A Dealer’s Evolution: Q&A with Tom Lawson, co-owner and president of Earnest Ventures Inc.

Tom and Dana Lawson established Earnest Ventures Inc. (EVI) in 1995. Based in Glenelg, Md., EVI specializes in multi-unit restaurants, national and regional chain work, and independent food groups from coast to coast. Tom has been working in the restaurant equipment business for more than 35 years. He and Dana make it a priority to work closely with owners and chefs to create meaningful partnerships.

FE&S: The role of the dealer has definitely changed over the years. How do you view the changes you’ve made?

TL: I don’t want to just sell equipment — three years ago if someone asked me what my biggest strength was it would have been product knowledge, but now my customers know as much as I do, if not more. We’re trying to focus on the next disruption while continuing to offer the best service possible, as we are hospitality people by nature. I want to be more of a partner in my customers’ growth. Everyone wants to be a partner when it’s sunny and 80 degrees, but you also have to be just as good of a partner when it’s 35 degrees and raining.

FE&S: Do you ever get into kitchen design as a dealer?

TL: We have been doing more of our own designs, and this is what our chain customers want. In fact, they demanded that we learn and do design. It’s gotten to the point where we just finished a big design for Jose Andres’ Jaleo design project at Disney Springs in Orlando. I do some of the design work and Raymond Fischer, our vice president of operations, will do some initial CAD work, along with a CAD designer in California. We’re at the next evolution where we want to hire someone with experience in BIM [building information modeling]. We have a certain way we want our plans to look because that’s important to our chain customers.

FE&S: How do you want your plans to look?

TL: We like them to be very realistic to the site. So many times things are grey. For example, we might put in how many drink rails you will need at the bar. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but by the time we get to the end of the project and no one has thought of that, it could be a $9,000 or $10,000 hit to add them. My customers get really upset with surprises like that. And then there are other little things that make a huge difference — like putting in chef’s counters for chefs to prep and store their mise en place without having to set it on top of a bunch of equipment. We don’t look at the dish room and ever think how we can take another foot out of that room. We’ve all worked in dish rooms and it’s not a pleasant experience. You have to give the person in there enough room to breathe and work.

FE&S: Anything additional chain customers want?

TL: They need help figuring out how to spend their money correctly. Some consultants only specify certain brands, but I liken this to golfers walking around with only one club. You need different clubs for different shots. Sometimes there is a good reason to go with a value line and sometimes not. Chains seem to not spend money on custom items when they should, or they’re spending too much money on custom items when they shouldn’t.

You have to look at the total cost of equipment. Everyone says that and we’re still learning how to quantify everything, but this is huge. Chains also need support. If there is a problem, we’re able to manage and handle it and get everything fixed online. We’re all restaurant people like I’ve said so we know what it’s like to be on the other end of the phone calling the dealer at 9 p.m. on a Friday night because a band on your exhaust fan blew out and you’re just praying someone answers.

FE&S: What was your first job in the foodservice industry?

TL: I started working in a restaurant the night of my 14th birthday. I practically grew up in and out of restaurants and was always fascinated by them; it was the only job I really had. Even though I went to school for hotel-restaurant management, I was always more fascinated with the restaurant side than the hotel side.

FE&S: How did you get into the E&S side of the industry?

TL: I had worked in many restaurants for years and when I was 24, I got the opportunity to work for my brother-in-law, Russell Stilwell, who had gone out on his own as a foodservice consultant. His firm is now called Next Step Design and it is has grown into one of the premier foodservice consulting firms in the country, in my opinion. He came to me when I was going to work on an island for the winter and asked if I would want to come help him for a while. I loved it right away. I realized I could have a life. I went to Penn State for school and some of my friends asked me to go to a football game that October and the lightbulb went off that I could actually go — that I wasn’t working crazy hours or weekends and didn’t have to ask for time off or switch shifts. It was like I got to be in the restaurant industry but still have a somewhat normal life.

FE&S: How did you end up owning EVI?

TL: I started out first with a small dealership and really liked the more hands-on work of installing and customizing the kitchen as we got closer to openings. The owner of the dealership, Mark Giaranna, was a great mentor. It was just the two of us, but he taught me basic principles and they have proved to be invaluable in my career. Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly 12 years ago at the age of 51. We ended up buying EVI in 1995.

FE&S: What was the best lesson Mark taught you?

TL: Mark had so many great qualities but above all, he was honest. I used to wonder, it might be easy to be nice, to be funny and gracious, but how do you convey honesty? It’s important to have a conscience and do what you say you’re going to do and if you make mistakes, stand up and admit them and explain how you’re going to fix them. And always pay your bills on time.

FE&S: How have you grown EVI over the years?

TL: We kept EVI small for some time, working out of our home until just a few years ago. During that time we raised two daughters. It was important to us to enjoy what we were doing and earn a living, but also be home for our children when they got home from school. More recently, we have hit a stretch where some of our local customers have seen overnight success and got a lot of funding. We were always around the $5 to $10 million-dollar range, but then Sweetgreen, one of our customers with a great social media vision, really took off. We have also worked with Jersey Mike’s for many years and they have begun to grow very rapidly. Mission BBQ in our area has also taken off.

FE&S: When did you move into your current office?

TL: We have been in our office for about three years now. The biggest change to our business came when we were able to hire Raymond Fischer, our vice president of operations, who worked for the Rosa Mexicano chain as the VP of operations. He was a customer of EVI and I always told people he was the smartest customer we have ever had. I realized I needed to hire someone like him when I was out at dinner with one of the owners of the Matchbox restaurants in Washington, D.C. and he said, “What got us here won’t get us there.” In other words, how I operated in the past won’t take us to the next level. That was the moment I realized I didn’t have the training or the schooling to get us to where we needed to be and was starting to struggle in terms of the organizational part of the business. We had always operated as a mom and pop with too many redundancies and no accountability but as our clients were growing, we also needed to keep up. Raymond has been able to help us streamline our business — we’ve gone from 15 employees to 35 and we’re on pace to do $40 million this year, up from $23 million last year. We also hired a controller, which means Dana can step back and focus more on the organization of the business, and I’ve been able to spend more time doing what I love, which is meeting with chefs and new business development.

FE&S: What does your day-to-day look like?

TL: I get into the office at 4 a.m. so I can have a quiet 4 to 5 hours in the morning and answer emails and phone calls as they come in and stay on top of requests. I used to be a late-night person, having worked in the restaurant industry, and would stay up until 3 a.m. but if I woke up at 8 I would have already missed a bunch of calls and emails. After this time in the morning, I spend time reviewing bids and checking in on different projects. I also spend time meeting potential new clients and helping with restaurant openings, which is my favorite.

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