Happy Together: The Operator-Dealer Relationship Playbook

Better relationships with dealers depend on trust, communication and clear expectations—from both sides.

Maschari, Best Restaurant Equipment and Design, reviews equipment with Eddie Coronado at Mexican restaurant Blanco.
Maschari, Best Restaurant Equipment and Design, reviews equipment with Eddie Coronado at Mexican restaurant Blanco.

Solid operator-dealer relationships, like strong marriages, don’t happen overnight. They’re nurtured and forged over time. Like any good relationship, they’re built on trust, which requires honesty, good communication and clear expectations.

Over the past 18 months, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world topsy-turvy, putting all that on a different footing. Expectations have changed as fast as mask mandates have come and gone, and come again. Communication has moved from face time to screen time. And an honest statement or promise made today may be false hope tomorrow.

At times like these, when so much is up in the air, it’s especially important to make sure you’re making the most of your relationships with dealers. It’s also a good time to learn how dealers perceive those relationships and what they’re doing to keep your trust. After all, a good relationship is a two-way street. The pandemic has given you new priorities and created a new set of demands on dealers. It’s also given dealers the impetus to develop new services and solutions for operators.

Here are some top-of-mind relationship issues, and possible solutions.

GOOD COMMUNICATION.

In general, operators and dealers want the same things out of their relationships. Sometimes, however, mutual goals get lost in translation. The best advice? Listen, and learn to speak each other’s language. Operators say they want dealers to provide communication that’s the following:

TIMELY.

“Dealers can provide us more, and timelier, information, particularly about pricing and changing market supply,” says Andy Dunmire, vice president of design and construction, Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, Homestead, Pa.

“We use Dykes [Foodservice Solutions, Nashville, Tenn.] to be good trend-spotters,” says Larry Jones, vice president of construction, Captain D’s, Nashville, “such as which manufacturers are going to have extended lead times. That’s become a bigger part of our dashboard. We’re trying to build more time into our schedules. It’s incumbent on all of us to recognize that COVID is going to affect our lives for a while.”

HONEST.

“I want brutal honesty,” says Bryan St.George, COO, Little Greek Fresh Grill, Palm Harbor, Fla. “Some dealers often try to make you happy by telling you what should happen if all the stars align. But be upfront and confirm with vendors what equipment is available and when, especially big-ticket equipment that’s custom, like hoods and walk-in coolers.”

Little Greek Fresh Grill (shown) operates stores in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas. COO Bryan St.George says he appreciates honesty from dealers when it comes to what equipment is available and when.

Mason Greene, president, Hotel and Restaurant Supply, Jackson, Miss., also wants accurate information from vendors, “so we can be proactive with operators. There’s nothing worse for us than to promise a customer something a manufacturer told us, and then having to go back to the operator and let them know what we already communicated to them won’t happen. It’s not the manufacturer’s fault every time but it’s extremely frustrating, and hurts our reputation with operators.”

EFFECTIVE.

“A manufacturer said I must be tired of hearing about all the supply problems during the pandemic,” Jones says. “I told him I’m tired of excuses for not innovating and coming up with solutions. Our microwave oven supplier was having issues. Dykes, our dealer, found two others that would perform equally well. The problem was that they weren’t programmed for our products, but we know that can be done at the local level during install and setup.”

PRODUCTIVE.

“Communicate immediately if something happens,” St.George says, “and let us know what can be done. Wasting time pointing fingers doesn’t solve my problem. As soon as I have a franchise agreement in place, for example, I call our dealer and communicate with them about what we need, when and at what price. But I know they have to make money, too, so we need to communicate to set each other up for success.”

Wilson Bounds (left), Marcus Lyon (middle) and Walt Wasson, Hotel and Restaurant Supply, discuss a project.

HEDGE AGAINST PRICE INCREASES.

Supply chain issues caused by the pandemic aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, and the disruption has caused two sources of irritation for operators: lack of product availability and rising prices. Being informed of extended lead times and upcoming price increases helps, but operators say they prefer working with dealers that think ahead and go the extra mile.

“It’s incumbent on all of us to recognize that COVID is going to affect our lives for a while.”
—Larry Jones, Captain D’s

“We gravitate toward dealers who want to work closely with us,” Dunmire says, “and who are willing to bring in equipment before a price increase, even before we’re ready to use it. We also align with dealers who are willing to overstock our replacement equipment, allowing them to buy at certain times to take advantage of bulk discounts or ahead of price increases.”

Allegheny Refrigeration installs a walk-in cooler at a new Eat’n Park. The restaurant chain has asked dealers since the beginning of the pandemic to stock more equipment and parts to preempt shipping delays.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Eat’n Park not only has been asking dealers to stock more equipment to preempt shipping delays, but also stock more parts so the company can repair the equipment it has rather than purchase replacement equipment.

“Look at areas where the ball has been dropped and problem-solve with the dealer before the issue comes up again.”
—Bryan St.George, Little Greek Fresh Grill

Dealers are quickly responding to those needs and the changing market conditions. “We’re doing more stocking agreements and bulk purchases to get enough inventory to support the future growth of our chain customers,” says Kurt Maschari, vice president of sales, Best Restaurant Equipment and Design, Columbus, Ohio. “Trust is a big factor. We have to show clients we can deliver, and we have to trust that they’ll keep up with their growth projections so I can grow and staff my business to meet their needs.”

HELP MONITORING QUALITY.

Everything from parts shortages to a dearth of labor have taken a toll on product quality, and dealers have been caught in the middle.

“From the dealer side, we want operators to trust that we’re doing everything we can to help them build their success, but I know issues such as backorders and shipping damage can create frustration and make our dedication hard to see,” says Patricia Bible, founder, president and CEO, KaTom Restaurant Supply, Kodak, Tenn. “We have to be transparent about complications as they arise and ensure customers know we’re doing everything we can to help them, both at the point of sale and in making things right if something goes wrong.”

“Manufacturers are having more trouble with quality control due to the pandemic, so we’re having more issues with equipment,” Jones says. “We need more time to solve problems at the local level during startup. Our dealer is coordinating service agents to come in, diagnose and fix problems or order replacements. It’s an unprecedented time; we all need to exercise patience.”

Many operators recognize it’s a manufacturing problem brought on by special circumstances, but some look to both manufacturers and dealers for help in resolving issues.

“Our primary dealer services our equipment,” says Dunmire, “so we’ve invested in equipment they can service. Whether dealers can service equipment or not, though, they should know what parts are failing most often on equipment to factor it into the total lifecycle cost. And manufacturers should be asking why that part is failing and reengineering the product rather than being happy to sell more parts.”

SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS.

Ultimately, what operators are looking for isn’t equipment, but solutions—how to store, prep and cook food in less space, prepare it with less labor, cook it better and serve it faster. The dealers that can help them do that are usually the ones they forge stronger relationships with. And typically, operators don’t want to wait. They want dealers to take the initiative and bring them ideas.

“Our equipment dealers understand the challenges we face in our restaurants, and they are constantly looking for creative ways to solve our challenges and opportunities,” says Teresa Broaddus, senior director, supply chain and quality assurance, Fazoli’s System Management, Lexington, Ky. “They’re continuously bringing us new and innovative equipment ideas that may be quicker, easier or less expensive.”

But those ideas can’t happen in a vacuum. “We spend time with clients in their field operations at different times of day to see how equipment is actually used and get feedback from employees who actually use it,” says Maschari.

Ideas from dealers contributed to faster oven speed and increased throughput at Fazoli’s drive-thru.

When Fazoli’s took supplier partners to its restaurants, the dealers came up with close to 20 new ideas the company approved, six of which have been rolled out and four more of which are currently being tested. The company has already seen benefits in speedier service and increased throughput in its drive-thrus this past year.

With open communication, operators and dealers can build trust and strong relationships that benefit both sides.

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