As a grocer that delivers to commercial kitchens, SYSCO (NYSE:SYY) may lack the visibility that grocery stores and packaged-food companies typically enjoy among investors and retail consumers. But while SYSCO's products might be hidden from those who work outside food service, its stock probably deserves a more prominent place in investors' portfolios. And at a recent price of $33, SYSCO shares now look especially attractive.

SYSCO benefits from the enviable strategic position it has attained. The company has achieved economies of scale that make it much more efficient than its rivals -- an important advantage in a low-margin business. SYSCO's net margin generally hovers around just 3%, which is still far wider than those of its rivals. Moreover, SYSCO's superior logistics, huge inventory of private-label products, and effective sales force mean that the company can provide customers with both high-level service and competitive pricing. That combination provides a powerful and durable edge over rivals like Performance Food Group (NASDAQ:PFGC) and U.S. Foodservice.

Wholesale food distribution is a steady, predictable business. SYSCO's sales growth has averaged 8.5% over the past five years, with several points of growth coming from acquisitions. True, no one would confuse SYSCO's modest rate of sales growth with the robust expansion delivered by networking appliance-maker Cisco. But SYSCO's shareholders aren't likely to lose much sleep worrying about technological obsolescence, either.

SYSCO's revenue comes from nearly 400,000 customers. Wendy's (NYSE:WEN), the biggest, accounts for only 5% of sales. That diversified revenue base reduces the company's business risk and helps SYSCO maintain pricing power. SYSCO's sales and earnings have also historically held up well throughout varying economic cycles, which should appeal to investors worried about an impending downturn.

SYSCO's attractive competitive position has translated into strong financial performance. The food distributor earned a little more than $1 billion last year, on sales of $35 billion. Earnings per share have grown at an average rate of approximately 10% over the past five years. As a relatively mature business, SYSCO has also grown free cash flow by roughly 25% over the past five years, and returned that cash to investors through steadily increasing dividends and stock buybacks. The company has consistently delivered impressive returns on equity, averaging more than 30%.

Now may be a particularly good time to buy SYSCO shares. For a stock that could add stability to volatile portfolios, SYSCO's trading at bargain prices, with a P/E less than 21. Meanwhile, its roughly 2.3% yield is a multiyear high, and it has grown at an average rate of more than 18% over the past five years.

SYSCO has returned a meager 4.5% over the past year, but I think its shares could soon emerge from their undeserved slump. Savvy investors should take advantage of this opportunity to buy a great company at a discounted price.

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Fool contributor Michael Leibert welcomes your feedback. He does not have a position in the securities of any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.