Last fall Cris Gross assumed a new role at Stafford-Smith Inc. as VP sales and marketing. The new role comes with a renewed focus on street sales. After two decades as regional sales manager, the FE&S 2009 DSR of the Year says he is enthused about building even closer connections to customers and helping guide the slew of Stafford-Smith new hires into the industry.

Cris GrossCris Gross, VP Sales and Marketing, Stafford-Smith Inc.FE&S: You have a strong passion for food and restaurants. How do you stay on top of all the changes in the industry and equipment?

CG: I love to try new restaurants as often as I can and take a look at how our customers are embracing new technologies and thinking outside of the box in their four walls. But we don’t just focus on independents, we serve all markets as a company, even including grocery and military. If we’re going to be successful as a dealer, I believe the more bases we cover the more we are able to ride out shifts in the industry and economy.

FE&S: What are some trends or patterns you’re seeing in the restaurant industry?

CG: Well, being in Traverse City we see trends months after the big cities see them, but overall, there continues to be a big push toward fresh and local. No one is cracking open a can [anymore] and we’re seeing chefs squeeze as much out of the season as they can. There’s also a little bit of a chicken craze happening around here. One brewery we work with decided to steer away from the traditional gastropub burger and meat shop concept to focus on some craft fried chicken items and sandwiches.

FE&S: How are these trends impacting equipment selection?

CG: If fried chicken is on the menu, there will of course be a need for more pressure fryers and holding units, and maybe less space allotted to griddles and charbroilers. In terms of the farm-to-table movement, this has impacted equipment on the storage end. We’ve had to help these restaurants go heavier on their walk-in cooler space, or in some cases, just add more reach-in and undercounter refrigeration throughout the kitchen.

Another trend we’re seeing on the equipment side is this continuation of sous vide, but in a format that will [more easily] pass health department inspections. We’re working with Wahlburgers, which is Chef Paul Wahlburg and his celebrity brothers Mark and Donny’s Boston-based burger concept, and they have invested in multiuse ovens, which look like traditional cook-and-hold ovens but that use controlled-temperature water vapor to cook foods slowly and consistently. The staff can load up one of these full-size ovens with 400 raw burger patties at 10 in the morning, set the oven to cook to 135 degrees F, medium rare temperature, and then, just before service, the burgers are flash-grilled in 60 seconds to finish. This has dramatically saved on ticket times during the lunch rush. We’re seeing more chains like these focus on driving down ticket times while also maintaining high food quality.

FE&S: Why the sudden revisited focus on street sales?

CG: For a while we had gotten so good in contract and chain business that we sort of took an eye off the negotiated sales division — not so much in my office because we have a lot of local accounts — but slightly more so company-wide. Part of my goal in my new role will be to put some more attention back on the good ole’ fashioned negotiated street salesperson selling kitchen equipment and other supplies to local clients. In certain markets we definitely have room to grow. Though I’ll still be based in Traverse City, I anticipate a little more travel around the country to help spur some activity in the negotiated side of the business.

FE&S: You now have marketing in your title, will your work change?

CG: The title says less about the reality, which is that I’ll mainly be overseeing sales, and it’s more about how we are going to make some updates to our websites and other areas to market more directly to our customers.

FE&S: How do you plan to onboard the many new hires, especially as you also ramp up street sales?

CG: We made a ton of new hires, actually! We have a total of 182 employees and 62 are Millennials. David Stafford Jr. really spent a lot of time getting out there and finding some qualified, young new hires to bring in the next generation with some fresh energy and excitement. As one might imagine, we have a lot of training and education to do and what better way to introduce our new account executives to the industry than to bring them to NAFEM and take them through the booths. I’m thrilled that we will have more participation as a company at the show this year.

This will kick off a lot more training and interactions with manufacturers’ reps and cooking demos with customers, where we will bring in local or factory chefs so our new hires can have a lot more direct exposure with the customer with the purpose of selling more, of course.

FE&S: Speaking of manufacturers’ reps, how do you plan to continue to grow and maintain partnerships with this key element of the supply chain?

CG: We’re certainly going to try to take more of an active approach to increase factory training, rep training and cooking demonstrations to allow our negotiated salespeople or account executives to have more hands-on experiences and learn from those with vast knowledge in the industry. A lot of our new hires don’t necessarily have the same kind of restaurant experience that some of us old guard folks first brought to the table, so the more I can get them out in front of any foodservice equipment, and especially new and emerging technology, the more comfortable (I hope) they will get with those pieces and the more comfortable they will be selling them. While we have always enjoyed strong relationships with factories and buying groups, we will certainly also look to work more closely with them as well as to help develop a healthier and more profitable marketplace for all of us.

FE&S: For many years you have been so connected to local restaurant clients in the Traverse City area. How do you think that experience will help you in training newcomers on street sales?

CG: We are very local-focused in my office and I think we do about as well as you can at servicing one’s own regional market. If there’s a restaurant in northern Michigan either you’re going to hear our name associated with them or we’re going to find out about them and try to work with them. Off the clock, we also love dining at all of the restaurants we service. We really get out there and are the boots on the ground.

Knowing not all 18 offices are street-selling offices like we are is a little daunting, I admit, but I hope to get all of them to build their negotiated sales department. My hope is to help them connect with their local markets. I mean, isn’t everyone striving to be more local now anyway? We’re still hearing about farm-to-table restaurants; there’s certainly no frozen-to-table ones out there, or at least I hope not!

FE&S: Speaking of eating out often, what is your favorite restaurant these days?

CG: Well … can I be impartial? I don’t want to be “that guy,” but my son, Fletcher, just opened up a great new Italian restaurant in Traverse City called Sorellina. He’s the executive chef/co-owner of a restaurant group with four restaurants in the area now, plus a bakery. We are very proud of him!