Competitors are learning it's not easy to keep pace with Perkins' rapid growth spurt.

Bob Crawford works the crowd at the Perkins trade show like a casino greeter, shaking hands, slapping backs and shooting wisecracks at colleagues and vendors inside Gillette Stadium.

``Johnny, you know I thought we paid for security - and they still let you in the building?'' quips Crawford, Perkins' executive vice president.

``I snuck in. I snuck in,'' the delighted vendor replies.

A Perkins employee comments on Crawford's rapid orbit around the stadium's club level, where the company held a trade show on Sept. 25 for 240 food and equipment vendors.

``What are you, on roller skates?'' he says.

``Keep moving,'' Crawford replies. ``It's hard to get hit when you're a moving target.''

Competitors are learning it's not easy to keep pace with Perkins' rapid growth spurt.

With a fleet of 125 trucks and annual revenues of $400 million, Taunton-based Perkins has emerged as the locally-owned alternative to national food distributors like U.S. Foodservice and Sysco. Perkins has diversified its business lines, adding equipment installation and service divisions to augment its traditional food and paper business.

Perkins' early days had little connection to its current bread-and-butter: delivering food supplies to hundreds of restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and institutions throughout New England. Louis Perkins, the grandfather of current CEO Gary Perkins of Sharon and president Larry Perkins of Needham, founded a clothing store in downtown Brockton in 1915. He eventually began selling brown paper and twine as wrapping
materials to other merchants.

The paper business proved more lucrative than clothing, and grew explosively in the 1960s with the expansion of the fast-food industry. Still, as the 1980s began, Perkins remained a modest-sized company, with nine salespeople and $10 million in annual sales.

It was one of those fast-food chains, the now-defunct Mister Donut, that nudged Perkins into food service and set the stage for its rapid expansion.

In the early 1980s, the Westwood doughnut chain was dissatisfied with its food supplier and asked Perkins to get involved with delivering their food supplies like dry mixes, oil and fillings. As Mister Donuts' products expanded to include croissants and pies, Perkins rented refrigerated warehouse space in Brockton to store the ingredients.

The parent company of Dunkin' Donuts, which has its own distribution system, acquired Mister Donut in 1990. But Perkins had already attracted dozens of other bakery customers, from Honey Dew Donuts to independent bakeries. Today it does more than $100 million a year in frozen food deliveries, with bakery supplies comprising about three-quarters of the segment.

Perkins has also grown through 18 acquisitions of food companies. Last year it bought Canton-based Famoso Food Imports, and plans to expand its line of imported Italian specialties while keeping the Famoso brand name. It also acquired Newton-based Eastern Paper of New England in 2006.

The company now employs about 650 people, with annual sales of about $400 million.

To accommodate the growth of its food division, Perkins recently broke ground on an 80,000-square-foot addition to the warehouse it has occupied in Taunton's Myles Standish Industrial Park since 2002. The completed facility will be about 440,000 square feet.

It has also branched out into service, starting a kitchen equipment and design division in 1995 and a dishwashing and laundry division last year.

Being able to offer a comprehensive mix of food and paper delivery and other services makes Perkins an attractive ``one-stop'' provider for restaurants and bakeries, Crawford said.

Another advantage is Perkins' structure as a private, family-owned company, which enables it to operate more nimbly than a corporate bureaucracy, Crawford said.

``Because we can make decisions as we need to, if I think I need permission I'll go talk to (the owners),'' he said. ``If not, I just do it and tell them about it later.''

Given Perkins' growth, it's understandably looking to raise its public profile. It's turning its 18-wheelers into rolling billboards, replacing the old block-style lettering with mural group shots of employees to emphasize its focus on customer service. The artwork was designed by Quincy advertising agency Devine & Pearson.

Perkins began delivering paper to the Honey Dew Donuts chain 32 years ago, and later added the baking mixes, fillings and pie dough mix for the Plainville-based chain.

Honey Dew founder and owner Richard Bowen said he's never considered switching suppliers. He appreciates Perkins' old-fashioned touches such as keeping a single contact person at the company, and making after-hours deliveries.

``The salespeople throw stuff in their car and shoot it out at 9 or 10 at night,'' Bowen said. ``Their personality and corporate culture hasn't changed one iota since they were small in Brockton, and that was customer service and customer satisfaction.''

Steve Adams of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at sadams@ledger.com.