It's an easy, comfortable drive from Cleveland to Huron, Ohio — a straight shot that drops you halfway between Cleveland and Toledo, just off the scenic Lake Erie coast.
Breckenridge Kitchen Equipment & Design as the longest-running employee of the company, second in tenure only to the president. The hard work has paid off. Colleagues, friends and industry peers all agreed: Claus was a shoo-in for earning this year's title of FE&S' DSR of the Year.And it's here, in this quiet and close-knit community, where Mark Claus was born and raised, raised his own family of four children and has completed hundreds of design and new-build projects for the past 26 years at
The timing and location in Ohio was perfect for Claus ending up at Breckenridge. Only a few years out of Cornell University's prestigious School of Hotel Administration and with a year of foodservice design experience at Cini-Little under his belt, Claus was looking to find his way back to the Cleveland-Sandusky area, where he had family. At the same time, the owners of Breckenridge Kitchen Equipment, who were friends and suppliers for his parents' restaurant, were looking to expand and hire additional employees. Claus enthusiastically joined the company in July 1990.
Coming back home, he was also lucky enough to reconnect with — and soon marry — Amy, a childhood acquaintance a few years his junior who had taken summer trips with his family and who had also recently returned to the Sandusky area. They celebrated their 22nd wedding anniversary this year.
When others talk about the DSR of the Year award around him, Mark smiles sheepishly; his normally wide grin and warm, happy eyes become a little more muted due to embarrassment. But this is all part of his charm. In fact, Claus is so humble, I actually had to go behind his back and talk to his colleagues and customers to get the inside scoop. Sorry, Mark.
"Mark's effect on the success of our company is difficult to measure in that it is so multifaceted," says Richard Pohl, president of Breckenridge. "I believe Mark has set the standard for our company by never compromising in terms of design and because of his attention to engineering details. He has the unique combination of skills that take a project from the very initial design concepts right through the final installation, start-up, test and demonstration of the equipment. He never hesitates to get directly involved in that final phase of installation when just one more set of casters has to be installed on the very last fryer to arrive at the jobsite. Mark personifies what the DSR of the Year should represent: a complete commitment to both our company and our customer. His technical knowledge is only equaled by his work ethic."
Pohl says the numbers also speak for themselves. In his more than two decades with the company, Claus has raked in more than $83 million in sales for Breckenridge. Alone, he has achieved an average annual sales volume of $4.5 million over the last few years.
But sales are just part of the equation. Claus has served as the design and engineering lead for more than 330 major Breckenridge projects. Approximately 75 percent of those were complete design-build jobs where Claus was responsible for the entire project — from the beginning stages of concept development and design to the estimating, procurement, project management, installation and post-installation support.
Though he has spent nearly 20 years also doing bid work, Claus prefers the relationship building aspect of design-build. "We're involved the whole way through — from the first pen to the paper to opening a restaurant," he says, acknowledging Breckenridge is different than dealerships without a design arm. "In design-build, developing a close relationship with the client is really important so we can solve challenges together and make adjustments quickly."
And no day is the same, which is another plus. "I don't just work on cookie-cutter school projects," Claus says. "Every project is different, and there are unique, new challenges every day."
Breckenridge employs just 18 full-time team members. Some project managers solely handle bid work; others focus on repeat design-build and expansion projects with longtime customers, which is an unofficial division Claus heads. Larger school and healthcare projects often rely on outside designers and consultants. The company also employs four full-time CAD specialists, with whom Claus works closely on designs.
Some view dealership-driven design-build work as controversial because it's assumed the dealer will naturally look to push its own agenda when it comes to specifying specific pieces of equipment. But Claus remains completely unbiased, working more closely with the customer to determine the right products both in terms of capabilities and price, according to Pohl.
It's this approach that helps Claus build lasting relationships with his customers. "Mark has shown time and time again that it is more than just selling the equipment to us and moving on," says Gary Britton, vice president of food and beverage for Winegardner & Hammons Hotel Group. "He has taken the time to work through all phases of design, selection and re-design with open communication, patience and an enthusiasm to get to a workable resolution for our success. Whether simply answering questions, recommending alternative solutions or assisting with the smallest details, he certainly has given us confidence with his performance."
Claus doesn't travel as much for work anymore — with the dawn of cloud-based conferencing software combined with emailing and phone calls — but he seems to be working even harder, coming in the office around 7 or 7:30 a.m. and leaving around 6 p.m. on a regular basis. He grabs a black coffee and gets down to business, sometimes spreading out drawings on the ledge outside his office so he can look at different projects at the same time and make notes.
"A good design has to incorporate the specific wants and needs of the client while at the same time providing the flexibility that the customer may not know they need, though I am always careful not to over-specify," Claus says.
Claus credits his understanding of his clients' needs to his experience in operations. After all, when you grow up in a restaurant environment, you really don't get any better experience. "For 22 years, my family had a pretty large steak and seafood restaurant on Lake Erie with about 400 seats," he says. "From the time I was 10 years old, I did pretty much everything — I washed dishes, bussed tables and worked every job." By the time he was 17, he was running the entire front of the house.
Claus says he was never really drawn to the kitchen or to cooking professionally, and while he considered the idea of running the family restaurant, he became more intrigued by his design, engineering, construction and facilities management classes while in school. In fact, Claus admits if he weren't a DSR, he'd probably be an architect or engineer. He's pretty close; his current role combines the best of both familiar worlds: design and foodservice.
"Some people get into the design world, but they haven't spent a lot of time working restaurant jobs," Claus says, "and they may understand design from an engineering perspective, but they still need to know how to cook a pizza or a steak. They also need to undersand where you put the plates to warm them before service and then where you plate the food. These things can be hard to teach if you haven't done them firsthand."
This is why clients don't just call Claus when they need another fork or a fryer. They call him when they need another wing of a multimillion-dollar resort.
And that brings us to the next chapter. Claus has worked on design-build projects in all segments, from healthcare and nursing homes to universities and schools, even higher-end supermarkets or "grocerants," as those with in-store restaurants are now called. (Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle is a new client.) Lately, though, he's been spending most of his time on two major hospitality clients: Kalahari Resorts, a chain of African-themed water parks, resorts and convention centers, and Geis Companies, a design-build, architecture, hospitality and property management group and operator of the Metropolitan at the 9, a swanky boutique hotel in downtown Cleveland.
The sprawling open land and farm fields that dot the Lake Erie coast have been the perfect building grounds for large resorts and amusement parks, including Cedar Point, with its skyscraper roller coasters visible from the waterfront, and Kalahari Resort Sandusky, an African-themed, 800-room hotel, conference center and indoor-outdoor waterpark complete with its own mini zoo.
Kalahari in particular where his best traits really shine. For the past 11 years, as the exclusive equipment dealer and designer for the company, he's worked on multiple remodels at all company locations, from the original waterpark resort in the Wisconsin Dells to the one in Sandusky to the latest, a behemoth of a project that opened last summer in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.It's Claus's work with
Brian Shanle, general manager of the Kalahari Resort Sandusky, has only great things to say about Claus.
"Mark has a tough job because we have one person in design, one person in finance, one person in operations and many different opinions," Shanle says. "His work has to look good from a design standpoint, but it also has to make sense from a financial and operational standpoint, and Mark has to juggle all of that. On top of that, we work fast. And he listens — it's not about him; it's about the project."
Case in point: Kalahari Sandusky's latest convention center expansion — a 123,000-square-foot addition — began in March and just finished in November.
Lately, Claus has been entrenched in restaurant developments at the Poconos location. Because it is a remote location with few restaurants in the area, foodservice represents an important part of the waterpark's offerings and operations. There, he's worked on designing and equipping Kalahari's Ivory Coast Restaurant, Java Manjaro coffee shop, Candy Hut, Karu Buffet, Reserve Restaurant (full service for dinner), Café Mirage concession area, Safari Snacks and Zulu Grill in the waterpark itself. Combined, the equipment package for these venues comes in at $4.5 million. In Phase II of the project, Claus has collaborated with the Nelsons, the Poconos team and the outside restaurant consultant hired for the project to develop, design and equip three new restaurants, including a brand-new steakhouse concept and second-floor Italian restaurant, as well as a few bars.
When it comes to designing a new steakhouse or Italian restaurant, where does Claus begin? "I always ask about the menu first and try to figure out what they're trying to do," he says. The remote location of the Poconos resort, and its minimal access to regular, year-round staff, adds more complexities to the equation. "In a major metro area such as Cleveland, you can get deliveries more often, but in a place like the Poconos, or even Sandusky, which is 45 miles out, you need more storage space on-site."
Claus also follows a flexible, plug-and-play model with his resort designs because of their high chef and staff turnover and frequent foodservice concept changes. In the Poconos, where there is less trained staff used to working directly in front of customers, he chose to design only a partially exposed kitchen. And he allowed for extra room under the hood in case more equipment needed to be added or pieces needed to be changed.
"Listening is really key in designing," says Claus. "A lot of times, the chef may want x, y and z, but I know that the owner might not want to pay for all that or that the chef may end up leaving in six months." The ability to balance the interests of the concept owner and the frontline personnel represents another key trait that helps Claus excel.
We know from Shanle that Claus has done a good job with that balance. "The success of our family-owned business has been, and continues to be, contingent upon the building of long-lasting relationships, both personal and professional," says Todd Nelson, president and CEO of Kalahari. "Mark has risen above and beyond in cultivating a bond with Kalahari by delivering exceptional services and true, time-tested knowledge of the Breckenridge product line, as well as displaying his uncanny ability to merge the Breckenridge philosophy seamlessly with our Kalahari brand and culture. Mark is a rock star when it comes to delivering complex projects on time and ensuring that everything not only meets but exceeds our expectations.
"His expertise as both a technical designer with a great deal of mechanical engineering knowledge is second only to his skills as a project manager, where Mark is responsible for purchasing and managing the overall delivery, installation, startup and testing of many, many mammoth projects for us," Nelson continues. "Mark is truly unique by design, and I could not be happier with his work ethic and professionalism. He inspires those around him with his demeanor, and his personal touch can be seen at all of our properties."
Claus is the consummate professional. That's also how Jim Zink, president of Zink Foodservice and a longtime colleague and friend, describes him. Also on Zink's list of descriptors are: continuous learner, great listener, educator, creative, detailed, respected, and fair.
"Early in my career, I will never forget that Mark — my customer — always took the time to train and educate me," Zink says. "No matter how busy he was, he took an interest in my development at the same time, making sure I learned to look at the business from both the dealer and operator's perspective. Mark grew up working in a restaurant, so his natural inclination was to evaluate and design kitchens from an operator's perspective. His focus was always centered on his customers, and over time, I believe this approach became one of the cornerstones of his success."
Claus's work remains challenging because, as Shanle puts it, he's constantly juggling different opinions and changes of opinions. Then, there are the other challenges, like how to do more in less space, how to incorporate some energy-efficient designs and equipment, how to adapt the space to fit a new menu rollout and, of course, how to work within a budget.
"I don't really see these things as negative, though," Claus says. His clients "are always trying to improve so they don't repeat any mistakes they made in the past." As he talks, Claus never shows concern or worry or anger or disgust. He doesn't harbor any of those feelings toward challenging situations. Rather, he just tackles the task head on with the goal of making things work best for his clients. Because it's really as simple as that. The positive energy is contagious, for sure.
Walking into the Metropolitan at the 9 hotel and residential complex in Cleveland, it seems we've done a 180 from the eccentric, family-focused Kalahari setting. The space features walls dripping with marble, exquisite light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, modern artwork and refurbished bank vault details, which harken back to the previous tenant. Well-heeled residents walk through the lobby, while suit-wearing business lunchers finish up their meeting in Adega, the on-site, modern Mediterranean restaurant with sleek wooden tables; an open kitchen with an exposed wood-burning oven; and a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed wine cellar.
It becomes quite clear how easily and seamlessly Claus can move from one project to another, very different one. What connects them, however, is that strong client relationship and Claus's ability to tackle new challenges quickly and efficiently.
"Mark is truly special and does such an amazing job bridging the gap of understanding flow, function and budget," says close colleague and client Brandon Kline, senior designer and architect, Geis Companies. "He is extremely collaborative, which makes for a great relationship between the two of us largely because of how much back-and-forth goes on. Mark has a strong understanding of that design-build mentality where sometimes the shortest path isn't always the best path, or there might be a different way he has to look at something in order to come up with best operational or cost-effective solution. He understands how we need to operate. He is one of the most thorough people I've ever met, sometimes even questioning things I'm doing."
On the heels of opening the Cleveland location in 2014, Geis is gearing up to open another location in Indianapolis with a targeted opening of fall 2017. The company has, of course, signed Claus on to help with the design of those on-site restaurants and foodservice needs. (Kline is quick to explain that for the Cleveland location, Claus teamed with Rippe Associates, the Minnesota-based lead consultants, for the design of that project.) In Indianapolis, he'll help outfit the main Adega restaurant, along with the multiple bars and backup foodservice kitchens on-site.
"One of the things that's great about working with Mark is his ability to learn from things we maybe would have done differently the first time," Kline says. "We learned some great lessons from the Cleveland Metropolitan project that Mark has been able to apply as he helped us layout and design a great space for our Indianapolis location."
Claus's knowledge of equipment and engineering — not just design and operations — is quickly evident. In taking a call with the construction supervisor of the Wild Eagle Saloon, a new bar and restaurant near the Metropolitan, he walked the client through what needed to be done to fix some issues with a ventilation system, even relaying product codes and other details about the equipment and building without even referencing a catalog or drawing.
"I think it's important to stay on top of new products and technologies in the industry," Claus says. "I try to stay observant and just try to learn as much as I can." Lately, he's brushed up on energy-efficient products and newer, automated equipment that can help reduce labor costs.
In addition to working with manufacturer reps like Zink, Claus keeps on top of new equipment knowledge and training through his buying group, SEFA.
Claus says he doesn't travel as much to manage his projects, but he certainly has for SEFA, as evidenced by the dozen or so name badges from various conferences, training sessions and other events hanging on a hook in his office. One of them has a flag that says High Achiever.
"Mark has always been a great supporter of SEFA and all of our Supplier partners," says Tedde Reid, president of SEFA. "His work ethic, knowledge base, loyalty and commitment to our industry is what makes him such a special part of the SEFA team."
Recently, Claus, his wife, and their children, Zachary, 21, Grace, 18, Oliver, 16, and Emma, 14, flew to Arizona, rented an RV and toured the Grand Canyon and other scenic spots out West — probably the most R&R time he recalls ever taking.
Sure, Claus works hard. But he knows life isn't all about work. His dedication to his family is another trait that earns him praise from his peers and makes Claus an even better candidate for this year's award. If given the option, Claus would gladly choose to spend his time boating on nearby Lake Huron with his wife and kids. It's this thoughtful and balanced approach that continues to define Claus' success in both his personal and professional lives. FE&S