CHAMPAIGN – When Wayne Hemming and Mike Ciolli moved to the Champaign-Urbana area to take jobs at Hobbico, they brought along shared knowledge of a different business: the restaurant supply industry.
Both men had worked for Superior Products in St. Paul, Minn., one of the largest restaurant supply companies in the nation.
A few years after moving to Champaign, they set up a similar business: Serv-U, which itself has become a major supplier to food service businesses.
Serv-U, which recently moved to a new office/warehouse in Champaign's Apollo Industrial Park, supplies bars and restaurants with virtually everything they use – except food, said Sean Hemming, one of Wayne's sons and the company's vice president and general manager.
Virtually all Serv-U's sales are either to online or catalog customers, he said, with goods shipped throughout the United States.
"We do more catalog than Internet, but Internet is the fastest-growing segment of our business," said Chad Hemming, Sean's brother and Serv-U's vice president of marketing.
Serv-U's products come from about 350 vendors. The products run the gamut from glassware to dining tables and chairs to commercial refrigerators and dishwashers. The company also carries simple supplies such as swizzle sticks and cash register tape.
"To be full-service, you have to carry all the products," Chad Hemming said.
Serv-U is particularly strong in the furniture area, Sean Hemming said.
"Commercial furniture has been a strong growth category for Serv-U," he said. "We import approximately 100 containers a year of furniture from China."
The company, now at 3201 Apollo Drive, employs about 40 and is hiring more.
Serv-U began moving into the new building in April and plans to complete the move by the end of this month, when its lease at 301 E. Mercury Drive, C, runs out.
The new office/warehouse gives Serv-U about 62,500 square feet, up from the 30,000 square feet it occupied on Mercury Drive.
"We built the building on Apollo Drive to accommodate our growth," Sean Hemming said. "The larger facility allows us to increase our inventory levels, which improves our ship times."
Serv-U keeps about 8,000 products in stock in the warehouse, he said. Most small items are shipped out by UPS, while larger items are transported by truck.
The company publishes two 300-page catalogs each year. Each catalog weighs 14 ounces, and when copies of the catalogs are shipped out, it takes 25 to 30 trucks to transport them, he said.
Serv-U figures it has sold merchandise to more than 100,000 bars and restaurants, Sean Hemming added.
"Our catalog goes to virtually every independent-owned bar and restaurant in the U.S, as well as fraternal organizations, country clubs, bakeries, caterers and small restaurant chains," he said.
Serv-U also provides restaurants with "turnkey" solutions in which the company arranges for the design and installation of equipment.
Among food service equipment distribution companies, Serv-U is "one of the larger players in the Internet that has carved a niche in Web-based sales," said Jim Hanson, president of the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association.
"I understand that they are one of the top five in this Internet/catalog market," said Hanson, whose own firm, Best Restaurant Equipment & Design, is based in Columbus, Ohio. "I don't know their figures, but it does appear that they do very well with both the hard-copy catalogs and the Web catalog, and with their contract project work as well."
The manufacture and distribution of food service equipment in the United States is a $9.5 billion industry, with sales growing about 4 percent a year, Hanson said.
Sean Hemming said Champaign's central location allows Serv-U to ship packages to most parts of the country in two days at competitive cost. The company ships to many states, he said.
"Illinois is the strongest, but we have a lot of customers in California, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and New York," he said.