Unwavering professionalism rooted in a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work-style has helped define the career of Stafford-Smith's Cris Gross, FE&S' 2009 DSR of the Year.
When asked where they're from or where they're going, Michiganders often will hold up their right hand, palm out, to use as a map. To illustrate the route to Traverse City, they will trace a line from the lower left-hand side of their palm (representing Southeast Michigan) almost to the tip (Upper Peninsula).
Heading north on I-131, about 70 miles past Cadillac, you make a left onto a two-lane country road that rolls up and down, through a deep-green, dense forest of pine trees and leafy oak. Small farms and stands appear here and there, where families sell fresh blueberries and strawberries in summer and apples in the fall. Road signs warning drivers to watch for snowmobilers remind of the harsh winters, falls and the occasional snowy spring. Then, suddenly, you're at the beach.
Traverse City summers mean tourists, folding chairs, motorboats, water skiers and u-pick berries. It's the all-American town, and one of its all-American locals is FE&S' 2009 DSR of the Year, Cris Gross.
Gross would laugh at the characterization, but his hometown success as a dealer sales rep for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Stafford-Smith was, and continues to be, shaped by the remoteness of his territory. His small but busy office handles mostly mom-and-pop operations, a handful of regional and national chains, and the area school district. Gross works alongside Paul Roeske and Ben Leggett, Gross' "right-hand man," an installer and service agent from nearby Grand Traverse Refrigeration. Stafford-Smith's Kalamazoo-headquarters staff also supports project management and design developing in a caring and dedicated way, according to Gross.
Gross is kind of a Horatio Alger story—he started young and moved up faster than most to achieve success in both career and family life. As a teen, Gross washed dishes in restaurants, followed by waiting tables and bartending before becoming beverage director and general manager. At 21, when his first child was born, Gross knew he needed a steadier job with steadier hours.
"People are surprised to hear I had a child that young, but it was the best thing that ever happened in my life," Gross says. "It made me grow up really, really fast." His son Fletcher is now 16; Gross and his wife, Susan, have two other children, Bella, 10, and Cole, 8.
"I feel kind of bad. Even with the economy struggling I still seem to be doing okay," he says. Traverse City's population has swelled, from 14,532 in 2000 to 142,075 in 2007, and the little Stafford- Smith office is ready to rack up big sales.
Paradise in the North
People enjoy their community here— they wave to each other from cars, gather around backyard firepits, watch from their porches as the sun sets over the water. Gross clearly is one of them; smiling, looking you in the eye and listening to what you say. When he easily rattles off decades' worth of the area's history, his hometown passion is unmistakable.
"Flatlanders" (slang for residents of the less-elevated mid-, southern- and eastern- Michigan areas) might view Traverse City as a sleepy, small town, but it's hardly that. Surrounded by smaller towns, Traverse City proper is the commercial nexus for a 2,700-square-mile Grand Traverse County, the largest in the northern half of the state.
"There's no manufacturer in sight here," Gross says. Tourism drives almos tall commerce for the diverse demographic that includes automotive-industry retirees, young families, small-scale farmers and cherry orchard-owners-turned-wine-growers. The community knows that if they work together they can get ahead together, and this spirit of collaboration is obvious when Gross interacts with clients.
Upon walking into one of the local high schools, Gross gives a quick hug to Kristen Misiak, director of foodservice for Traverse City Public Schools, and asks about her new baby. A few jokes are to ssed back and forth, then it's down to business. Gross enters the small, half-filled kitchen space that will serve as a concession stand for the newly built athletic wing. The school recently began accepting 9th graders, bringing the number of students from 900 to 1,600.
Problem No. 1: The hand sink, deemed unnecessary by a health inspector because of the proximity of a threecompartment sink, has arrived despite Gross' not ordering it. Its plumbing now consumes crucial counter space. Communication has faltered, apparently, and the plans and drawings carefully drawn up by Gross and Misiak have been changed by the school district's architectural firm.
Gross suggests putting a stainless-steel worktable on casters, instead of attaching it to the wall, to make room for the plumbing. Doing so will also allow the staff to roll the table into position for faster service during the half-time rush. "You figure before half time, they'll pour 30 regular soft drinks and 30 diet soft drinks that they can just grab and serve," he says to Misiak, who agrees.
Problem No. 2: Overhead cabinets lining two adjacent walls fall awkwardly close to the work space, blocking counter space and taking up room meant for the tall popcorn machine and hot-dog roller Gross plans to install. Gross and Misiak decide to remove the cabinets to make room for the equipment because there is plenty of undercounter-cabinet storage. Gross suggests that the popcorn machine and hot-dog roller be placed at opposite ends of the counter space to prevent staff collisions during service. The restaurant person-turned-DSR is thinking operations here.
"I have a personal relationship with Kristen as well as a professional one," Gross says, who has known Misiak since she worked with his wife years ago at Sodexo. "That means more to me than if I sell her a sink. I'll drop anything for her. Basically, when she calls, I run, because she values what I can bring to the table."
Away from Gross, Misiak is asked to describe what it's like working with him. She smiles and pauses. "What can I say, Cris and I go way back, literally," she says. "We started as friends when I worked with Susan. He is so professional and shows so much courtesy; he gets everything done and goes way above and beyond. And he does that for all of his customers."
From Assistant to Designer-Dealer
The remote location of Traverse City means Gross needs to be more resourceful than DSRs in other markets. In helping him formulate his well-rounded knowledge base, he thanks Kirchman Bros. owner Paul Kirchman, and Kirchman's partner Jordan Byron, a draftsman at heart, who mentored Gross at the dealership's Traverse City office. "He drew everything by hand," Gross says of Byron. "I keep all his drawings like antiques."
The relationship with Byron was essential to Gross, who now designs kitchens as much as he sells equipment. Gross tackles equipment sales enthusiastically but also understands the objectivity needed for kitchen design. He educates his clients about the wide range of equipment options, yet his priority is providing them with the equipment that gives the most value for their buck.
When Gross was promoted to office manager, Kirchman tapped the then 65-year-old Byron from the Bay City office to mentor the young up-and-comer. "He had been working in the industry for 30 years," Gross says of Byron. "Thirty years! Who does that? I think he was sort of looking to retire or live a quieter life with his wife up north, and this was the perfect opportunity for him.
"It's a five-year learning curve, in my opinion, to be able to design kitchens and sell equipment that's functional with the proper ventilation and everything that's needed," Gross says."I wish the restaurant I worked at had put me on the cook line. Byron taught me so much. He taught me to think like a route salesman."
Six months later, when the salesperson for the Traverse City and nearby southern counties territory left the company, Gross filled in. "Paul just said, you have a car, drive around, and just put me there until he could find a replacement, but he sort of strung that along for a while," Gross says. "I was so excited—I thought, I'm in my early 20s, I have a car and a salary—which I thought was a million bucks at the time–while many of my friends were still in college and struggling to get by."
Kirchman eventually found a replacement for that position, but soon there was a sales opening for the dealership's northern counties, and Gross took over, so in two years he was able to build Kirchman's Traverse City client base, a big attraction for Stafford-Smith later.
Gross' experience with Kirchman Bros. taught him about the Traverse City market and its people. After a few years, Gross says his relationships with Misiak and many others began to form.
One of those clients is Rod Langbo, chef-owner of Mackinaw Brewing Company, which began as a small microbrewery and now is a Traverse City institution with, in Gross' opinion, the best-corned beef sandwich anywhere.
Upon arriving at Langbo's facility to review a newly installed ventilation system, Gross is first greeted by Leggett, 30 years old but already a seasoned service agent for Grand Traverse Refrigeration.
While Gross stands at the opposite side of the room reviewing drawings and notes, Leggett asks Langbo for information about the shelving unit he wants to put in to raise his coffee machines to create more work space for the servers. "I could definitely weld together a shelf there for you," Leggett says. Gross chimes in, "let me check on the load bearing for those coffee machines." Their interaction resembled a two-step, a sharing-a-brain kind of thing. Leggett's more than a service agent, he's also an installer, part-designer, part-project manager—essentially a jack-of-all-trades person that characterizes Gross.
Leggett and Gross are vital to each other's success. In fact, Gross is so serious when talking about Leggett that he stops what he's doing at the moment to make his point. "I could be out in California opening stores, and Ben will be here making an installation and new-build restaurant all happen. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for him."
"It sounds so cliché, but my customers really are like my friends," Gross says. "The hottest thing may be combis, but nobody around here can afford them. They don't have the budget, the population or the financial support to always invest in the latest technology or replace equipment often. So I need to make sure I sell them equipment that will hold up. ... If I sell them stuff that breaks down, I haven't done any service to them. Just $500 more for a better piece of equipment, and that could have been prevented."
Mark Neill, executive chef at the Walloon Lake Country Club ("where exclusive is an understatement," says Gross), has the same philosophy. When in the market for a heavy-duty range, Neill trusted Gross to find the most durable item, whether or not it was considered top-of-the-line. Energy efficiency is in his equipment specification too. With costs rising, many of his customers understand that paying a little more upfront may save them thousands, Gross adds.
Stafford Buys In
Stafford-Smith bought out Kirchman Bros. in 1999. "We were just a little fish in a big pond and all of a sudden we became a big player," Gross says.
Gross had been at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago. "We had dinner with one of our manufacturers' reps one night together in the same room with Dave Stafford Sr. and Jr. I was like wha ...? They're our competition! Apparently, the Staffords and Pete were already in negotiations," Gross recalls.
The buyout was a win-win. "Stafford-Smith had just landed in the Lansing area, which was huge, so getting Traverse City was like getting the cherry on top of the sundae," Gross says.
Byron retired several years later, and Stafford Jr. knew that Gross, though just 30 years old, was ready to take the next steps in his career. "Cris was the guy," Stafford Jr. says. "He is very detailoriented, customer-satisfaction focused, and has a strong concern for customers' needs. He's also a great company man—it's hard to balance looking out for customers and at the same time looking out for the bottom line, but Cris does that."
The two are friends as well as business partners. "He's got the bull by his horns in Traverse City as far as I see it," Stafford Jr. says. "You don't want an automaton, you want management that's going to challenge the ownership so you can all grow together, to flourish and get better as a team."
No More Smallwares
Sometime around 2005, the executive team at Stafford-Smith made a decision to drop smallwares from their roster of products. For Gross, that was a huge change. Kirchman Bros. had always concentrated in that field, and for Roeske, account executive and Gross' partner at the Traverse City office, that was a big change as well.
"I specialized in smallwares, but after a while I started to notice that we were doing well on the heavy-equipment side," Roeske says. "Cris was giving me projects, and I found myself gravitating toward the heavy equipment sales and installation. Maintaining smallwares didn't make as much sense for us anymore."
Roeske says to manage that kind of street business, they would drive a truck loaded with smallwares in a loop around the northern part of the state, covering 10 to 12 counties, all day, every day. It was a lot of labor for little return for them.
Gross was discovering the same things. "It didn't make sense to worry about selling truckloads of glasses and dishes, small pieces that would break and required a lot of inventory and space," he says.
The decision meant a major downsizing in staff and that included the Traverse City office, which went from four people to just Gross and Roeske handling all the accounts. They let go of their warehouse and moved to a small downtown office, which had two desks and a conference room. Located in a old stone building renovated for office space the office is charming, with shiny, light wood flooring and lots of windows with lake views.
"We joke that on bad days, we can go down to North Peak, a local microbrewery, and have a beer, and on really bad days, we can go to the Irish bar," Gross says. Luckily, those bad days haven't come.
Maybe that's because the two are totally in sync. "We always have an idea of what's going on, who's working on what," Roeske says. "If I know I'm going to be out of the office, I'll let him know what's going on so he'll know what's coming."
Pie Is Nice
Moving away from smallwares freed Gross to focus on chain accounts. Gross got a big break when a local bakery, Grand Traverse Pie Company (GTPC), decided to expand its service hours and open more stores. Gross heard about it, and contacted the company's owners, Mike Busely, who founded the original store with his wife in 1996, and Tim Rice, who was hired to run the franchise division.
"They had been getting most of their equipment and supplies from a broadliner, and also from a very small bakery equipment dealer," Gross says. "They were sort of scattered about in that area and were looking for someone to handle everything for them."
Gross went into the initial meetings trying to impress, and from what Busely and Rice say about him, he did. "I brought in a stack of sample drawings, told them I could provide whatever supplies they needed, deal with ventilation, refrigeration, installation, specify equipment, do drawings, and not to mention we had the best buying power in the state," he says. "I just said, 'I can do it all for you,' and they seemed to be happy about that."
Busely says that his five-year working relationship with Gross has been great. "Cris is very knowledgeable, and you can really trust what he's telling you," Busely says. "He knows equipment but also any special requirements, including power, and all those different things you really need to know when building a new store. It helps that he stays up on the market—he knows what's coming down the pike."
Rice agrees. "Nights or weekends Gross is always there and not afraid to return the calls even after traditional work hours," he says. "His design knowledge was especially important to our operation. He has been able to help with not only equipment efficiencies but also the flow of the entire restaurant."
GTPC operates 17 stores throughout Michigan and a few in Indiana, with plans to open stores in the Chicago market and beyond. "It was like a whole new chapter in my life to get that account," Gross says, his face beaming. "It was almost like a new career." The chain work essentially propelled him to the next level and taught him how to see "the big picture"; to understand how to design, specify and fully equip not just one store, but multiple units with similar needs from start to finish. It also helped him understand the needs and challenges of the chain corporation itself, whether small or large.
Gross' chain work has blossomed, as have his efforts in other areas. In 2006, Gross landed a $3.5 million casino project for Odawa Casino Resort in Petoskey, Mich., about an hour and a half north of Traverse City. "For Ben and I, it was a massive undertaking installing five big kitchens, five bars, walk-ins, beer systems, refrigeration rack systems and ventilation simultaneously," he says. "There were days we worked 18 hours or more, and it took us nearly a year to complete. It really tested our mettle, and I know we came out better at our jobs because of it."
In 2007, soup chain Zoup! proposed expansion to its local equipment dealer, who wasn't interested.
"Can you imagine a client saying to you, 'we'd like to expand throughout the state and maybe open up stores across the country and we want you to help us,' and you were like, 'um, no that's not really for me, thanks though,'" Gross says. "I said, 'I do!' I asked them if they'd let me do a new store in Novi, and they did. It's been a great relationship since. That's the thing about chains: You sort of have to move on the fly, and have that attitude of 'I'll go wherever you go.'"
Southern California chain Bob's Big Boy contracted Gross to handle their expansion this year.
Gross also is working on an $800,000 kitchen equipment package at North Lake Correctional Facility, in Baldwin, Mich., and is installing a $1.6 million servery project at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. "The Ferris project is really exciting because it's like a smaller version of the casino job," he says. "When we're done, the students are going to have a state-ofthe- art, beautiful dining hall."
Cris and Susan Gross are pretty much the picture perfect couple, and not just because they are photogenic. For more than 10 years of marriage, they put each other and their kids first.
"My wife bears a lot of the burden of my successes," he adds. "All of the traveling and long hours necessary for my work require Susan to shoulder more than her share of our responsibilities. ... If it wasn't for Susan and the kids' love and support, I'd never be where I am today."