For nearly 90 years, Kessenich’s Ltd. has been a supply depot for commercial kitchen supplies.
The racks and shelves are filled with ladles, tongs, wire strainers, glassware, utensils, condiment containers, stock pots and other staples with which to cook and serve hungry customers.
The inventory also includes larger items like fryers, refrigeration units and versatile combi ovens that can be used to steam vegetables, bake cookies or cook crispy chicken wings and tater tots as if they were deep fried.
But Kessenich’s has now taken a major step forward in an effort to grow its business by offering cutting-edge design work and a chance for customers to try out big-ticket kitchen equipment before it is purchased, delivered and installed.
The Madison company, which had been located on Fair Oaks Avenue, was sold in July and has now opened a 24,000-square-foot showroom and design center at 3226 Progress Road. The facility is just a few blocks north of Broadway and east of Stoughton Road, in what years ago was home to a skate park. It has been renovated into a brightly lit, well-organized destination for professional and home chefs and students studying culinary arts at Madison Area Technical College.
“This is a tool, and we want them to use it. That’s what it’s here for,” said Todd Heeter, president of Great Lakes West, the new owner of Kessenich’s. “This needs to be the culinary resource for the area.”
Entry into Wisconsin
Great Lakes West, founded in 1999, is based in Mattawan, Michigan, where it specializes in providing food service equipment, design and related services for restaurants, schools, hotels, health care facilities, universities, airports, stadiums and other commercial food service facilities. The company is part of a group that also includes Great Lakes Hotel Supply in Southfield, Michigan, that specializes in food service equipment and design.
In all, the companies have more than 70 employees and annual revenues of more than $65 million, Heeter said.
The purchase of Kessenich’s provides Great Lakes its first retail store and entry into Wisconsin and Dane County. The Madison area is not only home to hundreds of restaurants but numerous healthcare facilities and businesses with their own food service operations.
“It was a good match from a people standpoint,” Heeter said. “But one of the biggest challenges is the internet. Anyone can sell you something, but what kind of service are you getting if something goes wrong?”
The new facility, which opened Tuesday, includes a demonstration kitchen for classes and also an oversized vent hood with a “plug and play system” that features multiple gas and electrical hook ups and plumbing fixtures. The system allows kitchen equipment, including some ovens equipped with drains and water hoses for easier clean-up, to be swapped in and out of the area to accommodate classes or a chef contemplating a new addition to a kitchen.
Kessenich’s has also upgraded its design center, which works with chefs and managers of restaurants and other commercial kitchen operations to make the best use of not only space but of their budget. That approach ensures that the client chooses the most appropriate equipment for the type and style of food being produced. To aid in that effort, virtual reality technology has been incorporated into the design process, which allows a chef to do a walk-through of a new kitchen before it is built.
“It can save a lot of time and headaches,” Phil Toler, Kessenich’s general manager, said as he demonstrated the technology. “This is really a fun tool, but it’s really about making sure the client doesn’t have second thoughts about their space after it’s too late.”
Business history dates to 1929
Kessenich’s was founded in 1929 by Herman Kessenich, who started as a candy wholesaler and later added fountain fruit syrups and ice cream flavorings. After the 1933 repeal of Prohibition, Kessenich began selling liquor and wine and moved out of his basement into a building on Regent Street, near South Park Street. Over the next 10 years, Kessenich gradually added bar and restaurant supplies, including equipment such as coolers and ovens. The growth continued with a new building on South Park Street in 1940, the addition of janitorial and cleaning supplies in 1946 and, then in 1960, the move to a former Red Dot Foods facility at 131 S. Fair Oaks Ave.
Kessenich’s granddaughter, Cheri Martin, purchased the business in 2008, after the death of her uncle and the retirement of her mother, both of whom had worked in the business. The purchase occurred during the peak of the recession, which forced Martin, who had years of global marketing experience in the coin counting and welding industries, to streamline the business.
“We just had to take a lot of costs out,” Martin said.
The changes included improvements to accounting practices, removing residential kitchen appliances from the inventory and putting more focus on designing and building kitchens.
Martin, who remains with the company in the business development department, said the timing was right last summer to find a buyer. The building was no longer adequate for a modern operation and has been removed to make way for a 161-unit, five-story apartment building by Inventure Capital of Madison that will include 122 covered parking stalls, 65 additional surface parking stalls, several bike parking areas and 11,000 square feet of commercial space.
And while the timing wasn’t ideal when Martin took over Kessenich’s 10 years ago, she feels last summer’s sale to Great Lakes West allowed her to find a succession plan for the business with a similar company that can help Kessenich’s and its employees succeed.
“I knew the timing was right. It needed more resources,” Martin said. “And that’s half the battle — recognizing when you need to change. The marriage with Great Lakes is a good fit.”