We recently sat down with George Clark of Restaurant Outfitters & Commercial Kitchen Equipment to discuss his story, the industry that they work in, and why they trust Arctic for their cooling needs.
Please briefly tell us about the Pizza Solutions story and how you came to join the organization.
“We’re actually no longer Pizza Solutions, we’re now officially Restaurant Outfitters. Pizza Solutions was started by John Harrison, 26 years ago. About five years ago, PFG acquired us. They service tons of different restaurants, anywhere from Mexican restaurants, pizza shops, bar & grill, mom & pop, they’re involved with everything. I actually just left a 7,000 square foot restaurant that’s going to be like a Cracker Barrel style restaurant. One problem we ran into a bunch was when we would walk into a mom and pop diner. They would see our name and say that they don’t sell pizza ovens. Well, we actually sell everything. So we’ve changed the name to Restaurant Outfitters, to make sure people know we sell everything, not just pizza ovens. Pizza Solutions is actually still a company, it’s a division of restaurant outfitters. We’re more of the specialty segment that handles the pizza side of things. So with that being said, going to the restaurant outfitters, Arctic has been a great partner for us. They’ve done phenomenal when it comes to all of our cooler needs because now we need everything from your standard 8’ x 10’ coolers to monster, 40’ x 20’ x 20’ coolers that people are using for manufacturing. On a personal note, I came to the organization from the frozen dessert industry. Prior to that, I was in the pizza Italian industry. So I’ve been out in the industry for about 26 years.”
How does Restaurant Outfitters differentiate itself from other competitors or people in a similar market?
“We’re more of a hands-on company. The restaurant equipment business has kind of become a click and order type situation. We still think that there’s a niche market out there of people that actually want a person on the other line. They want the person they can call when something goes down. They want the person they can call when they need something, like a specific design, not just something you click and order. We’ve got a little bit of e-commerce on our side, but really we’re still more of the old school mentality that has been so successful for us. You know, we want to talk to you. We want to see you face-to-face. We want to see your store. We want to make sure that you’re getting what you want and hopefully in the long run by laying eyes on stuff, we’ll be able to become even more successful. We’ve got experts on our team that know what they’re doing and that have worked in the restaurant industry. We’re not just sales people. We are people from the industry. We can walk into stores and say, “Hey, you don’t necessarily need that piece of equipment, you need this one,” and save people money. That’s what makes us different and we take great pride in that.”
It sounds like that’s really baked into the DNA of the company from its origin, perhaps?
“Absolutely. John, who started the company, would go to people’s stores. He would help do layouts, he would help them with everything. John and I have worked together my entire career. We know each other and we take that same attitude toward our people. Even our inside sales people that do the quoting, they are being trained to be salespeople. We want to move them to the next level. That’s what we like to do. We want people better than we are out in the field, so we’ve got a strong team that way.”
How important is your relationship with AMG in ensuring your organization’s success?
“Jim Escola is phenomenal, he really is. I can’t explain how good he is. I mean, this week alone we had a store that needed a walk-in cooler. I called Jim. Jim said, “Yep, be there in 30 minutes.” I mean, he is phenomenal. It’s priceless to us to be able to lean on him for his expertise. He is a strong support for our whole team. I can’t say enough good things about Jim.”
Are there any special plans or initiatives for Restaurant Outfitters in the coming year or two that you would say are exciting for the Foodservice customer base?
“Our three to five year plan is to continue developing that relationship within the food warehouses, because that puts 6,000 account managers on the street telling everybody about us. I think that’s a huge growth strategy for us and that’s my job at the end of the day. We’ve just added a second business development manager, and we’re getting ready to add a third one in the near future. Our job is to go to the warehouses and educate them on how easy it is to submit a lead. Once you submit a lead, you give it to somebody that knows equipment, like they know food. They hand it over and then we run from there with it.”
What are the most crucial factors for you when you are considering walk-in coolers?
“Quality. I mean, without a doubt, quality is the number one thing. The availability of having custom sizes made because we have shops that are 10,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet and people have limited room. We like being able to tell them that we have you covered, no matter the circumstance.”
How did your partnership with Arctic come about? Can you speak to the quality of the box that they present?
“The way the partnership started there, we worked with several others. We were working with some of the major companies in the cold storage industry and it seemed like we were just continuing to have troubles with the various companies. During Covid, when everybody else shut down and the freeze happened with all the panels getting extremely hard to get, we had people just canceling orders with us. In some cases, just canceling entire orders. We basically just went from having four or five cooler vendors down to Arctic being our primary vendor, unless it’s specifically specked by one of our chain customers. Arctic’s service level is just unbelievable, the quality level specifically. I mean we have very few callbacks on Arctic issues, which I think goes to them pre-assembling them at the plant before the order ships. That’s another good bragging point. I will say if Arctic gives you a ship date, you can pretty much set your money on it that it’s going to happen.”
Are there any features that stand out around the Arctic box?
“You know, I think it’s the quality of the panels and the quality of the seams. There’s a longevity there that customers appreciate. They’re not putting in a five-year box. They’re putting in a box that’s going to be a 20-year box. I mean, obviously you may have to change components, but the box is very solid.”
What trends do you see overall in the restaurant space or the walk in cooler space? Click to buy is kind of happening, but your guys are a bit old school. Is there anything else that you’re seeing that’s changed significantly?
“You’re seeing a lot more stuff, people are going into smaller footprints. We’re seeing folks going into smaller footprints and more automated equipment. We’re seeing combi ovens become a huge thing in the industry right now because it’s basically set it and forget it. Your old school chefs are still there and you’ve got to appreciate them because they put out good food, but you’re seeing a lot more quick service restaurants and I’m sure you guys are seeing that as well. In any market that you go to, you’re seeing the quick service restaurants. Then the other big food service trend I’m seeing is gas stations. They have now become restaurants with gas, not gas stations with a hot dog roller. As someone put it to us the other day, the convenience store segment is expanding their food menus because they are trying to catch those parents on the way home from work who don’t feel like cooking when they get home.”
How much did COVID play into this or is this sort of just the natural progression of things?
“You know, it was actually happening before COVID. I can name a few chains. I mean, you just watch out there, you can see these stores. They started developing in probably 2012 or 2013, and now even your mom and pops are developing into those trends. It’s like you go to a town now and a gas station is a food source for them. It might even be a shopping mall for them. Take for example Bucky’s out of Texas, they’re growing like crazy. I mean, you walk in there, it’s the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. There’s even Maverick out of the west, up in that area. Maverick was doing it before Covid, so this was not a COVID thing that caused this. This is something that’s been trendy. When I have meetings with the store groups, they all want to be different. They all want to be unique. They want to do something that makes them stand out from the restaurants or any other gas station for that matter. They’re really on the cutting edge of technology. I heard the other day that there was technology coming out about ordering your food at the gas pump, and when you get done pumping, food’s ready. It’s crazy.”
Great. In that case, George, I’m going to give you the floor to share anything else you’d like. Where can we find you, any mission statements for the team that you want to put out there. Any goals, shout outs, etc. The floor is yours.
“We’re developing our website, we’ve got a great designer tasked with that. Our website is an online catalog. Although you’ll find a lot of equipment on our website it still only scratches the surface of what we can offer. Our site has a lot of equipment that you can browse, check out the spec sheets, etc. You can find us at www.pizzasolution.com. You can still get on there and see that we’re still that company. When you call that number from 9 to 5, there is going to be somebody there that answers the phone. My cell phone number, which is pretty much shared across the country, rings nonstop. I’m okay with that because if it’s ringing, that’s a good thing. We’re developing, we’re growing. You’re going to see us more in different parts of the country. We’ve got the business development managers that we’re starting to hire for regions now. We’re hiring people for three state areas, which makes it much easier. When we hire people, we’re very specific about who we hire. We don’t just go grab some sales guy that’s out there. The new guy that I hired in North Carolina, Kevin Cox, owned 20 restaurants before coming to us. He’s developed, he’s designed, he’s done everything. We get people that know your industry, so give us a shot. That’s the biggest thing I’d say, is give us a shot. We’re just like an employee. You don’t like what you see, fire us. I mean, it’s that simple. We just want a shot to earn your business, and we’re good at what we do.”
Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, George!