FER’s 2023 Top Dealers Report

Operational efficiencies, product sourcing and being proactive versus reactive weigh on the minds of participants.

2023 Top Dealers Graphic

Things are improving. A handful of participants of the FER 2023 Top Dealers Report say 2022, compared with the few years prior, brought some relief.

The numbers reflect the sentiment. The rankings (see chart at end) show 44 of 46 participants posted an increase in sales revenue, up from 38 of 44 dealers, a somewhat different mix, in the 2022 report. Cumulatively, participating dealers report sales were $12.24 billion in 2022, up 26.3% from 2021.

Dealers say they found success by making operational improvements, investing in inventory, working tirelessly to source product, and, in one case, leaning on a buying group to provide training to employees. What does the road ahead look like? Dealers say ongoing challenges include cyberattacks and other scams, labor shortages and even just moving from a reactive to a proactive state of mind. But they have solutions in mind.

YEAR IN REVIEW

Both Clark Associates and Wasserstrom, ranking No. 1 and No. 5, respectively, in the report, have focused on improving the internal workings of the dealerships.

“We did a lot of good work under the hood,” says Gene Clark, CEO of Clark Associates, now a $3 billion company. “With it being so crazy the last couple of years, it’s important to have time to just focus on everyday basic operational excellence. We made a lot of advances in catalog management and inventory management, warehouse optimization. It sets us up well for this year and the future.”

To combat supply chain chaos, for example, Clark says the dealership improved its inventory management by building technology and using its data wisely to ensure the right product was in the correct part of the country. The result: a higher level of customer service.

“Now the pendulum has swung the other direction where, depending on the product, some manufacturers have an excess amount of stuff.”

—Tricia Powers Dambrauskas, B&G Restaurant Supply

Other highlights at the dealership include two new distribution centers for its WebstaurantStore division. One center recently opened in Georgia and the other center will open in Tennessee. The Tennessee facility will reportedly showcase its largest investment in automation and infrastructure. A press release points to its use of a fit-to-size packaging technology that will size, construct and label each custom order. It eliminates the need for void fill materials.

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The WebstaurantStore division of Clark Associates (pictured) has added two new distribution centers. One center recently opened in Georgia and the other center will open in Tennessee. WebstaurantStore serves as one of the largest online restaurant supply stores worldwide.

Building a stronger base at Wasserstrom started in the early days of the pandemic. Brad Wasserstrom, president, says the dealership used the slower months to focus on adding automation to certain areas of its business. It also found ways to make partnerships with customers, primarily chain restaurants, more mutually beneficial.

“We have flourished coming out of COVID,” Wasserstrom says. He points to how the dealership, which follows a fiscal year October to September, saw COVID still wreaking havoc in the winter of 2021 but things started to pick up later in the year as the world reopened—for real this time.

In 2022, the dealership fully embraced a form of automation in one of its warehouses that it had been working on for several years. The technology speeds up picking products and creates fewer errors when compared with a human. Another bright spot included celebrating the dealership’s 120th anniversary.

TAKING STOCK

Challenges around sourcing products came up in conversations with multiple dealers. Having inventory, and staff bent on finding products, set both B&G Restaurant Supply and Associated Food Equipment & Supplies (AFESCO) up for a positive year.

It was in 2021 that B&G, ranking No. 25, made the decision to invest in more inventory, says Tricia Powers Dambrauskas, executive vice president. “We saw [the supply chain] constricting so we made business moves to bring in inventory while we could and put in some large stock orders.”

“Now the pendulum has swung the other direction where, depending on the product, some manufacturers have an excess amount of stuff,” Dambrauskas adds. “There’s some opportunity to work with manufacturers to take some of those stock levels out of their hands.”

She adds that griddles, combi ovens and large ice machines still have longer than usual lead times but walk-ins and even fryers seem to be back to a normal schedule. Demand from schools for serving lines has skyrocketed as they’re serving out of cafeterias again. During COVID, B&G sold a record number of holding cabinets and transport carts to schools.

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AFESCO saw a more than 58% jump in sales.

Otto Abad, president/owner of AFESCO, says his employees put in a lot of time and effort to source products and that’s one reason the dealership, ranking 35th, saw a more than 58% jump in sales growth, the largest increase percentagewise of any participant in the 2023 report.

“I can’t thank my purchasing department and my sales team enough for all their hard work and dedication they put into trying to take care of their customers,” Abad says. “We had to go from manufacturer to manufacturer until we found somebody that could fit the bill. It might not have been exactly what the customer wanted from us, but we found something to get them through, to help them produce menu items.”

Abad took full ownership of AFESCO in late 2018, after being a minority partner for a couple of years. In 2022, he saw a lot of “pieces of a puzzle” come together. Those pieces included leaning on the dealership’s buying group to train employees and to form relationships with vendors, investing in inventory, and creating a three-person design department.

“With it being so crazy the last couple of years, it’s important to have time to just focus on everyday basic operational excellence.”

—Gene Clark, Clark Associates

Additionally, AFESCO plans to relocate its Alexandria, La., location after purchasing a nearby warehouse that’s more than three times the size. Opening this August, the warehouse will have a more than 5,500-square-foot showroom with a test kitchen and full bar so operators can explore equipment hands-on.

ROAD AHEAD

Dambrauskas says security marks one challenge she sees on the horizon. Like virtually any business, B&G receives spam emails and text message scams, and now with certain forms of artificial intelligence taking hold, she wonders what’s next.

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B&G strives to create a culture where employees (pictured left to right: Kelly Kiernan, Devin Sperlonga, Jeanne Kazimierczak and Bernadette Van Alstyne) speak up if they suspect cybersecurity issues.

“Training is everything, continuously communicating to the staff what to watch out for and what to question,” Dambrauskas says. Creating a culture where employees don’t hesitate to speak up if they click on the wrong attachment, keeping systems updated and using two-factor authentication serve as a few solutions.

At Wasserstrom, recruiting and retaining employees continues to remain a top challenge— however, the churn did slow a bit in the second half of 2022. The dealership employs 1,300.

“We try to do a lot of unique things for our people; we try to treat them like family. I think that helped reduce our turnover,” Wasserstrom says. For its anniversary, the dealership gave employees gifts with the theme 120. Gift cards for $120 to its swag store or for gas or groceries are a few examples.

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Brad Wasserstrom and Eric Wasserstrom celebrate the 120th anniversary.

And for Clark Associates, shifting to a more proactive mindset now that things are improving could be an issue—or an opportunity. “So many businesses have been operating in a reactive state for over three years now arguably,” says Clark, pointing to pandemic-related stresses around the supply chain, labor and inflation. “The challenge is, do we remember how to think thoughtfully and proactively?”

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WHAT’S A DEALER?

For the FER Top Dealers Report ranking above, we use the following criteria: To be ranked, the dealer must independently verify its volume. This is usually done with a letter or signature from a certified public accountant. If more than 50% of a distributor’s sales are from paper, chemicals and other nondurables, we do not include them. This excludes nearly all broadline distributors and paper distributors that have significant equipment and supplies volume.

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