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Foodservice Magazine

Rapids Wholesale Equipment

By Laura Doty, Contributing Editor
When purchased in 1992 by Joe and Diane Dodds and Joe and Geri Schmitt, Rapids Wholesale Equipment's sales were about $5 million annually. In the 12 years since, the Marion, Iowa-based firm has been growing steadily under its new ownership and management, broadening its customer base and adding four locations, including a facility Design department located in Minneapolis. Last year, Rapids did business in excess of $14 million. Its projection for sales this year is approximately $15 million, and the firm currently stocks about 4,200 SKUs and employs 42 full-time staff. Rapids Wholesale is a member of the EDI buying group. Rapids Wholesale operates under the leadership of co-owners Joe Schmitt, president, and Joe Dodds, executive vice president, as well as spouses Geri Schmitt, who helps to manage employee benefits, and Diane Dodds, who is involved in contract sales and employee management. Both Geri and Diane also serve as Rapids' vice presidents. Neither Joe Schmitt nor Joe Dodds had specific industry experience when they took over at Rapids in 1992, but both were ready to learn from scratch. They relied on other industry leaders, manufacturers and manufacturers' reps for guidance and industry knowledge, according to Schmitt. "Joe's experience in operations and my understanding of the financial aspects of an operation proved to be very valuable in our early years ... Our basic business knowledge, along with education in direct marketing was helpful as we grew to include walk-in, catalog, web-based and design-build sales," Schmitt related.

"We're striving to build a solid management team who thrive on their leadership roles and responsibilities," added Dodds. "We want the high-energy, fast-paced work life here at Rapids to remain positive, with a corresponding environment of respect and support for our staff. This translates into the ability to provide the high level of customer service necessary for our dealership's success," he commented. "The real key to success for us regarding growing our business and moving forward has been to focus on developing and training all of our 42 employees. In the last two years, we have all been devoting significant time to education. Our staff, as a result, are being equipped with the expertise, motivation and problem-solving capabilities to maintain a high level of customer service that is necessary to this full-service dealership's success," Schmitt emphasized. The dealership, a FEDA member since 1999, has made use of FEDA training programs, as well as specific manufacturers' factory training and training modules developed internally. Rapids Wholesale currently serves about 700 active customers, including independent restaurants, chain restaurants, schools, B&I accounts and beer wholesalers.

Throughout Rapids Wholesale's growth as a foodservice equipment dealership the company has also retained its unique core-competency — serving the needs of beer wholesalers and bar owners who represent the origins of the company's business and clientèle. Staff members at Rapids Wholesale are still involved in designing draft beer systems for clients. About 10% of this dealer's sales volume is currently represented by work with beer wholesalers.

Rapids Wholesale Equipment Co. was founded in 1936 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by an ex-beer salesman named Harry Ribble. Ribble had worked as a national sales manager for the Pabst Brewing Co. and recognized a great opportunity to form a business providing draught beer dispensing equipment for beer wholesalers in the post-Prohibition era. Thus, Rapids originally operated mainly as a manufacturer during its early years, providing component parts for beer dispensing, as well as walk-in coolers, refrigerated bottle boxes and draft beer dispensers. The beer wholesalers working with Rapids became a natural sales force for the company and, through the years, Rapids began to receive requests through them from bar and tavern owners for more products to support bar service. During the post-WWll boom years of growth for bars and restaurants in the United States, the company expanded its busi­ness beyond parts manufacturing into the sale of foodservice equipment and supplies, as evidenced by Rapids' catalogs from the '40s and '50s. Nonetheless, regional bar owners remained the core customers for Rapids Wholesale during those years.

In the early '70s, a transition in company management occurred at Rapids when Doug Van Meter took over from Ribble. The company slowly continued to evolve, expanding its product lines and customer base with the addition of a second Rapids location in Cincinnati in 1972 (which was later relocated to Wilder, Ky). However, by the early '90s,Van Meter and first-generation Ribble family members still involved in Rapids Wholesale had decided to sell the company. Present co-owners Joe and Geri Schmitt and Joe and Diane Dodds purchased Rapids Wholesale Equipment Co. in February 1992 and continue to operate the company as a family business, as Joe Dodds and Geri Schmitt are brother and sister.

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