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Buying Pro Gear from Commercial Suppliers

From appliances to baking shelves, some professional-quality items come cheaper from the restaurant supply industry -- if you know how to shop for them.

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Always read the fine print and forget about those super-hot commercial ranges -- that's the advice of restaurant equipment suppliers for consumers who want to save money on pro chef-quality kitchen gear by ordering online. While purchasing true restaurant equipment at a discount price may sound like an easy choice, you actually need to be more careful about what you buy.

"We're making anywhere from 20 to 40 shipments per day and many of them are going to homeowners with pro-chef style kitchens and wannabes, from the East Coast to the West," says Brenda Weil, vice president of marketing for Mission Restaurant Supply based in San Antonio, Texas. Weil oversaw Mission's emergence into online orders a couple of years back, and says now it's easier than ever for residential cooks to get pro-quality equipment at substantial savings.

"But you do have to know what you can buy and what you can't buy, and follow up with some smart consumer strategies," she says.

Weil and Ruby Hershberger, a senior sales professional with Galasource, a much larger online restaurant equipment provider based in Denver, share ideas for making the most of the restaurant supplier buying experience:

Commercial Ranges: Out of Range?
Even though online restaurant supply companies have deep discounts on gas cooktops and ranges, you may be in for a disappointment if you hope to save on one for your home. "Ranges for restaurants have different specs and they aren't right for residential use -- one could literally blow up your home," says Herschberger.

The differing requirements run from commercial venting to bigger gas lines, says Weil. Even if your spacious kitchen design could accommodate the specs, your state's Health Department may ban the use of restaurant ranges in home settings. "And buying a range like that over the Internet will almost surely void the manufacturer's warranty," she says.

Commercial outdoor grills are a different story. "We sell lots of them to homeowners and of course they don't need the venting," says Weil, "but before making such a large investment you should definitely check with your Health Department to find out what it allows."

Big Items, Big Savings
Shopping online for other large appliances can also yield big savings when purchased from a restaurant supplier. Herschberger says her company does brisk sales in commercial microwaves to residential buyers, while Weil notes heavy sales of pro-quality, stainless fridges and freezers. "The solid doors and two door side-by-side models are particularly popular," she says.

Aside from the savings and the enhanced amount of space offered by the commercial fridges, buying the commercial version should mean longer warranty coverage. "It's usually five years on the compressor for most names," says Weil.

Warranties are also longer on another popular commercial-grade item: ice machines, some of them costing in the thousands of dollars. "We sell a couple of sizes that people seem to like because they have that stainless, pro look, predominantly the ones made by Hoshizaki," says Weil.

Other Popular Picks
While online restaurant supply houses bring in goods from splatter covers and barbecue spatulas to cases of wine glasses, a few of the more modest-size items also seem to fly off the websites, both because they're better quality and because they look like the stuff used by "real" chefs and caterers.

"We sell a lot of chafing dishes to people who entertain a lot and want to be able to use them again and again, not like the throwaways or the ones you buy at the discount department store," Weil says. Chafing dishes, common for catering, have a heat source below to keep food warm during serving. Weil thinks repeat use is also a factor for consumers who buy commercial frying pans.

Mission Restaurant Supply also does a big business in commercial napkins and tablecloths for homeowners, while Herschberger's Galasource sells a lot of wine coolers and bar refrigerators.

Online Buyers Beware
To tap the savings, you need to be willing to do some research, both on the items you're buying and the company you're ordering from, says Herschberger.

"The nice thing about this day and age is that it's simple to provide the Better Business Bureau with information online and just as simple to look up any company you're purchasing from," she says. "You should also examine their website to see if they have seasoned sales professionals you can talk to or if they're operating more like a call center. The second option is only OK when you know precisely what you need."

Also turn to the homepage or "About Us" section to look at who you're dealing with, says Herschberger. "How long have they been in business? Is their stuff in inventory or will it be shipped from another manufacturer? What are the return policies? How fast will they get you a replacement?"

And it never hurts to research the brand website for any item you see offered at a slashed price, just to make sure the retail or full-price commercial version really does cost lots more.

Buying "by the Case"
Online restaurant supply houses can offer such great discounts because they have bulk buying power -- after all, they're designed to serve restaurants. That usually means, though, that any customer will have to buy an entire case of certain smaller or low-margin items or meet a minimum dollar amount. In general, the bigger the supply house, the more likely the "by the case" requirement.

"Keep in mind that most of the bigger restaurant suppliers are getting great discounts because they're working with lots of smaller manufacturers, and it's not cost-effective for them to break a case [into smaller amounts] -- plus it encourages damage," says Herschberger.

By the case policies should be very clear while you're shopping online, says Weil, and not something you find out after you've made your selections and are getting ready to check out.

Also, she says, you'll want to be particularly careful before investing in a case of colored tablecloths. "At most online restaurant supply stores, tablecloths are made to order, so you have to know they're the right color and size before you buy them because they can't be returned for a refund," she says. "I'd recommend buying a sample of, say, a dozen napkins (or the fewest they'll sell you) in the same color before committing to a case of commercial grade tablecloths, and definitely experimenting with a tablecloth that's the right size before making your order."

And if you don't want a whole case of dinner plates or marble cutting boards? "Our company also includes a retail website, with its own policies, where you can buy in smaller quantities though of course the price won't be anywhere near as low," says Herschberger.

Shipping Matters
Some residential buyers are surprised when shipping's not included for commercial-grade purchases, but that's what you should expect, says Herschberger.

"A company like ours specializes in restaurant supply, not shipping," she says, "so we work with pros to get the stuff shipped. That adds a big chunk to the cost, although we're able to arrange better than usual rates through our bulk buying power."

Mission Restaurant Supply does keep 90 percent of its inventory in its own warehouse and ships from there, but also employs several different freight companies for shipping to different parts of America.

"Make sure any shipping is insured," says Weil. "And this is the most essential thing to remember about the entire transaction. One of the downfalls of ordering online is that you must file the freight claim if the shipping company is different than the supply house. That leaves the company you ordered from out of control if your item is broken.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have the delivery person wait while you inspect the item when you receive it. That way, you can refuse the shipment if it's broken and we can send out another one."

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