Foodservice Equipment Dealers Navigate the Complexities of Providing Exceptional Design-Build Services

These days everyone likes a one-stop-shopping environment where they not only can get multiple products and services from a single provider, but where they also have just “one throat to choke” to call for service and support. In return for offering a multitude of services to their clients—who generally wind up saving considerable time and effort in the process—dealers earn more on every sale and maintain control throughout the process.

Offering design services further helps foodservice equipment dealers bridge the gaps between their product catalogs and final, completed projects. This is a strategy that dealers have been using for decades, but it’s gaining in popularity as new competitors emerge and client preferences change. A 2021 study from the Design Build Institute of America forecasts that design-build construction spending will grow by 7.6 percent annually through 2025, when the segment is expected to top $400 billion. Thanks to their long-term investment in expanding design services, foodservice equipment dealers are poised to capture a significant share of that spend.

Eric Schmitt, president at Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design, credits the “rise of the internet” with driving more dealers into the design side of the business. “At one point, our industry was made up almost entirely of street sales personnel who possessed the intimate knowledge of equipment options that their clients did not have access to. They were able to open doors due to their unique position when it came to equipment and supplies knowledge,” Schmitt says. “With the growth of e-commerce, that information is now as readily available to end users as it is to dealers, which means that dealers have to differentiate themselves in new ways.”

In response, many dealers are now using their expertise and knowledge to apply the right pieces of equipment to the right solutions for their clients. Schmitt says Rapids “really believes in the value of design-build” and the value that this service adds for its clientele. The company creates multiple value propositions for clients through its expert equipment knowledge; ability to deliver unique and creative designs; and generate construction document sets for design team and construction team partners.

“We will have our design professionals not only create our kitchen plans, but also review plan sets from the trades involved in the project,” says Schmitt, whose design team sometimes spots potential issues that the original designers may have missed. For example, when working on a university project recently, someone had positioned the exhaust hoods off by a couple of feet. That seemingly minor oversight could have led to serious issues once all of the equipment was in place, but Rapids caught the issue and corrected it in time.

“That one problem would have been very costly to fix once everything was in place,” explains Schmitt, who worked with one of Rapids’ partners to resolve the issue before it turned into a serious project risk. On the flip side, he uses this story as a cautionary tale for other dealers. “Design isn’t just about throwing something on a piece of paper and hoping that it works,” he points out. “It requires a lot of diligence and detail, and there is always an element of risk involved for the dealer itself.”

Getting the Team Up to Speed
C&T Design and Equipment Co., Inc., has been offering design since the company was founded in 1971. The company has worked with all kinds of clients, from the individual restauranteur who is setting up a new location to large K-12 schools that are overhauling their kitchens and cafeterias — and all points in between. To ensure optimal results on these types of projects, C&T puts time and resources into training, with an emphasis on the technical aspects of the design itself.

“If you’re doing a design-build project for a K-12 school and you’re hired by an architect, you need an experienced person to lead that project through the many design meetings with the architect, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) team, kitchen staff and school board member presentations, as needed,” says Randy Truitt, vice president of C&T Design. Dealers also need someone who has experience using Revit and BIM 360 software, both of which can add a “whole new layer of complication and communication to the project,” he adds. Without that technical aptitude, dealers can’t effectively communicate their designs to an architect that’s using the software on a daily basis.

Leveraging their equipment expertise may have been the driving force for dealers to get into the design-build field, but the comprehensive nature of design-build means dealers are now often called on to manage so much more of the project. “Distributors typically have been known to work with independent operators who do not engage foodservice consultants,” says Eric Chaplick, director, operations and design at Boelter. “Like consultants, it is important that distributors have a full understanding of local codes, operational flow and a general knowledge of equipment and its operation.”

Experience is not enough to stay current with ongoing design-build and equipment practices, Chaplick notes. Continuous training is commonplace, whether it comes through online platforms developed by vendor partners or in-person at industry events. The market keeps changing and dealers that offer design-build services have even more trends to track. “For example, robotics and IoT (internet of things), not to mention the major sway regarding carbon footprint and the move to electric equipment,” Chaplick offers as examples.

A Go-To Design Source
Although it’s become a larger part of the business, foodservice equipment distributors have a long history with design. Dave Stafford, president and CEO at Stafford-Smith, Inc., says his company has offered design-build services for more than 80 years. The process itself has evolved over time as more technology — BIM, Rivet and advanced options like augmented reality (AR) — is used to develop designs. Through these advancements, dealers such as Stafford-Smith have consistently proven themselves to be the best candidates to handle the design-build process.

“In most cases, dealers have more day-to-day interaction and experience with their end users and customers than anyone else does. We talk to these customers more often and we’re there for them; we call on them,” Stafford says. In most cases, dealers are located within close proximity to the customers and their physical projects. This gives dealers greater experiential knowledge about how those clients operate and their needs.

“We’re equipment experts, and that expert knowledge makes us better suited to manage the design. We can get into the weeds and equipment details, for example, and understand exactly how the equipment can impact a menu or staff retention, and how it impacts the construction aspect of the project” Truitt says.

Getting in the design mix also helps dealers play a larger role in individual projects, earn more on those projects and build strong customer loyalty. “Instead of signing off when the equipment is delivered,” Truitt continues, “the dealer that offers design stays in touch on that project from start to finish.”

Flipping Kitchens to Electric
The knowledge that dealers bring to design-build projects is only becoming more essential as clients need an increasing amount of help to deal with new technologies and local regulations. Chaplick points to the move from gas to electric equipment — a California initiative that may spread to other states — as a key driver. For example, he says the debut of Southbend’s first electric broiler at the recent NAFEM show is a leading indicator of more design opportunities ahead for dealers who take the time to train their staff.

“With a single gas connection there’s 30,000 BTUs going to the oven and another 20,000 to each burner up on the range, but gas is easy to distribute,” Chaplick explains. “When the same range needs electricity, it will require a minimum of a 50 amp circuit for each piece of equipment, not to mention any higher wattage equipment like braising pans, fryers or other pieces of equipment.”

Dealers that invest the time and effort into training their staff and marketing themselves as one-stop design-build shops may be best positioned to benefit from this shift. “In the end,” Chaplick adds, “any complete ‘flipping’ of kitchen designs over to electric will require a lot of expertise and knowledge to get it right.”