Avendra]. We narrow it to a few and do a QA audit and discuss their roles as Avendra suppliers and what makes them unique. Then we go to the properties and see samples and come to a collective decision.

Sometimes we have two suppliers in a particular area; maybe one does the basics but doesn’t do exotics from New Zealand, and one chef loves New Zealand products. So we will contract with the supplier for New Zealand-specific species. We really do everything we can to make sure the chef is happy.

What happens if a supplier doesn’t fit the bill?

A lot of suppliers feel they’re handed a book of business. We tell them, “You can go out and sell these properties and deliver the best quality and service and we’ll support you 100 percent. But we don’t go out and do the selling for you. We work with our field support people to help support your efforts and assist in getting properties onto the supplier’s program. You still have to provide the highest levels of service, quality and excellence as you would for any other chef — sometimes even higher.”

I have to turn around and sell new national suppliers who come to us. I have to be impressed enough to go to our founding executive chefs at Marriott and Hyatt and say, “I believe in this product, and this is why.” I have to actually sell them on the product.

Do your customers ever mention sustainability as criteria for their seafood  purchases?

Yes, it comes up every day. So does “all natural.” We keep up to date with what Wal-Mart, Darden and others are doing. For Avendra, each section is a little different. It’s hard to make a collective statement. We do follow [sustainability guidelines] as much as possible. We continually discuss what is happening in the market and what we can do in terms of setting a mark for ourselves while protecting resources. Every month I provide an article to all the properties discussing the current industry concern — this could be anything from sustainability, organic seafood, mercury levels, etc.

What will be your focus in the near future?

I plan on getting actively involved in the industry and working more with my chefs. I’ll be doing spec books for Hyatt and Marriott this year.

I have a high-end chain that will be putting restaurants in high-end hotels soon. They’re concerned about having the best seafood possible. I will be working one on one with both the executive chef and each of the contracted regional supliers to ensure that each party is comfortable and fully understands the expectations and specifications. I know what a chef expects and, as a supplier, how it can be done. That’s a great advantage in my job. My chefs trust me, and so do my suppliers. It’s a good mix.

Editor Fiona Robinson can be e-mailed at frobinson@divcom.com

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