Three Businesses Discuss How Innovation and Technology
are Key Pieces of their Strategy for Growth Now and in the Future


Because it is nimble in nature with few layers of approval, Parts Town is able to quickly implement ideas and improvements conceived by its team members.

By Tim O’Connor
Associate Editor
tim@feda.com

At the beginning of the decade, car companies were still primarily thinking about better brake pads, luxury finishes, and lightweight materials to improve gas mileage. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley software companies were questioning the entire concept of the car. Google’s self-driving vehicle project began in 2009 before being spun out into a stand-alone subsidiary, Waymo, in 2016, while Apple is rumored to have been working on an autonomous electric car since 2014.

Tesla promises that every car now made in its Fremont, Calif., factory already possess all the hardware needed for full self-driving capability and the Elon Musk-led company has further shaken the traditional automotive market by embracing the direct sales model. This disruption by a West Coast tech company is a story that foodservice equipment distributors are all too familiar with. Just as traditional car manufacturers have suddenly found their cars sharing the road with the likes of Google, Tesla, and Uber, online retailers are elbowing into traditional commercial distribution, forcing foodservice equipment providers into a race to demonstrate their value against the threat of Amazon and direct-to-user sales.

 In this environment of upheaval, distributors can look to the automotive industry for a blueprint on how to successfully compete. Detroit carmakers have responded by doing their own reimagining. In a November 2017 New York Time’s story, “Can Ford Turn Itself into A Tech Company?”, Ford CEO Jim Hackett talked about how businesses like the 116-year-old company often must give up what made them great in the first place to stay competitive and solve new problems. A little less than a year later, at the CityLab Detroit forum, General Motors CEO Mary Barra told the audience of leaders and forward thinkers that she wanted people to think of GM as a tech company by the end of her tenure. Responding to a question about the general excitement over Tesla, Barra said, “We’re viewed as the 100-year company and there’s always that excitement with what’s new and innovative, and I think the story that we need to continue to tell better is just how much innovation we’re doing.”

From innovative leaps in equipping commercial kitchen equipment with IoT technology to updating legacy processes with modern solutions, E&S professionals are beginning to reengineer their narrative, too. Warehouse automation, ERP systems, metric tracking, and paperless offices are all tools distributors have employed to become more efficient and responsive to customers. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the Mobile World Congress in February, “Today every company is a tech company and every organization will need to build its own digital capability to compete, to grow, and to prosper.” There are multiple paths for companies taking the technology journey, but the end point of all of them is a more digital and savvy organization. What follows are some of the stories from companies within and around foodservice equipment distribution that are successfully making the transition.


Rory Clarke (left), president of Avanti restaurant solutions, believes that constant emails and notifications can kill productivity,
which is why Avanti is implementing a document management system that will streamline the company’s internal approval process.


Avanti Restaurant Solutions

At its core, implementing new technology is about creating a solution. Often times, those solutions are designed to improve internal processes and to make the business operate more seamlessly so that companies can devote more time to working with customers. But to reach that point, distributors and dealers must have their own internal people who understand their technology needs and what steps must be taken to move their capabilities forward.

When Mark Rossi founded Avanti Restaurant Solutions, a California-based distributor that specializes in chain restaurant development, in 2003, he understood that need. “Mark has always valued the efficiency technology can bring and wanted to buy one step ahead of our current size and scale requirement so we had some room to grow—whether that was a phone system or an entire ERP solution,” said Rory Clarke, president of Avanti.  Clarke was brought on originally in 2005 as a project manager and worked his way up to president of the organization in 2016. Prior to arriving at Avanti, he built weather satellite ground stations and their software systems, so he understood what it took to take a technology project from concept to completion. This background has helped him relate to and communicate with software engineers and providers more easily.

“It’s a huge benefit for me to be able to think like a software developer when we’re developing things together,” he notes. “And I can spot problems, too.” That expertise was instrumental four years ago when Avanti implemented a new ERP system. To ultimately get what it wanted out of the software, the company needed extensive customization, so it brought in an engineer from the ERP provider. Clarke and the engineer sat side-by-side as they altered the base software, tore down and rebuilt components, and tested it through completion with a lot of help from Avanti’s employees. The result was an ERP system designed specifically for Avanti’s needs and teams, one that was outfitted with customizations for project accruals, order tracking, email integration, change order management, and other efficiencies to speed up project management.

Around the same time Avanti was implementing its ERP system, the company also was making an effort to document and standardize all of its processes so that every customer received the same great experience. Instead of relying on tribal knowledge passed down from manager or mentor to new employees, or files stored somewhere that would never be used, the company wanted something that every team member could easily access wherever they were located.

Two quarters later, the accounting, design, projects, and sales teams had each broken down, defined, and refined their methods to create followable standards that were editable and open, similar to a Wikipedia page. “It has to be somewhere that’s as easy to get to as Wikipedia and a new employee can do a search and find what they are looking for,” Clarke explains.

He calls the wiki an “ideal training tool” that helps with onboarding and ensures a consistent customer experience. Every employee is outfitted with two computer monitors to make it easy for them to open the wiki on one screen while running software processes on the other. Because of that effort five years ago, Clarke says the company has seen a significant decrease in the time it takes to get new employees up to speed, while adherence to standards has improved.

To measure how well their employees are following those standards and completing other tasks, Avanti uses software systems such as Salesforce. It has been great for tracking sales, account management, and forecasting, says Clarke. Taking it a step further, the dealer has customized it so users can see the information that is most relevant to their roles. “I love being able to put measurements in front of people,” Clarke says. “You can call it gamifying what they do, but I think that you can really keep people on task and focused on what matters.”

Giving employees access to that data via a dashboard aids their decision processes and helps prevent them from being pulled into something that’s irrelevant to their job and won’t improve those key numbers. At the end of 2018, Avanti further bolstered its use of metrics when it added Ally, a software that manages goals and tracks company objectives and key results such as revenue targets. “It makes it very easy to measure yourself against your goals,” Clarke explains.

The implementation of Ally has been limited to the management team for Q1, but Clarke says it will roll it out to the entire company the following quarter. The software also ties into Salesforce, allowing managers to get a clearer picture of how employees are meeting their sales goals from a single source. “These different pieces of software are starting to make real connections with one another, which saves you time,” Clarke says. “You don’t have to go bouncing back and forth.”

Having established and documented its processes, Avanti has spent the last few years looking at what other problems technology can solve. Its most recent focus has been on document management and paperless systems. Like most companies that buy and sell products, there are multiple layers of approvals for every price increase and order change. Further, the amount of invoices Avanti processes each year generates mountains of paperwork that must be responded to and stored for record keeping.

While some may think of email as the answer, Clarke says that, in practice, dealing with the constant influx of inbox items kills productivity. “In my opinion, over the last 15 years, I have seen people’s ability to focus diminish,” he explains. “I believe that centralization of email, calendars, tasks, and notes into one place in Outlook is a mistake because it creates too distracting of an environment. I don’t think that works for all types of people. There are times when you need to focus without a distraction to do a good job.”

One of the goals behind the document management system, which is still in the testing phase, is to limit those distractions. It will allow Avanti to send invoices and notifications into a review status, and then forward them to the assigned person’s queue for approval. Instead of being barraged by a stream of messages throughout the day, the queue allows each individual to review and make all the approvals when they have a free moment, and the updated status is then sent back to the original sender. Another benefit: When all the documents are digitized, Avanti will be able to index everything to pull up an order’s history or review a customer’s account. “It’s just like Googling your own accounting system,” Clarke says, “which is amazing.”

The document management system will integrate with Avanti’s ERP, helping to streamline data entry and reducing the opportunity for human error.

The continual investment in technology is a key part of Avanti’s growth strategy. “We are aggressive and are willing to invest in software and hardware before we need it as we scale so that we are not slowed down,” Clarke says.

Still, he says people will continue to play the most important role in the company. The technology is there to support them, not replace them. The idea is to use technology to streamline communications and interactions so that salespeople can spend more time with the customer. “It’s a relationship industry we’re in,” Clarke says. “Even given the opportunity to order something online from us, most of our customers prefer to call and talk to us. There’s a level of expertise that they are still looking for.”


Digital tools such as Slack and Basecamp help Tundra’s teams communicate with each other and facilitate project management.


Tundra Restaurant Supply

Today, Tundra Restaurant Supply is a single-source provider of restaurant equipment with a strong e-commerce website capable of serving independent, chain, and institutional customers anywhere in the country. But when the company started in 1993, it was selling parts out of co-founder Michael Lewis’s garage in Boulder, Colo. A belief in the importance of staying up-to-date with technology, coupled with a customer-driven culture, has fueled that growth.

Like Avanti, Tundra sees technology not as the end goal, but as a means of improving the customer experience. Its e-commerce website, etundra.com, is only one way customers can order equipment, smallwares, and parts from the distributor. Working directly with a salesperson remains a popular option. “We always make sure we offer all avenues of communication with our customers because not everyone has the luxury of being able to pop online to make an order,” says Alicja Spaulding, director of e-commerce.

Many customers may still prefer to buy through a real person, but those real salespeople are being supported by several digital systems. Slack, a cloud-based collaboration hub, helps with interoffice communication and Basecamp has enabled the team to better coordinate project management. Both tools are essentially designed to heighten collaboration within the company. “Being able to overcome that communication gap has helped the customer experience,” says Marketing Manager Rachel See.

On the sales side, Tundra uses Salesforce for marketing automation and customer relationship management. This allows the company to react quickly to customer requests, such as password resets for their online buying accounts and shipping notifications. “Your essentials are always very much available within a minute or as quickly as the system can process that information,” Spaulding says.

Customers desire a fast response, but, as See points out, it’s even more important for a restaurant owner to know the up-to-the-minute status of their order because their business relies on those deliveries to remain in operation. “A lot of times these customers are ordering something because something has broken and needs to be replaced in their restaurants,” she says. “It’s an unavoidable last-minute fire approach.”

Being able to provide that information instantaneously gives the operator peace of mind and reduces downtime. In many cases, Tundra can deliver the critical component or equipment by the next day once an order is placed. “When something breaks, it has to be replaced immediately,” See says. “We need to get them that solution so they can get their restaurant back up and running.”

To deliver that capability, Tundra has invested heavily in automating its processes over the past 10 years. “Because our company is so customer-driven, we knew what solutions we needed to provide and we weren’t going to fall behind on that,” See says.

At first, that meant hiring internal software developers to create plugins and APIs to better customize systems for Tundra’s specific needs. However, as the software has improved and caught up with the particularities of E&S distribution, Tundra has found itself creating fewer custom solutions. As the director of e-commerce, Spaulding believes the company now has a strong understanding of what technologies need to be built and what can be purchased. “It stems back to trying to figure out what’s going to create the best customer experience,” See says. “We’re trying to use internal tools that make sense to maintain those relationships.”

So far, Tundra has been successful in using technology such as Google Analytics and IBM Cognos reporting software to reach that goal. Those two systems work independently but together provide a fuller picture of how specific changes impact problem-solving, making it easy to identify causation. Being able to identify that cause-and-effect is especially helpful for understanding how different approaches impact customer interactions. For example, when Tundra sends out a marketing email it can measure the amount of website traffic generated in response, allowing it to determine what works best and achieve its larger goal of cultivating repeat buyers. “We don’t want to be a supplier that’s selling one time to one customer in their lifecycle,” See says. “We want to build relationships. When you make the right decision based off what you’re seeing, it’s easy to build off that.”

Even as they create solutions, bringing in new software and systems have their own challenges. See contends that the biggest obstacles usually occur during the transition period when onboarding new software. Employees must see the value of the change before they buy into it and then undergo training to learn to use it properly. The key, See says, is to listen to employees and understand their challenges so that a solution can be found. “There’s always a reward after we’ve gotten through that process,” she adds. “We have to stay current in order to be successful. Be fearless in the pursuit of change.”

For other distributors wanting to modernize, See recommends that they do thorough research first. “Find out what your competitors are doing: what works, what doesn’t. Listen to your employees.”

“Sometimes it’s better to start small than to not start at all,” Spaulding adds. “It’s a very daunting feat to try to embrace everything that the internet has made possible for companies. More often than not, it’s best to start small and then scale up from there once you see the results.”


Parts Town's robotic pickers will soon handle more than 70 percent of the company's transactions.
But human team members are still needed to manage the system.

Parts Town

Ordering the wrong size box of garbage bags is a pretty low-stakes mistake but getting an incompatible replacement knob or adapter on an Electrolux fryer can temporarily put a restaurant out of commission. Illinois-based Parts Town, a supplier of OEM replacement parts for foodservice equipment, faced the occasional mismatch until 2013 when a team member hit upon an idea that changed how the company showcases its products online. The team member had been looking at a mountain bike website that posted 360-degree photos of its bikes, allowing potential buyers to get a feel for every inch of the frame before putting in an order. They realized that if Parts Town could replicate those kinds of detailed, interactive images on a much smaller scale, then operators and service reps would be able to inspect a part online and make sure it was exactly what they needed before purchase, reducing the number of returns and improving customer satisfaction.

The company built a 360-degree photo studio on its distribution center floor and within three months had the first set of “PartSPIN” images uploaded to its website, making it the first provider of small products anywhere in the world to offer that technology. Today, the company has well over 100,000 PartsSPIN images and the idea has since been copied by other parts suppliers.

Parts Town CEO Steve Snower credits the PartSPIN breakthrough—and many other innovations—to the ingenuity of the Parts Town team. “Culturally, we really try to draw ideas out of people’s heads and put them into action,” Snower says. “Over time, the best ideas have come from team members in different areas of the business.”

By listening to team members at every level of the company and finding ways to quickly put their ideas into action, Parts Town has been able to achieve more than 20 percent growth every year for the last 15 years. Constant innovation has been a big part of that success. Perhaps the most impressive example is its embrace of automation at its facility in Addison, Ill., which has expanded four times since 2010. At the middle of the distribution center sits a massive robot-picking array that is 15 crates deep and holds more than15,000 bins in total. Thirty-nine robots, adorned with team member generated artwork and named after pop-culture bots like Optimus Prime and R2-D2, work across the top level of stacks to pick parts from the bins below, then deposit them onto a conveyor where they are sorted for their destination.

The investment in automation wasn’t just to have flashy new tech—it made business sense. Like most distributors, Parts Town’s highest-volume products come from a small pool of the overall portfolio. By automating and stacking bins, the company maximized its efficiency so that 55 percent of orders come out of only 2 percent of its total floor space. Parts Town is currently expanding this technology, which will soon manage over 70 percent of the company’s transactions.

The latest digital breakthrough is serial number lookup, a streamlined way for operators and service reps to find all the parts associated with a specific piece of equipment. From the Parts Town website, www.partstown.com, users can select “Search By Serial #,” select a manufacturer, and enter the serial number. Then, the system spits back a list of all the replacement parts and any available warranty information for that particular piece of equipment.

The service launched earlier this year and already offers specific parts information from 25 manufacturers such as Blodgett, Duke, Henny-Penny, and Hussmann. Serial Number Lookup is critical, explains Snower, because even within the same line of products from a manufacturer, each serial number may require slightly different components. “This allows you to type the serial number into a website and be absolutely sure this is the part you need,” he says. The added precision is another way that Parts Town uses technology to improve its customers’ experiences. “We’re in a business where a single part can bring a piece of equipment back up and running to the highest level quickly,” Snower says.

Like its other solutions, Snower says serial number lookup was an idea that stemmed from a team member and was supported by OEM partners. Having the right people in place, who know what’s possible and can think up new initiatives, is the first step in making this happen. And, for the company, that pool is getting larger every year. In 2018, Parts Town hired more than 200 new team members and it continues to build a supportive culture where young people want to work, a place where the open-office layout, colorful walls, in-house fitness classes, and a community service focus can energize its people and foster loyalty and teamwork.

“The industry and the world are moving more and more to technology in their jobs,” Snower says. “We have a whole generation coming into the workplace that grew up having technology in their hands.” Bringing in fresh minds ensures that Parts Town is always thinking ahead. “We want to be where the world is going, not where it’s been,” Snower adds.

Technology Tips from Avanti's Rory Clarke

  • Test new platforms, apps, etc. while still retaining your set processes until you are sure they will work.
  • Today’s computers are really only meant to last three to five years because of how rapidly processor speeds increase, so as painful as it is to dispose of computers, it is a reality.  After a few years, most computers struggle to run at high speeds as they become loaded up with security updates and more software requires more speed.
  • Cloud-based software is such a benefit to small and medium companies who don’t staff their own IT departments. All you need to run them is an internet browser and it is not your responsibility to keep it running or perform updates.
  • With so many programs going to the cloud, monthly SAS (software-as-a-service) costs are starting to accumulate. I think it’s smart to not overdo it with all of the possible add-ons, etc. and try to get as much out of the native platforms as possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to hire millennials. They have an amazing intuition for software. One of the benefits of the smartphone revolution is that everyone has become more accustomed to the language of electronics and most new hires have no issues learning a new software system.