Strange business: how kitchen equipment is sold

One of the hardest things to explain to someone new to the restaurant business is the way foodservice equipment is sold and serviced.
Imagine that you want to purchase a new van to expand your catering and delivery business. You go to your local car dealer, but there are no vans on display, just literature. You are told to call a factory representative to get a test drive and have your questions answered. Upon further investigation, you find that the local gas station can lease you a van if you buy all of your gas there. Your local mechanic also can sell you a van direct from the factory distributor, or you can buy one at your local warehouse club or you can mail order a van from a catalog. You want to trade in your old van, but none of those channels, including the local dealer, would take a trade-in.

After you finally buy a van from one of the sources, in order to get a demo to explain how to use its special features, you have to call the factory representative. If you need warranty information you have to contact yet another company called a service agency. Now change the van to a dishwasher, and you have a good perspective of the distribution of commercial foodservice equipment in many areas.

In today’s marketplace you can buy or lease a $10,000 dishwasher from a dealer, a mail order catalog, the service agency, a food distributor, a detergent company, a stainless-steel fabricator, a purchasing company or, perhaps in the near future, your local warehouse shopping’club.

I am not aware of any other type of capital equipment with the cost and complexity of commercial appliances that has such a variety of distribution. Commercial laundry equipment, for example, which is similar to commercial kitchen equipment in cost and use, is sold through authorized dealers who are required to stock parts and equipment and to service what they sell. Most of the dealers buy and sell used equipment and, most important, maintain high levels of product knowledge and service to the buyer. Their name and reputation and the companies they represent are intertwined and benefit from each other’s concern for the customer.

What does that all mean to you, the buyer of foodservice equipment? As equipment gets more complex, the choices and options more diverse, there are few truly knowledgeable service-oriented dealers who can provide the levels of service you would expect when purchasing an expensive capital-equipment item. The person selling you foodservice equipment may not have control over your satisfaction after the sale, start-up training, parts or service. While the open market may have driven down profit margins a few percentage points, ultimately the customer suffers because of less access to product knowledge and lack of a single source of responsibility for equipment concerns.

The equipment dealer marketplace is in turmoil as warehouse shopping clubs start to sell commercial foodservice equipment. In some markets warehouse clubs even are bidding whole kitchen equipment packages. Product knowledge and service after the sale are foreign to those price-oriented retailers. That reality follows a trend that started when paper and food distributors began selling kitchen equipment aggressively a few years ago.

There are some positive signs, particularly in some smaller markets where full-service dealers still thrive. By selling new and used equipment, taking trade-ins, supplying parts and servicing their own equipment, those dealers learn which brands and models hold up best in specific applications and can guide the customer to make more educated choices. Offering reconditioned and used equipment to mix with new allows those with limited budgets a way to stretch their investment.
There is also a change in attitude from some major manufacturers who are pruning their distribution list to a limited number of service-oriented dealers, not just those who have orders in hand.

The number of independent foodservice consultants has doubled in number over the past 10 years, and they are located in most areas. They offer unbiased equipment knowledge and provide bid documents and quality assurance through purchase and start-up. Most consultants can be retained for a modest fee to provide advice and prepare bidding specifications to ensure that the buyer is bidding equal items. They can work with your sketches and ideas and don’t always need to prepare time-consuming utility plans and elevations.

Some manufacturers’ representatives have become much more sophisticated, building test kitchens and showrooms, sponsoring, seminars and demonstrations, and adding chef’s and operations specialists to their organization.
The National Association of Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers, NAFEM, has started a program of training and testing equipment specialists in product knowledge leading to formal certification. Look for the NAFEM certification, CFSP – certified food-service professional – on the business card of the salesperson with whom you speak.
What can you do to ensure that you get the right equipment for your needs, at a fair price, with service after the sale? Search out the dealers and brands that are committed to product knowledge and full support, rather than just selling commodities for a price. Find a dealer who belongs to FEDA, the Foodservice Equipment Dealers Association. Spend the time to thoroughly research all options available. Make sure you aren’t being steered toward a particular brand of equipment just because the dealer gets a better debate through his buying group. Speak with other operators and independent consultants who have no hidden agenda to sell you more than you need. Insist on having your employees who will be actually using the piece of equipment see it in operation in a similar application.

The most expensive piece of equipment is not the highest-priced item but the one that takes valuable space in your kitchen and does not perform the task you require.

Strange business: how kitchen equipment is sold
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