What does one do when a pandemic suddenly makes visiting supply chain partners and end-users potentially not as safe as it once was? You hit the road to meet customers where they are.
Product demos have long been a key service independent manufacturers’ reps offer operators, dealers and consultants. These demonstrations provide a way to get the lines they represent in front of customers and even allow some hands-on experimentation. But what does one do when a pandemic suddenly makes visiting supply chain partners and end-users potentially not as safe as it once was? You hit the road to meet customers where they are, safely of course, and that’s exactly what Joe McDonald and the team at E3 Commercial Kitchen Solutions did in the fall of 2020.
Now at first pass, this may seem like old hat as reps have been tossing light equipment into the trunks of their cars and bringing items around for demos for years. What makes this story so different was the fact that McDonald and the E3 team hitched a wood-fired pizza oven to the back of his pickup truck and logged 3,000 miles crisscrossing the company’s New England territory executing 8 roadshows over the course 6 weeks.
Like many other rep firms across the country, E3 held plenty of webinars and online training sessions at the outset of the pandemic. But as the New England leaves prepared to brilliantly change colors, the E3 team knew they needed to shake things up a bit. As we got into the summer people were getting tired of online meetings and webcasts,” McDonald recalls. “We said let’s take it on the road and when someone shows interest, let’s take it to them instead of them coming to us. We focused on products that were COVID resistant because they could focus on takeout and other things that work in this environment.”
In mapping out this roadshow, E3 coordinated stops with key dealers and consultants in the area who, in turn, invited their customers to see the demos, all of which occurred outdoors and followed all the appropriate safety protocols, including enforcing social distancing guidelines and providing free masks for anyone that may have arrived without one.
McDonald enlisted the services of Josh Hill, E3’s corporate chef, to help with these demos. The duo would arrive at the location roughly two hours in advance of the demo. McDonald set up the oven while Hill would handle the remaining food prep. They would then cook for two hours as people from dealerships, consulting firms and even end users would come see the demos and, naturally, sample the end product. “Everything about what we do is a sensory experience,” McDonald says. “When you walk into a dining room you see the space and smell the food. As you walk to your table you see food being delivered to tables and wonder should I order that.”
In one instance, E3 partnered with RJS + Associates, setting up the demo in the consulting firm’s parking lot. “It was like having a pizza restaurant in our parking lot. They were able to show the oven and other lines they rep, from equipment to smallwares. Our designers were able to see the equipment they build into their designs up front and try the food,” says Rick Sevieri, president, RJS + Associates. “Other dealers came up to see the product, too. It was great for everyone.
“From the rep to the dealer to the factory to the end user, we are a hospitality industry,” Sevieri says. “We need to be with our clients and manufacturers, constantly learning and have that relationship.”
In another instance, E3 partnered with a regional office for Johnson-Lancaster and Associates. The foodservice equipment dealer had recently completed a restaurant product for the Pelham House Resort in Dennisport, Mass. “We had just finished a beautiful project on the Cape, and they are considering expanding out to the patio and would like the oven.,” says Noel Moreira, vice president of the Northeast region for Johnson-Lancaster. “We told them about it, and they liked it.”
In addition to demonstrating the oven for the restaurant’s staff, the operator turned the visit into a teacher appreciation event and wound up feeding more than 70 people, according to Moreira. “There were three of us from our local office and we gave them a hand setting up the oven, the refrigeration and so forth. It was well received by the staff.”
As a part of the demo, the restaurant’s staff embraced the hands-on opportunity to learn about the versatility of the equipment. “The staff brought out a few of their menu items – like steak, chicken, rice and shrimp – to see how they would work in the oven,” Moreira adds. “They were a great client to work with all the way through. It goes a long way to show them you are thinking about them, their concept and more. I wish I lived somewhere warm. We’d be bringing it to the customers all the time. What’s better than that? We relished the chance to be in front of the customers by ourselves and I’d love to see more opportunities like that.”
Like many other reps around the country, E3 reports an uptick in traffic in their test kitchens. “Our test kitchen stayed busy the entire time and we promoted the safety aspect of it,” McDonald says. “Only small groups allowed. Everyone had to wear a mask and demos were short and sweet, less than 90 minutes, just like the amount of time guests are allowed to spend at restaurants. We tell them you have to try it and taste it before you buy it. You can’t replicate that in a presentation made via GoToMeeting or other online platforms. Now there are people who are planning to come out next spring and they want to make modifications. Plus, they have questions about new technologies, such as ventless.”
In addition to its own online events, E3 partnered with BSE, a rep firm serving the New York and Philadelphia markets. “We have a lot in common with BSE and it was good for our customers to see what’s going on in those markets,” McDonald says.
The timing of the roadshow was perfect in that as more operators from all industry segments continue to explore ways to serve customers outdoors, the demos provided one way to approach this. “We could show a university how they can move this product around on campus, for example, to host a pop-up to take some of the pressure off a cafeteria,” McDonald says. “Then it became it is just good for all of us to see each other.”
McDonald also brought his work home with him – literally. On Nov. 15, the Sunday of The Masters Tournament, he and Hill set up the oven on the driveway of McDonald’s home and invited people to stop by for a slice and some conversation.
“It was fun to see a general contractor talking to a consultant. Nobody was doing business, but they were talking business and it was good. Here in New England we have to make it back to the spring and if we can do that, everyone will be OK,” McDonald says. “There’s something about going out to eat and there’s something about being with someone talking about a business as opposed to being on a webinar. We have been working remotely for years but being able to see people and have some normalcy — it brought hope. Winter is going to be rough. People have gotten smart about their menus, focusing on food that travels.”
What makes McDonald optimistic about the future is not that the demos may lead to some sales down the road, rather it was the impact of the connections made. “When people said, ‘It was really great to see you,’ you could sense a different meaning in that comment,” he says. “That’s what makes me optimistic about the future. You got a sense people were relieved and happy to be around other industry people. For a brief time, they were able to get a sense of what the industry used to be.”