Rapids Restaurant Equipment may be the new kid on the block, but its history goes back to the 1930s. Based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the company was founded by an ex-beer salesman in 1936 (three years after the repeal of Prohibition) and sold dispensing equipment for beer wholesalers.
In 1992, Joe Dodds and Joe Schmitt bought the company and grew the business by adding locations and expanding the restaurant equipment offerings. The day after Thanksgiving, Rapids Restaurant Equipment opened its first cash-and-carry restaurant retail store in St. Paul at 2475 Doswell Ave.
“We chose St. Anthony Park because Joe Schmitt thought it was a smart location—right between Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said assistant manager Blake Skaja. “Even though it’s an industrial area (on the west side of Highway 280 next to Appliance Mart), the space is huge, with 19,000 square feet, and we carry a lot of stuff.”
Although the store focuses on the small-business restaurateur, Rapids Restaurant Equipment is also open to the public. “In other words, you don’t need a business license to shop here,” Skaja said, “and that’s good news. Restaurant equipment stores typically require you to have a [business] license.”
The rough winter proved a slight challenge to the new business. “The weather really slowed down our traffic, but I look at it as a positive thing,” said Skaja. “We were able to refine our system, work on those small details, and now traffic is much better with the warmer weather.”
Cash-and-carry equals convenience for both restaurateurs and consumers.
“If you don’t want to shop online, you can come in to buy what you need for immediate purchase,” Skaja said. “We have most things that restaurateurs need in stock.”
If a restaurant needs new glassware or runs out of cheese shakers, “they can come in and get what they need, and not lose time and money waiting for delivery and paying shipping costs,” he said. The store stocks large restaurant equipment and a significant selection of commercial-grade small wares such as whisks, spatulas and pans that can complement a home kitchen.
“About 50 percent of our walk-in traffic is made up of nonrestaurant owners,” Skaja said. “In this climate, a lot of people enjoy cooking at home, and they want quality equipment. Big sellers among consumer traffic are stockpots, sauté pans and other kitchen gear. We sell a lot of tongs.”
Skaja, who joined Rapids Restaurant Equipment in September 2013, grew up in the Highland Park area of St. Paul.
“I worked in the restaurant industry for over 20 years and was a general manager for Potbelly Sandwich Works,” he said. “They hired me right out of college and were great. What happened was I had a baby girl and wanted to spend more time with her, so I quit making sandwiches and started selling restaurant equipment. That helped with the work-life balance. Working for Rapids is great because I still get to work with restaurateurs making them happy and helping them succeed.”
Skaja mentioned that the store is doing a lot of marketing, including Google Ads, bi-monthly flyers and cold calls. Yet, there’s nothing like word-of-mouth in the restaurant business, he said.
Rapids is also committed to education for its staff and its customers. “The owners devote substantial company resources to training and education because they believe they are vital components of customer service. Before we opened, we executed an online restaurant equipment-training program for staff where we watched videos to learn how to sell this equipment, and then we were tested on the material.”
Right now, there are three people staffing Rapids’ St. Paul operation: Skaja, Harold Parten, general manager, and Irina Johnson, sales associate. “We’ll add more staff as the operation grows,” he said.
Rapids Restaurant Equipment is planning a grand opening in late April that will be spread over a number of days and include Manufacturers Spotlight Days with product demos, Skaja said. Rapids Restaurant Equipment has a Website and a Facebook page. Find out more at rapidsrestaurantequipment.com.