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Chalk My Life – Tundra’s Story [Video]

Nothing gets me more excited to tell a story or write a blog post than the passion of others.  I was thrilled that we were all able to work together to tell Tundra’s story Draw Chalk My Life style.

We started by interviewing Michael Lewis and Rob Fenton, our founders, and Andrew Call was able to pull together a two-part blog post from those interviews: part 1 and part 2.  But we knew that we wanted to do more – enter the amazing chalk art skills of Stephen Garcia.  Stephen’s (pronounced Steven) art can be seen on the big black chalkboard anytime you come into our showroom, and we thought he’d be the best person to help us draw out this story – great hunch, huh!

Video Transcription

(Music)

Michael Lewis: Hi, I’m Michael Lewis. I’m the original founder of Tundra Specialties. I’m sitting here today with my co-founder, Rob Fenton, who came on a few months after we started. I ran a company in New Jersey that was in the restaurant supply business. I sold my interest in that business and came out here, and therein became the birth of Tundra.

As I was leaving my last company, in 15 minutes I wrote down the values of what I, with starting over, what did I want to take with me from the prior experience. That’s where the 13 values came from. They’re unedited. The short answer is we had a high integrity for customers, for vendors, for employees, for product. We were going to deliver a level of service that we believed was not available up to that point.

Rob Fenton: One of the values is having “ways” and not policies. It wasn’t the policy, it was the way to take care of the customer. I came from a B2B application, and we took the B2B concept and applied it to a restaurant industry that at the point in time didn’t have that much focus on customer service, in our opinion.

Michael Lewis: We started very fundamentally, it’s the old story of starting in your garage. It literally did start in my garage, and was able to walk around the streets of Boulder and just introduce myself and at least say, “We have these in stock and we can get a whole lot more.”

The product line just grew from there, but it all came out of a concept that, the idea that the parts availability to restaurants with only through service companies, and service companies needed to install things, and it became a very pricey thing. There was a lot of items that restaurants could actually install themselves.

In order to grow, we could do one of two things:

  1. We could open branches in other parts of the country.
  2. The other way was the advent of the internet.

That was starting to have something to it. At that time, Ryan [Lewis] came aboard and was given the responsibility of developing our first website. Then we went on to the second one. With each one we were able to expand the amount of product we put on. We were able to get deeper into the customer world. We made a commitment to the web before the first site launched.

Rob Fenton: Our biggest concern, certainly the first ten years, was not how fast can we grow. The question was how can we keep up? How do we maintain, how do we keep our company values, which were important to us, and still provide the level of service that we were becoming known for?

Michael Lewis: What we did was listen. The product growth over the 20 years has gone from parts to smallwares to equipment to disposables to textiles. That was all customer pulled. Over the 20 year history, we’ve become a complete restaurant supply house, including installation and design services, as well as, providing any product a restaurant would need.

Rob Fenton: I’m proud to say that we have never lost a customer. Once we have developed a relationship, we’ve never lost one.

Michael Lewis: I really see Tundra as being probably one of the most significant restaurant suppliers in the country. To be able to be in the United States, to be able to distribute all the products we have in the most efficient way, and have one of the easiest ways for customers to transact business with that. I’m not saying we’re the largest, go back to a word I use is significant, whether that also means the largest, we’ll see.

(Music)

Thanks to Nathan Combs for his awesome videography work, and putting up with me as I get excited to tell our story in a fun way!

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A Look at Tundra’s History with Co-Founders Michael Lewis & Rob Fenton – Part II

A Look at Tundra’s History with Co Founders Michael Lewis & Rob Fenton   Part IIWith the expansion into the online marketplace came the potential for Tundra to bring business to the national and global fronts, providing large establishments as well as the at-home consumer an avenue to shop equipment and parts from the comfort of a computer. A bare-bones website, constructed and maintained by Michael’s son Ryan Lewis in the early 2000’s, generated a single order on the day the site launched, (“for one cutting board,” Michael laughs) and after a few months the company had carved out a place for itself online.

“The first website was very primitive, very clunky, but it was sort of cutting edge at that time,” Michael jokes. “Then we went on to the second one, and with each one we were able to expand the amount of product we put on. We were able to get deeper into the customer world. We became far savvier with web marketing. I think the rest of that’s history to where [the web] is one of the most significant growth engines in this company today.”

The push into web sales and marketing also added to Tundra’s ability to cater to customers on a different level by providing a convenient, customized shopping experience for larger businesses.

“At that same time we started to get a lot of interest from different groups that we worked with. Restaurant chains. They were interested in utilizing and liked the idea of having their own website,” Rob reflects regarding Tundra’s chain sites. “We were able to create a lot of uniqueness for them. It’s amazing how many people are involved in that and want that. It’s worked out well.”

While technological advances assisted in the company’s growth, it’s a core set of values on which Tundra finds its footing for day-to-day interactions and ethics. Jotted down as Michael left his old company, and unaltered as they were cemented into how business is conducted, the thirteen values are painted on the walls and keep the company focused.

“In fifteen minutes I wrote down the values of what I wanted to take with me from my prior experience and hold on to,” Michael explains. “It was the stuff that was successful or wished to be successful. The things that when we had difficult times held us together. That’s where the thirteen values came from.”

As years progressed and times changed Tundra’s culture continued to blossom, and with more product and sales came more challenges. Adjusting to additional business and providing customer and employee satisfaction may not have always come easy, but working back toward the values that helped form the company proved invaluable.

“That’s the beauty of culture, and values, is that they drift.” Michael says of the Tundra’s strong values. “You know the old saying is ‘to be off the path is to be on the path, because at least you have a path and you know you’re off it,’ and having a core set of values to return to was always a centering point.”

And with that centering point always in mind the business has continued to expand. Bringing high quality parts and equipment to restaurants and cozy kitchens around the world has proven fruitful, and both Rob and Michael see the possibilities for Tundra as endless.

“I think it’s unlimited,” Rob says. “As we go forward, always going back to who we are and what we do and the ability to focus on the customer and take care of them as we have in the past, the future’s bright. There is no limit.”

As Tundra celebrates its 20th anniversary this month orders will continue to ship, customers will continue to browse the showroom, and calls will continue to come in. Those humble beginnings of a three employee effort have grown to a well-oiled 135 person team, with each member contributing to the expansion of ten products to nearly 70,000, and the company’s culture and drive for customer care continues to evolve with no limits in sight.

“It’s been one hell of a ride,” Rob remarks.

Read Part I.

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A Look at Tundra’s History with Co-Founders Michael Lewis & Rob Fenton – Part I

A Look at Tundra’s History with Co Founders Michael Lewis & Rob Fenton   Part IFrom a garage based one-man parts company, to a recognized national supplier of literally everything including the kitchen sink, Tundra Restaurant Supply has grown as a business and evolved as a concept for the past twenty years. This month Tundra’s crossing that anniversary line, and co-founders Michael Lewis and Rob Fenton have been along for the ride since the company’s conception. Keeping business practices and employee relations grounded in a solid “ways not policies” mentality, both men can still be seen laughing with vendors or conversing with co-workers on a daily basis. Michael and Rob recently took a trip down memory lane and reminisced about the early days, what makes Tundra special, how things have changed, and how staying the same where it counts has kept the company strong and unique over the years.

“When I came out here it started very fundamentally,” Michael remembers of his move from New Jersey in 1992, “It literally started in my garage. I came out here with the idea of starting a smaller, regional restaurant dealership that emphasized parts and brought what my prior company did at the wholesale level to the retail level.”

Printing and passing out product fliers, in person, to Boulder, Colorado’s budding restaurant scene in early ’93 helped Michael get familiar with the area and the restaurateurs he’d be doing business with. “Well, we have these in stock and we can get a whole lot more,” was his pitch, and pretty soon it was time to print the first official catalog. This is when Michael and Rob crossed paths.

“It’s kind of an interesting story,” Rob recalls. “Out of hundreds of printers in the Front Range, Michael picks three out of a catalog. I was one of the three. I was working for a printing company, and we were able to win and secure the business.”

Those first few small catalogs solidified the duo’s working relationship and paved the way for Tundra’s future.

“We were comfortable with each other right away. I liked his history, where he came from, what he had done in his past life,” Rob says. “My only statement was ‘I know this is going to work. I believe it will work. I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there.’”

The answer was:  not long. With three employees (Michael, Rob, and a fundamental team member named Nancy Hogan) Tundra powered forward, securing space, building a customer base, and working with vendors to acquire product. By mid-1993 the shelves had product on them, the phone was ringing intermittently, and the company was able to purchase and ship orders.

“One of the things that worked well at the start was we had a strong value base,” Michael explains. “We had a high integrity for the customer, the vendors, for product, and we were going to deliver a level of service that we believed was not available.”

At that time we did something really revolutionary. We listened to the customer,” Rob agrees. “I think it was key timing too. Timing was perfect.”

With a value system in place that focused on customer service, having fun, respect, and forward progress, paired with a desire to provide customers with the parts and products they needed, the business began to grow. Restaurant supply had been a niche market up until the early 90’s, and as Tundra expanded, so too did the local restaurant scene. Over twenty years of building and maintaining relationships in and outside the area, Tundra’s product offering has gone from parts to small wares, equipment, disposables, and on to textiles and design all with help from the customer. “That was all customer pool,” Michael says. “It wasn’t necessarily a back room creation or we thought this was what the customer wanted. It was asked, and we were able to deliver.”

Continue on to  Part II.

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