We know something about you, Mr. or Ms. Typical. We know that if you’ve ever noticed the passing facades for a shop like Macomb Restaurant Supply in Utica, or People’s Restaurant Equip Co. in Detroit or Advanced Restaurant Equipment and Design in Dearborn, you most likely drove right by. Maybe even on a day when you were headed to a mall to buy, say, a paring knife or a fry pan or that little doo-waa-doo-hickey that catches the yolk and lets the white drip into a bowl for beating.
You may have even noticed, for a flickering fraction of a passing second, the signage that, invariably, makes some reference to “Open to the Public” or “Public Welcome.” And then, somewhere in that cognitive dissonating region of the cerebrum, the synapses fired so as to remind you that public schmublic, welcomed or not, you have no restaurant to supply. You own a mere kitchen, a lowly kitchen, maybe a kitchenette. Therefore, there was no reason to stop. Therefore, you drove on.
And thereby, you missed out.
Even the souls who do stop and stick their heads in the door for the first time often do so nervously, says John Leonard, salesman, from behind the counter at Macomb Restaurant and Supply, which sits in a former branch bank building on a commercial strip of Utica a short drive north of M-59.
“They ask, ‘Are you open to the public?’ even though it says ‘Public Welcome’ in big letters outside,” Leonard says.
But once you become acclimated, once you venture inside, you may be amazed at the sheer variety of gadgets, gizmos, tools, wares, machines and appliances. Shelves of items shout: “How did you live without us?” Shouldn’t every home have a “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign? Wouldn’t that chef’s hat establish your culinary authority? What about those 65-cent, 6-inch woven-wood salad bowls? An 80-cent, 12-inch wooden spoon? A black stackable chair (in stock) with the 1 7/8-inch padded seat for $26.50? The $1.65 Royal stainless-steel peeler? Or a 14-inch, flat-bottom steel wok for $8.95? Or a 4-quart measuring cup for $11.95?
Especially at the larger shops, like People’s or Advance, this barrage of options may trigger feelings of vertigo. There’s also the disorienting notion that the tools in your kitchen are Lilliputian. Your wire whisk, Mr. or Ms. Typical, may be a couple of inches long. Here’s the 2-foot answer. And for heavier stirring, there’s the 4-foot kettle whisk, which could double as a medieval battle mace.
And you can peruse these items while listening in on discussions of the life expectancies of food processors, the Cadillac of pizza dishes and the knives recently seen on Emeril Live or Iron Chef.
“This is the Home Depot of cooking,” Jim Gerling says, looking at the high-stacked shelves of People’s, where he’s a sales representative. People’s inhabits a nondescript brick building on Gratiot at Dubois, less than a mile east of I-75 in Detroit. “You come in thinking you’re going to spend 10 cents and you spend a hundred dollars.”
And then there’s the gender-based observation of James G. Palmer, a salesman at Advanced. From the outside it looks like it could be a small factory. Inside, there’s a brightly lit, 6,000-square-foot showroom. He’d be wealthy, he says, if he had a dollar for every guy who walked in, looked at the enormous spread of stuff, then said something like, “I’m glad I left my wife in the car.”
Yes, much of what’s on display at these stores is unsuitable for the run-of-the-mill home. A mega-refrigerator at the rear of Advanced Restaurant is far more likely to hold any home kitchen than to fit in it. A small electric fryer for a home kitchen goes for something like $20 on sale at Target and holds a couple of cups of oil. The smallest fryer at People’s holds a gallon of oil and has a $299 price tag, though Gerling emphasizes that every People’s customer gets a discount of at least 10 percent.
But maybe you plan on doing lots of frying. “You buy a piece of commercial equipment and put it in your home, and it’s going to last forever,” Gerling says.
Gary Corsi, People’s owner, following that line of thought, takes a visitor to the back of the store, points to a 5-foot-long gas barbecue grill with a price tag for $2,300 and a “SOLD” sticker. It went to a restaurant that does catering for parks events and carnivals. But he says he recently sold a 4-foot model for $2,700 to a residential customer.
It isn’t that these shops don’t have a significant number of noncommercial customers. Gerling estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of People’s customers are the home types, many of them folks who’ve heard about People’s from parents or grandparents. John Leonard at Macomb guesses that half of that store’s customers are noncommercial types. But folks at all the shops say they’re not as well-known as they should be.
And it’s of note that a number of the stores in the restaurant supply business have been around for decades (Macomb’s been at it for 36 years) or even rounding the corner on a century (People’s dates back to 1918; Advance to 1917 when it began as Detroit Restaurant Fixtures).
“In 55 years I’ve seen 40 to 50 that tried to get into this type of business and they didn’t make it,” says James Palmer, the grandfather of James G., and, along with two sons, the owner of Advance. He looks around at his staff at hand, and points out an employee with 25 years experience, then to someone with 15 and another employee with 20 years.
So, Mr. or Ms. Typical, now you know where you can call on a century-plus of experience when you want to buy a fry pan.
Macomb Restaurant Supply Inc., 45676 Van Dyke, Utica; 586-739-5835. People’s Restaurant Equip Co., 2209 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-567-1944. Advance Restaurant Equipment, 13201 Prospect Rd., Dearborn; 313-945-5600. Check your Yellow Pages for similar stores. W. Kim Heron is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org