Article originally appeared here in the St. Cloud Times.
Normally when restaurant employees see a large coach bus pull up outside their business, it’s go-time. Members of the wait staff take a deep breath, preparing for the chaos that is about to unfold. Chefs in the kitchen shake off the nerves, put on their game face, fire up the grill and brace for the worst.
But when that coach bus is decked out with the Upper Lakes Foods logo and those bus doors open, ULF district manager Larry Zimmerman is welcoming restaurant workers and owners aboard as opposed to ushering riders into the nearby restaurant.
This bus is not just an ordinary charter bus. It has been retrofitted with a full service kitchen and dining area. And for the last 20 years, Cloquet-based Upper Lakes Foods Inc. has used its traveling kitchen as a way to demonstrate its products and services to restaurants in its distribution area.
Bringing the kitchen to the customer
In the distributing business, showing — and oftentimes tasting — products is the main way to clinch a sale. But coordinating an on-site, in-kitchen demonstration can often be difficult. Not to mention intrusive.
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“Most of the time (distributors) bring in samples,” said Kevin Lange, manager of Howie’s Corner Bar & Grill in St. Stephen. “And it might not be at the best time.”
Demonstrations of products such as meats or fried foods require the use of the restaurant’s grill or flat top, fryers, serving ware and space.
So to eliminate the inconvenience, ULF decided to bring the kitchen to the customer.
“Really, the premise of this (traveling kitchen) is that restaurant operators are busy and it provides an opportunity for us to serve them,” said Erin Bradshaw, ULF marketing director.
ULF’s traveling kitchen does not replace the traditional sales calls. It enhances them, at least according to Mitch Ryan, grandson of ULF founder Lawrence Sorensen.
“It generates a buzz with the customers,” Ryan said. “It’s that little bit of a reminder that catches the eye.”
As the ULF traveling kitchen bus driver for the last two years, Ryan said the “kitchen” already has about 600,000 miles on it from covering the ULF distribution area: Minnesota, Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, northern Iowa and western North and South Dakota.
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Throughout the 20 years of the traveling kitchen, ULF has gone through four additional retrofitted buses.
“It’s really given us a unique way to show products to our customers,” Bradshaw said. “And it’s been a pretty effective tool over the years.”
Unlike a traditional sales call, Zimmerman said the traveling kitchen does not pressure restaurant owners or managers to purchase products on the spot. The main focus is to showcase the products and help restauranteurs come up with new and interesting menu ideas.
“Our sales reps will follow up at a later date,” Zimmerman said. “But there is no pressure. We don’t want to sell them things (on the bus). We feel that (showing the) quality of our product will help them decide. And that’s our subtle message.”
From appetizers to main courses, salads to soups and even the plastic serving cups and dishwashing detergent, ULF provides a unique atmosphere to test out products.
And that comfortable try-before-you-buy situation has paid off. Zimmerman estimates the use of the traveling kitchen has generated between 5 and 15 percent in additional sales for ULF.
“In an industry where everything is shifting to online, we feel that you can’t replace that trust you get, that relationship you build when you are face-to-face,” he said.
It’s all about the presentation
Two weeks of menu planning and schedule coordination were all it took to organize the 11-stop, two-day tour.
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“We try to plan in advance,” Bradshaw said. “We have our sales people talking with customers, setting up appointments. We want to make sure to prepare our customers a little bit.”
Stepping on board the bus, “customers” are invited to have a seat at a small dining table set for two. As guests get comfortable in the plush leather chairs, ULF chef Carl Stanley is busy at the back of the bus preparing to serve the first appetizer.
“There is nothing that we can’t do on this bus,” Ryan said.
Outfitted with a chest freezer, a refrigerator/freezer, a sink, three ovens, a range, a microwave and a grill, Stanley can prepare most anything needed to impress his guests.
Using products and materials supplied by ULF, Stanley is able to discuss different preparation techniques, receive feedback and provide suggestions to help customize each dish.
“We are here to provide ideas to restaurants to help them maximize their profitability,” Stanley said. “They know their guests, and from the tidbits and morsels they provide us we can help them determine what would be a good fit for their restaurant.”
Pulling up to Howie’s Sports Bar & Grill, 101 Ninth Ave. N, on Sept. 10, the second of six stops for the day, Stanley prepared seven sample courses off of ULF’s Oktoberfest-inspired menu. Included were a German sausage burger, German Reuben soup, beet and cucumber salad and bacon-wrapped pork-on-a-stick.
Each presentation takes about an hour and a half and is customized to each restaurants’ clientele.
“It gives you the opportunity to test the food without them bringing the products (into the restaurant),” said Howie Zimmer, owner of Howie’s Sports Bar & Grill in St. Cloud and Howie’s Corner Bar & Grill in St. Stephen. “It’s presented right in front of you and you have the chance to share your suggestions and adjust accordingly.”
Most of the ULF traveling kitchen tours are made to prospective clients or those that have a minimal ULF presence in their establishment. Owners like Zimmer, who estimates about 50 percent of his business is conducted with ULF, can also take advantage of the new products and demonstrations offered by the kitchen.
“There were ideas that I’ve seen today that I think would work great for us,” Lange said. “Especially the pretzels and the pork tenderloin.”
While altering menus and adding new techniques or products will be another discussion, what is important to Zimmerman and his traveling team is that the customer is enjoying the experience.
“We just want to ‘wow’ folks with this,” he said.
Flying under the radar in the St. Cloud area for years, Bradshaw feels the empty plates and full bellies of patrons leaving the traveling kitchen will help play a key role in developing this relatively new market.
“Now that we have the sales staff and the stabilization, we are prepared to show St. Cloud that we are a good company. And we want to put our best foot forward,” Bradshaw said.
Follow Vicki Ikeogu on Twitter @VickiSCTimes or call her at 259-3662.