Eric Miller from Holt Foodservice is AFDR’s DSR of the Month for April 2022. Eric has earned his place in the AFDR Hall of Fame.
Miller lives about 30 miles from the warehouse which is based in Salisbury, Maryland.
What area do you sell?
Eric: Maryland and the Delaware coastal beaches. I have accounts that are about 30-50 miles from our warehouse, such as Snow Hill, Ocean City, Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island, to Louis, Delaware. Our company services from Wilmington, Delaware, pretty much all the way down to the Outer Banks. At Holt, we do not have specific territories. As long as it makes sense for us and the customer, and I’m not stepping on an toes, the sky is the limit.
What was your first exposure to the foodservice industry, not just in sales?
Eric: At about 13 years old I washed dishes in a local restaurant in Ocean City, and I loved the fast-paced part of it. At 15, I was a line cook. By 19, I was a head line cook. 20, I was a sous chef, and I just realized that’s what I wanted to do. Down the road, I began noticing my sales reps and the kind of lifestyle they lived, and I just wanted to get into it. I mentioned an interest to one of my sales reps, and there was an open position for a product specialist, cooking and sampling products for people. It’s been almost seven years now and I haven’t looked back.
Are you a self-trained chef or did you go to school to become a chef?
Eric: I’m a self-trained chef. I worked under several classically trained chefs and learned from them and worked my way up.
What are some things that you look back on now, having gone from being an operator to foodservice, that were differences and hurdles?
Eric: If I could go back and apologize to all of my sales reps for the calls I made at 4:45 pm, I would because I had no idea how busy they were at that time in the afternoon, on Thursday or Friday, getting ready for the weekend.
Also, I had issues when I first started hearing the word “NO,” I tended to take it personally. I’m an outgoing guy and wanted people to like me. The hardest thing to learn was that it’s not personal, it’s just business.
How did you get over that hurdle and how long did it take?
Eric: About a year and a half. I just kept rolling with the punches and I started to realize that these people, just like me, were busy. I might have come in and they were short a cook or a truck shorted them their ribeye for a wedding they had that night. I just started to realize that they were simply people trying to run a business, just like you and me, and that’s just the way it was.
Was learning products beyond what you had encountered as an operator difficult to learn or something else?
Eric: When I first began training, I was in training for about a month. There were a lot of hurdles of figuring out, like abbreviations, product descriptions, as to what I or the company would call it in our system. But due to a sales rep who had some health issues, I was thrown straight into the fire and took over his route. That was the best thing that could have happened because I did not have a choice in the matter. I had to learn and learn quickly! I was out on the road with my sales manager every day seeing these accounts, and I just picked it up as I went along. But honestly, I would say that the hardest thing was the abbreviations in our system as to what it’s called out on the street.
Did your customers help you along the way?
Eric: They were very helpful and understanding. I also had my sales manager right there for about a month and a half with me who also helped me figure out the abbreviations. But just being in the business so long helped, one customer might say, give me a case of chickens IQF. Some of it was easy to pick up since I knew the lingo, and it began to smooth out after a while.
Every company is different, and every abbreviation is different. Like trash bags are called can liners or liners in a system which can be confusing to operators, but we just must reassure them that we have the correct items ordered.
Any other hurdles when you first started?
Eric: Yeah, I think I went into it trying to be that salesman, that car salesman, and then I realized, just relax, man, it’s food. They are people just like me.
How do you prospect for new accounts? Is it different now than in your early years?
Eric: Being a coastal town, we’re a very small knit community. We all tend to know each other. And since I have been in the business for so long, chances are I’m going to know somebody in the restaurant.
If it’s a new account, I do my homework. My wife and I might go there on a Friday night for dinner. I tend to either sit at the bar close to where they run the food because managers or whomever usually congregate there. If it’s a busy night, I try to get a table by the kitchen or near an open kitchen or a service station where I can see inside the kitchen when the doors open to see the kind of boxes. That usually gives me a rather good idea of who they’re buying from. I don’t really try to make it feel like sales, no pressure, just spark a friendly conversation. I think that lets them have their guard down and just makes them feel comfortable.
The manager come by with a nice burger, and I might comment on how wonderful it looks to spark a conversation. I then pay attention to people’s body language and the vibe that I get from them when I’m speaking with them. I might throw them a card at the end of that conversation, acknowledging that I know it’s a busy Friday night, but I’d love to come back and chat with them another time. They may respond that they have dealt with Holt before, or with me on another account, and ask me to come in on Monday. I show up with a small list of things I’ve noticed or just find a common ground with them to just make them feel comfortable. The main thing is if it’s an established account, they already know what they’re buying, therefore, you just must entice them to want to buy it from you. And that’s what I tend to try to do.
Out of five accounts you are prospecting, how many of those do you already know who they are buying from?
Eric: Four out of five, and here’s why. We are in the center of a huge market. Distributors can come down from New York, Philadelphia, the Baltimore markets, but in this area there’s only so many. So, you really have a good idea of who they’re buying from, depending upon the establishment, whether it’s a fine dining restaurant, a pizza shop, a mom-and-pop ice cream shop, or a boardwalk burger shack, you have a pretty good idea of who they’re buying from. You are right, first thing I do is look at the sugar packet. My wife even does it sometimes when she is out.
When you throw your card down, how many out of five accounts say you can come back?
Eric: I would say three out of five. They might just be trying to get rid of me, but persistence is key. Just keep showing up. You must show them that you want it.
Do you do any intel before you and your wife go into a prospect for dinner?
Eric: Since we live in a small town, we go there a lot. There’s only so many places you can go around here, but if it is a new restaurant, yes, I go online to check out the menu. Then I order a spread of appetizers, entrees, desserts, and several drinks to see what they’re doing and how well.
What if you don’t have the money because you are a greenhorn in your early days?
Eric: I go online and look at the menu. Then, I’ll just go in and talk to the manager, asking them questions about what they may be having any issues with and see who they are buying from, and maybe come back with a small list of things that I saw that I know that I might be extremely competitive on. You can sit at the bar and make notes of the kind of straws, napkins, glassware and things that they don’t really think about that add up.
They might say they’re happy with their distributor. I might tell them that I appreciate that they’re being taken care of, but what about any issues, especially post pandemic with the supply chain that they might not be thinking about. How do they really know they’re being taken care of? No pressure. I let them know I’d love to just draw up a small price sheet, so we can sit down and go over it and see where they’re at.
How hard is it for an operator to start buying your minimum order from another distributor?
Eric: It really depends upon the operator and how long they’ve been dealing with that other distributor. What kind of relationship do they have, are they friends? Was the sales rep in his wedding? But we try to make it extremely easy for the operator to switch to us. We have very low minimums.
If he’s set on a certain ribeye, we try to make it very easy for the operator to switch because we’re generally stronger in the paper area, which is not hard to switch over napkins and dish chemicals, nine by nines, and cups and bar wear and things of that nature. We can switch those items and they see they’re saving $10 a case here and there, then they may ask about our ribeye, French fries and our chicken tenders. You just ease in and then just pick items off as you go.
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