How Elaine Bellin leads an industry at Paragon Food Service

Elaine Bellin, President, Paragon Food Service

Elaine Bellin has worked at Paragon Food Service, a distributor of fresh foods to the restaurant and prepared foods industry, for 27 years. She has served as president of the $47 million company for 18 years, and during that time, she has worked to make Paragon an industry leader.

“Fresh foods have gained in popularity over the last two decades and are still popular and gaining more popularity because of the health benefits of eating fresh foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables,” Bellin says. “As that has grown and that interest has grown, our business has naturally grown as a result of the demand.”

That growth has pushed her to position the company as one of the best in the industry.

Smart Business spoke to Bellin about what it takes to bring your company to the top.

Lead your industry. What we have done over the years is we’ve tried to put ourselves in a position of leadership in the industry and in our market by being really proactive. We recognized the potential in really high-quality fresh foods and the potential and the benefits of local and sustainable foods long before others had. Our motto is not necessarily to supply the demand but also to bring forth and promote what is healthy and what is environmentally productive for everybody and to bring that awareness to our customers and ideas about that to our customers.

You have to look at opportunities and potentially innovative products or solutions that are indigenous to your industries. You also have to have the right team in place to promote innovation. That is critically important to get ahead and to change or bring different ideas to an industry. You have to have a team that is dedicated to wanting to be innovative and wanting to be a leader in their industry and can take advantage of any innovation that is available to them in the industry.

Allowing really qualified employees to develop their ideas and to develop their initiatives, to work with them and support them is important. If they feel they are making a difference and they’re contributing to the overall strategy, plan or goal of the company, you have the potential of getting a highly productive work force and ultimately a successful business.

Offer quality service. We have been focused on really high service levels and high-quality levels. All of the areas of business that have made us successful, we have to continue to do that extremely well. We cannot waiver; we cannot make a mistake because with all the economic pressures, customers have an even higher demand of their vendors and their distributors.

If you want to be successful in this economically challenging environment, you have to have the consistencies and a workforce that has a strong desire to want to be the best at what they do. Happy employees tend to show that. You have to make them feel like they’re being treated well and treated fairly and that comes from an enhancement of the benefits package to make sure that their wages are in line and that they have an opportunity to continue to do better with the company. You have to focus on employees and focus on the economic challenges and the uncertainty of the economy.

Stay focused on what you know how to do and don’t lose sight of what you do well. You have to redouble your efforts so that the competition is not able to take away your business in a price sensitive market. If you develop the relationship and you are covering your customers and building that relationship through excellent customer service and excellent quality, then I think you have a better chance of maintaining good customer relations.

Differentiate yourself. We were the first distributor in our area to introduce locally grown food products to our customer base. We did it before it became vogue and now its vogue and its here to stay. For me it always starts with quality and that’s been the main ingredient in the success of our company is that we provide quality first. The exploration of broadening the local segment of our business is going to be very helpful in sustaining the growth and leadership position of the company.

You have to be open-minded and when there is an opportunity or somebody brings an idea forth, you have to be open to exploring that. Being open to new and innovative ways of doing business is very helpful. You have to bring good information to your customer base and be innovative and propose changes. If you just accept that customers will do the same thing then you’re not going to be a benefit and you won’t add value to your customers. In order to add value, you have to be at the forefront of new product identification. You have to be at the forefront of trends and be aware of those ideas and bring them to your customers to try.

HOW TO REACH: Paragon Food Service, (412) 621-2626 or