Before launching into a discussion about his business, Josh Shirazi, owner of Boston-based Shirazi Distributing, emphasized an important point.
“We are not a beverage company,” he said, speaking with BevNET earlier this week. “We are a dairy and dry goods company that happens to sell beverages, and we do it pretty well for the people who buy it from us.”
That approach — emphasizing strong customer service and close relationships with local brands — has helped Shirazi grow from a small one-truck operation to an established supplier to restaurants, coffee shops and independent stores in one of the country’s biggest urban markets. Within beverage specifically, it has allowed the company to cultivate a modestly sized collection of products that fit the specific needs of Boston’s expanding culinary and cafe scene.
“We don’t have 50 different options, but we have a nice selection of specialty drinks that our customers are comfortable with,” said Shirazi, who estimated that drinks comprised only about 10 percent of the company’s total business. “I do think of [beverage] as a very important piece of what we do because it opens a lot of doors for us.”
Before Shirazi joined the company in 2003, having a wide selection of on-trend beverages was not a priority. Until that point, Shirazi’s father Ebrahim, having acquired the distribution route of a retiring supplier who serviced the kosher deli he owned for years, ran the business himself from a single truck, delivering mostly dairy products to customers near Harvard University and the surrounding areas.
With Josh joining the company soon after graduating college, its business began to expand. After several years of subletting a refrigerated storage space, Shirazi Distributing now has a 9,000 sq. ft. warehouse for both dry and cold storage and a fleet of seven refrigerated trucks to service customers in the greater Boston area. Beyond dairy products, the company delivers everything from soup to frozen foods, condiments, deli meats, cheese and much more.
But it’s Shirazi’s local roots, rather than its product portfolio, that has been key to the company’s success. Josh pointed to Spindrift founder and CEO Bill Creelman as the one who helped bring the company into the beverage segment, back when the brand was just starting up in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood. After signing on to distribute Spindrift craft sodas locally, other brands seeking access to urban consumers began to take notice.
“As we got a little bit of a reputation as a specialty drink distributor, we started getting requests from manufacturers to carry their products because they liked our customer base,” Shirazi said. “A large portion of our customer base is local restaurant groups and cafes, so specialty drinks falls right into that category.”
In addition to Spindrift, Shirazi Distributing now carries 10-15 specialty beverage brands, primarily from New England-based companies, including Evy Tea, Aqua ViTea Kombucha, Tower Root Beer, SAP! Maple Soda and King’s Cup, which markets King’s Brew, a canned nitro cold brew coffee. Shirazi also distributes ready-to-drink beverages from Cawston Press, Found Water and other international brands.
While pointing out that beverages are only a small portion of its total business, Shirazi explained that the company’s clientele essentially helps sell its services to manufacturers themselves.
“We have really good relationships with our customers and because manufacturers want that, they 99.9 percent of the time come to us,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to look for it much.”
The fact that those customers are part of a thriving food and beverage scene in Boston, Shirazi acknowledged, is also a boon for the distributor. Close relationships with baristas at local premium coffee shops, he noted, have helped the company stay on top of trends and preferences in alternative milks, leading to the additions of oat milk brand Oatly and cashew milks from local nut milk brand Nutty Life to its trucks.
Shirazi said that, with a bigger warehouse, the company would embrace an opportunity to expand the size of its beverage portfolio. But until then, Shirazi will continue to follow the slow-but-steady growth strategy that has yielded solid results over the years.
“If somebody wants to buy [sparkling juice brand] Cawston Press in the area and they call them, they are going to be sent towards us,” Josh said. “They’ll call us and that’s our foot in the door to a new account. So maybe the first few months we are only selling them Cawston, but then they realize we have other stuff.”