The nation’s equipment and supply dealer community find themselves with a unique set of challenges as their restaurant and food service operator customers face the COVID-19 pandemic. They are faced with finding new ways to support operators trying to survive with creative Takeout & Delivery strategies and setting approaches for what is certain to be a new normal.
Total Food Service met Eric Wasserstrom last month while working on a Q&A feature that brought our readers inside the new phenomenon of “ghost kitchens”. Our goal was to get an update on the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities that Wasserstrom and his team see on the horizon as the industry prepares to welcome the return of its dining patrons.
Can you share with our readers what got you interested in this industry?
Right from the beginning, I loved the opportunity to work with our customers and help them fulfill their dream of opening a restaurant. In many cases these folks are investing their entire life savings in their business. That’s evolved into today of getting them to hold tight to that dream.
How has your career evolved?
My focus today is on supporting, training and leading our team. In some cases, it’s teaching how to do a better job of servicing our customers. The goal is always to help our customers get the most out of their businesses.
Have we ever faced a bigger challenge than we are today with COVID-19?
Our business has been around since 1906. I actually went back through our history books in search of stories and advice. We’ve pivoted through the Great Depression, Prohibition, World Wars, and Recessions. For instance, prior to Prohibition, we actually were in the business of selling beer and hops to bars. You realize as you look at the common denominator, in each case we had great people working in the business.
How do you define “great” people?
I define it as having a really positive view of the future. Our management team’s job is then to communicate that with our associates and, at the same time, to let our customers know that we are here for them today and will be there for them tomorrow. We also need to tap into everybody’s creative juices to make them better.
We heard about you as a result of the work that you are doing with Jim Collins and his Kitchen United rollout. What attracted you to the Ghost Kitchen concept?
We were introduced to them three years ago at NRA. Even then, you could see that customers were looking for convenience. Consumers wanted availability and flexibility in how they were going to get their food.
Jim and his team had a model; to drive the expansion of the Kitchen United concept that didn’t require the major Cap-X. In addition, it had the flexibility to control overhead by going into geographical areas that traditional operators shied away from. We saw it as a really unique way to connect our restaurant/operator customers with their dining patrons. Kitchen United and Jim gave us the perfect opportunity to help them build a brand and interact with their customers, which is what we are all about. We work with everybody from the local Italian restaurant down the street to major national chains. We loved the way the concept enabled our customer to get closer more quickly to their target.
It dawned on me in talking to Jim Collins that an innovative concept like that requires more than just a dealer fulfilling an equipment and supply spec?
We are willing to invest in our customers and they are willing to invest in the partnership. It’s really about the conversations that you are having beyond the transaction. We bring added value in our role as a manufacturer who can create solutions for custom fab and millwork as well as equipment and small wares.
With an eye towards a new focus on sanitation in the kitchen, what do you expect to see as we get ready to return?
Of course, they are going to be looking for a safe environment first and foremost. We know that many of these consumers are going to be returning after cooking at home for months. I suspect that will be where different flavor profiles comes into play. The bigger question is, will going out become a special event? Or will we return to life three months ago, where it was part of our everyday routine?
As with many industries, restaurant equipment and supplies are challenged with the growth of e-commerce. How has this changed the role of the local dealer and can you be in both businesses?
Yes, we offer both platforms and it really comes down to what level of service a customer wants when they buy something. We believe that our customer wants to talk to the person when they want to talk to a person. That’s why there is a phone number on our website. We think of it as being available when they want, in the way they want.
How do you see the role of the dealer changing going forward?
The type of products and services we offer will be dictated by our customers. At the end of the day, it is all about being able to solve the customers’ problems. They will provide insight into our future mix of products and services.
To learn more about the Wasserstrom company, visit their website