Online catering equipment dealers frequently get a bad rep in the wider industry, with many accusing them of being just ‘box-shifters’. But this is an epithet rarely thrown at Leeds-based CS Catering Equipment – and it is due in large part to the personal relationships that general manager Hayley Dean ensures she and her team foster with end users and suppliers alike.
“Since I took over as general manager nearly 3 years ago, I’ve definitely spent more time trying to build the relationships with our supply chain and make sure that works both ways,” she explained.
“If we need something, I know we’ve got people out there who we’ve helped in the past. We work together as a team for the customer.”
As for CS’s end users themselves, she added: “I think they are quite surprised when they actually come to our headquarters and realise we are not working out of someone’s bedroom. We’ve got a fully functioning showroom, we keep products in stock here, and we’ve got fully trained staff and our own engineering team of four for coffee machines.”
The coffee machine expertise is a legacy of CS’s germination as a sister company to supplier Caffe Society 11 years ago. The two firms have separate sales and customer service teams, but share back office resources such as IT, marketing and accounts.
Although each company does not sell the other’s products, Dean detailed that they can work together if a customer requires. “It’s nice that we can offer that full package if they want catering and coffee equipment,” she said.
This is fully in evidence at the group’s headquarters, with both catering and coffee appliance showrooms onsite that are constantly kept up to date. “We tend to pick key suppliers from each product range and make sure we’ve got something from every category for customers to come and view,” Dean commented. “We advertise on our website that our showroom is open to walk-ins and we do quite a lot of turnover from people wanting to call in and see a product or speak to somebody in person. We get a lot of local business that way as well.”
The dealer moved virtually across the road into these facilities, as it outgrew its former premises a few years ago.
And that growth is reflected in CS’s turnover, which last year amounted to a healthy £7.5m. About 60% of business is via its website as one-off sales, with the remaining 40% longer term projects.
While the market has been a little subdued this year, CS is still finding sales of light duty and entry level equipment growing. “Customers are being a lot more cautious about spending money upfront and they are holding off on opening up new premises or trying to refurbish rather than spend on new product,” noted Dean.
The company’s typical customers tend to be independent cafes and restaurants, as well as schools and colleges. Often local to the Leeds area, CS’s client base has been further bolstered by national accounts with small trade customers too.
The majority of sales come through the firm’s online portal, which Dean sees as no bad thing. “The online offering has a place. A lot of our customers know what they are looking for and they don’t need additional services, but we always offer installation, unpacking and positioning if needed, and we always check the gas and electric requirements to make sure that customers are buying the right product for them.”
CS subcontracts its installation offering to trusted local firm Aire Valley Catering in York, while servicing is managed by the individual manufacturers.
Dean continued: “We have found, especially in the last 6 months or so, the first question asked is ‘how quickly can I have it?’. Customers want equipment now and they want to know they can get a good service.”
The distributor ensures that their needs are met thanks to the stock it holds at its onsite 15,000ft2 warehousing space. With 22,000 products advertised online, not all can be stored, but Dean emphasised: “We always advertise products with the right delivery times so that there’s no upset to a customer if they are expecting it the next day and it doesn’t arrive for 3 days.”
Supplier quality is another high priority for CS, with Dean explaining: “We need product reliability; we don’t want to sell something that is going to fail the customer. Even if they have a lower end budget we still want products to be of a good enough quality that it’s going to last the length of time they need it to. Product back-up and after-care is most important to us too.”
As a member of buying group ENSE for over 5 years, CS works closely with many suppliers within the consortium, in particular, Linda Lewis Kitchens, Hubbard Systems and Victor Manufacturing. “They have really supported us in terms of product for our showroom, training, and coming out to see our customers if needed,” said Dean.
“A lot of the options within ENSE are good quality. You know that you’ve got that relationship and the back-up when needed. Suppliers in the group tend to work hard to make everything work for their distributors, so we get a lot from our ENSE membership.”
In terms of the overall business progression she underlined: “We have grown organically and we’ve tried not to expand too fast or do too much too soon. We focus on the profit margin; as long as we are making a good quality margin, we are not trying to reduce prices online just to chase a retro payment or win a one-off deal. We make sure that the quality of service we offer to our customers is worth that extra percent.”
And to ensure that service is of a high standard, CS trains all of its sales team on all product ranges, attending internal and external sessions with suppliers. “Everyone is qualified to be more than just a telesales company to our customers, which definitely sets us apart from our competition,” said Dean.
The sales team numbers five full time and one part time staff member, as well as Dean herself. Two further employees then look after customer service, managing warranty issues and after-care. “All of my team are female in the sales and service departments,” revealed Dean.
“It’s not been purposely done that way, it’s just the way it’s worked out. But it does mean we work well as a team. They are all open to ideas and they want to have input into what we do as well. It’s quite unusual in this industry, so people do remember us when they visit.”
Looking ahead, the dealer is considering getting more involved in project fit-outs itself. According to Dean: “There is a lot of training and development involved in that to make sure we first do it right.
“We tend to get a lot of tenders sent through to ask if we can quote for them and there are certain services and aspects of that we are not able to fully support a customer on. But we are working on having staff that are fully trained to be able to quote for the full package.
“That’s where we need to go to make sure we can move away from having to reduce prices online to compete on one-off sales. You’re never going to make a huge amount of money by doing that, all you are doing is giving away your margin.”
Dean feels that the market in general will not change much next year, in that there will be continued uncertainty. “But I think coming out of that, it can only get better. If you are supporting your customers in the right way and you’re working with suppliers as much as you can, we’re going to be ok as an industry.”
Hayley Dean has swiftly progressed in her career while still being at a tender age. Starting at Caffe Society, she assisted with the firm’s website administration and continued into selling ingredients and coffee machines.
Then 11 years ago when CS Catering Equipment was first established, she was asked if she wanted to move across, being one half of a two-person sales team. She recalled: “It was good to have the back-up of Caffe Society to begin with, because that’s where a lot of our leads were generated from. We were an unknown entity and people didn’t know who they were purchasing from, so we didn’t have a lot of clout with suppliers at the time.
“But we had our regular customers who were asking for one-off pieces of equipment, which is where the idea for the company began.”
Then 3 years ago she was offered the reigns of general manager, a move which she described as a huge change. “It’s been a big learning curve, but we are now at a stage where we have got a settled team; we are happy and we get along well,” she said.