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Restaurant Equipment Paradise Inc.: A Company that Compliments the Chef

Ken Swerdlick had to give up contracting in the 1980s due to the housing market crash, so to support himself he got a job at a restaurant. When the kitchen staff learned about his construction background they teased him that he wouldn't last long. “I ended up becoming head chef, and the rest is history,” smiles Ken.

Jennifer, Ken’s wife, had worked with him in restaurants even when they were dating. Jennifer was the singing waitress in the front, while Ken made sure the customers got what they ordered from the back. They were always a creative couple, very driven, and they knew the importance of a team, so it made sense for them to go into business together.

Ken and Jennifer charged their first restaurant together on credit cards, and they spent more than a decade in hospitality before deciding to become suppliers of new and used equipment and smallwares. They understood the struggles of restaurant owners, and they wanted to go into a sector where they could relate in a way that was truly unique. So, in 1998, the two became co-owners of Restaurant Equipment Paradise Inc. (REP), where they act as president (Ken) and vice president (Jennifer). Jennifer states, “We are proud to help restaurateurs fulfill their dreams, follow through with a successful project, and become part of their team.”

“We’ve owned two restaurants and a catering business, working in dozens of kitchens,” Ken lists off. The Swerdlicks’ informed understanding of how to balance customer needs with what’s feasible is manifested in many ways, from the company’s inventory to the installation and free advice REP offers to prospective restaurateurs.

Located in East Hartford, Conn., REP was purchased by the Swerdlicks under its former name, Action Restaurant Equipment. It was a small 10,000-square foot warehouse and the former owner dealt only in selling used kitchen equipment. “Since then we’ve turned the whole company around,” says Ken. “We do full design for new restaurants and handle everything from the hood systems right down to the tableware.”

To facilitate its expanded operations the company moved to a new 35,000-square foot facility and rebranded the company to express its philosophy of proving an optimized selection of quality products at competitive pricing, and all with excellent service.

“People always ask us how we came up with the name and logo,” laughs Ken. “It’s from my days as a contractor. I’d go into places like Home Depot and say ‘Wow! This place is a contractor’s paradise!’ I wanted all the chefs and restaurant owners to feel the same way when they walk into our store.”

Jennifer designed a logo with chefs on a beach in paradise, but had to stop Ken when he wanted equipment floating ashore; she said, keep it simple. Well, the company’s slogan is simple, “Take a Trip to a Restaurateurs Paradise,” and its mission statement is to simply offer a huge selection of new and used equipment to meet every budget. Furthermore, the name Restaurant Equipment Paradise also has an acronym that encapsulates how much the Swerdlicks value the company’s reputation. “The R, the E and P are all capitalized, so that even if the company’s [name is] abbreviated it’s still maintaining its rep for reputation, that is,” explains Ken.

Full Set of Skills and Inventory

To assure this reputation is upheld REP’s 19 staff members go out and do measurements, provide CAD layouts, install the equipment and ensure that it is working properly before a restaurant opens, providing comprehensive services no matter the location. “We’ve literally taken two trucks and gone as far as the Florida Keys to do full jobs,” declares Ken. “We do it from start to finish, take it from the installation all the way to completion.

“People come up with drawings from an architect and it’s great that it’s stylish, but we’re able to spot what will and will not make something a fully functioning kitchen,” articulates Ken. “It’s always better when someone comes in with a design and questions. We can help them from there.” Once a layout is complete and brands are selected, REP helps get equipment to remote customers with its own shipping, receiving and transportation department, which is housed within the same location as its store and offices in East Hartford.

REP maintains a strong web presence, which allows it to do a lot of its business with customers domestically and internationally. The company has shipped items as far as Israel and Barcelona, Spain. However, the Internet is also a source of competition for the company as well. Many other restaurant supply companies offer the same selection and pricing as REP. However, few can provide the skills that the REP staff, with its combined 30 years of experience, can deliver. “We try to get people to understand the full service that REP can provide,” says Ken. “[The competition] may be the same price, but we ship direct, we install it, we check on it, we’re willing to go that extra mile, and we’ve got the building to back it up.”

REP has had a hand in backing up other buildings as well. Recently, the company has assisted with the development of the latest Plaza Azteca – an authentic Mexican chain with locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts and across the country. Plan B is another chain REP is working with that is expanding with new locations, such as those coming soon to Stamford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., where REP provided the equipment and its installation.

REP also has a long-standing relationship with the local New England chain store Bob’s Discount Furniture (Bob’s). The Bob’s in Norwich, Mass., is divided into two warehouses measuring nearly two acres of land. Five years ago a 5,000-square foot cafeteria was constructed in between the two warehouses, which was the start of the relationship. “I did the complete design work for that, and we do all his ice cream kiosks too,” affirms Ken.

The Bob’s business plan mirrors REP‟s in that it has the same self-made attitude and business plan. “We kind of cater to the mom-and-pops, and we support the mom-and-pops who are starting to grow,” expresses Ken. More often than not, REP develops portals on its company website that link to the mom-and-pops that purchase equipment from the company.

REP’s team spirit with regards to the restaurant industry has been both a blessing and a curse. The “curse,” if you can call it that, is that the company has grown incredibly fast and is having to constantly reinvest in cutting-edge technology, software and state-of-the-art delivery tools to get the job done with ease and efficiency. The Swerdlicks state that REP’s delivery staff is talented and skilled when it comes to delivering the latest equipment, including pizza ovens, mixers and walk-ins.

Loyalty to Customers

Being former chefs and restaurant owners, the Swerdlicks understand where REP’s consumers are coming from on more than just a business front. During the company’s early years the Swerdlicks attempted to balance both the budding business as well as its customers’ best interests. “Restaurants don’t pay very well,” recognizes Ken.

There were many customers who couldn’t pay up front and REP offered a finance plan. More often than not, the company’s finances weren’t replenished. “Years ago, we’d say no problem, and be more lenient cause we knew what it was like being on that side of it,” recalls Ken. “We’d sit up nights and feel bad for those struggling money-wise. My wife and I just couldn’t do it anymore. We had a family to worry about.”

The Swerdlicks also had to ensure the company family, its staff, was being taken care of. During the recent economic shifts the Swerdlicks went without paychecks in order to keep REP staff from being laid off or taking pay cuts. And, despite the recent downturn, REP remains a contender in the restaurant industry and did not forget about the importance of giving back to the community – the Swerdlicks received Philanthropist of the Year in 2010 even when their own need was great. Also, they were one of the founding members of the Excell Foundation’s “Cooking up Better Lives.”

“We’re a top ten dealer in a national buying group, and we won Dealer of the Year in 2011, which helps us compete with a lot of the big guys,” remarks Ken in regards to his position on the Dealer Committee of Excell Marketing Buying Group.

According to the Swerdlicks, REP is one of the best kept secrets in the restaurant industry. For years the company has been buying used equipment, refurbishing it until it worked like new, and then subsequently selling it to customers at prices that keep its competitors at bay.

After it expanded its inventory to new items, REP’s customer base was able to upgrade as well, but at the remarkably low prices when you consider the company’s value-added services. Now with eBay, website development and the recent expansion into auctions held at a closing restaurant location, REP is proud to give customers more options and reasons to choose the company. Throughout it all Restaurant Equipment Paradise Inc. continues to provide its trademark customer service and lend its team spirit to budding restaurateurs and chefs across the board, reinforcing its reputation for quality service and value.