From 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.”