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Supply Sizzle

Hustling like short order grill cooks to serve Birmingham eateries faster than anyone else, two hungry Auburn grads built one of the largest restaurant supply businesses in the country.

Armed with $2,000, an Oldsmobile, a brand new diploma from Auburn University, and a big dream to be his own boss, George Tobia set out on an entrepreneurial journey back in 1974 that has taken him from the trunk of his car to a 140,000-square-foot office building and warehouse, which occupies an entire Birmingham city block

As owner, president and founder of Birmingham based Bresco Inc., the 47th largest restaurant supply business in the country — with sales topping $24 million last year and a 4,000-unit inventory ranging from a one dollar pair of tongs to a $10,000 convection oven — Tobia fondly remembers those early years when he and his cousin and business partner, Terry  Sokol, sold pots, pans, dishes and flatware from the trunks of their cars. Back in those days there was no profit, no salary and no inventory.

“If a customer gave us an order today,” we would deliver it today, says Tobia. “That was back when delivery service in the restaurant supply business was unheard of. We didn’t even have inventory,” he laughs. “We would get their order, go down the street to our competitors, pay retail for whatever our customer needed, then deliver it to the restaurant. We were losing money, but developing great relationships with our customers.”

Unfortunately, the partners hit their first snag a few months later, when their restaurant supply competitors learned about this new business in town and these two young “upstarts” who were apparently outsmarting them. “They cut us off,” Tobia explains. “We couldn’t buy from our local competitors anymore, but that was OK, because by then we had made some factory contacts that allowed us to bring in supplies and resell them. I was able to hire a truck and hire some people, but we were still delivering ourselves. We were just young, energetic and hard working. Mostly we had great tenacity. It never entered our minds this wouldn’t work out.”

And why should it?  These “new kids in town” had a killer business plan unique to the Birmingham area restaurant market. It was called “same day service.” Today, with just one small modification, that business plan is still in place. According to Jennifer Settle, Bresco marketing director, “If somebody places an order before noon, we strive to have it delivered before the end of the business day. That may not always be possible with some of our larger orders, but that is most certainly our goal.”

That goal is apparently being met in a big way. Bresco serves country clubs, private and chain restaurants, retirement homes, caterers, schools, prisons. “Wherever the public eats out, there is an opportunity for us to do business,” says Tobia. Proof of that lies in the company’s growth, which has been nothing short of phenomenal during its 38-year history. Despite recessions, challenges and changes, Bresco Inc. has continued to survive and thrive. “At one time,” remembers Tobia, “we had offices in three different locations around the city. We couldn’t even locate our inventory half the time.” In 1980, the company went through significant change when Tobia bought out his partner and became sole owner.

Bresco — an acronym for Birmingham Restaurant Supply Inc. — is now almost a misnomer, because the company’s interests extend far past the Magic City metro area. Clients are served all over the country, from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast. According to Tobia, the farthest client was a federal correctional facility in Seattle. An online ordering business is now taking Bresco into the global market. Not to forget the folks at home, Bresco still operates its fully supplied walk-in store, whose walls are lined with anything a home cook might need, from iron skillets to over-sized colanders.

The newest venture for this multi-faceted business is restaurant design, which Tobia calls the most critical service he can offer. “Design has become a real necessity, because many, many people now want to build their own establishment,” he says, “and the design, done correctly, can save our clients hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“We start out around a conference table,” Tobia continues, “when we meet with our customer and begin asking questions. What is their menu going to be? Hours of operation?  Is catering part of what they’re doing? Do they want a drive-through window? We sit down and look at their available space. Basically, we start out with four walls. Then we begin to design the cooking line, dry storage areas, walk-ins and all of that, which brings a restaurant to life. The service we provide simplifies their work with plumbers, electricians and the like. We indicate where hookups need to be, and we provide written specifications on each piece of equipment. All of that is coordinated during the construction phase.”

Service is a word that Tobia uses a lot when he talks about his company. It’s a word he believes critical to Bresco’s success and a word that’s instilled in each of his 59 employees. A customer walking in off the street to buy a frying pan gets the same attention to detail as the owner of a chain of hotels when they deal with Bresco.

“A customer came in to see me the other day,” recalls Pat Cooper Jones, who has worked at Bresco for more than 30 years. “He had left us for another company, one that was only interested in the bottom line. Well, he told me he was coming back to Bresco because he knew that we would take care of him and treat him right. Somebody had told him that. That’s the kind of relationships we have. It’s word of mouth. Bresco’s got a good name. If they trust you, that’s ninety-nine percent of the whole job.”

Linda Long is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

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