2002 ID DSR of the Year

January 2002

Ihor Dlaboha

Ken Monacelli of Labatt Food Service, the 2002 ID DSR of the Year, has been in training for a successful career as a consultative foodservice sales rep literally his entire life.

He began as a part-time worker in his family’s restaurants and hospitality businesses and proceeded to culinary school, and then several executive chef jobs and finally a distributor sales rep with Labatt. Ken voraciously absorbed good and bad experiences and ultimately benefited from them. “Foodservice is in my blood,” he says proudly.

Ken is an $11.7 million-a-year DSR with the San Antonio, Texas-based regional foodservice distributor. By interacting with employers, corporate executives, culinary colleagues and other DSRs, Ken can offer consultative services on back-of-the-house and operational matters.

Prior to enrolling in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, in upstate New York, Ken Monacelli, a DSR with Labatt Food Service in Austin, Texas, and a self-described “rebellious teenager,” spent his youth searching for his niche in the foodservice industry. Growing up with two brothers and a sister in Cleveland, Ken and his siblings worked in an array of family foodservice business. His father owned restaurants, diners and motels, while his mother worked for the same Ohio catering company for 21 years. Young Ken was exposed to the responsibilities of a bus boy, dishwasher, waiter and prep cook.

Ken prides himself on thriving in very high-paced, intense and high-volume situations. The desire to live in the fast lane led Ken to look for his first job in “the dead center of the city, in a real high profile slammin’ place—Fedora’s, part of the Houlihan’s chain, on the Plaza in Kansas City, MO. “Every night there was a packed house. One of the premiere restaurants in town and I was on the line every night, a young sous chef. It was great.” Enjoying where he was and what he was doing, Ken began to think about his career goals and decided: “I wanted to be an executive chef of a major, recognized establishment by the age of 30.”

Fedora’s management offered him his coveted executive chef position in its flagship restaurant in Virginia, outside of Washington, but Ken turned it down for what seemed like a better opportunity at the time. The corporate chef for the Stouffer Hotel chain offered him the chance to open a Northern Italian restaurant, called Trattoria Grande, in Austin. “It was still a gutted room so I was going to be able to do some of the design, menu development, choose what went on the menu, and write the recipe specs,” he says.

At Stouffer’s he was befriended by a person who would become his mentor, corporate chef Albert Musca. “He was the most talented chef that I ever worked with. He took me under his wing,” Ken says. He became Albert’s executive sous chef after two years, and by then, Ken was ready for something new. His brother convinced him to invest in the purchase of the Carlson restaurant group Country Kitchen restaurant rights in the southern half of Indiana. “I came on as director of operations, to open restaurants, train staff, get it going, then move on to open the next one. I was the operations guy. I put everything that I had into that business, dollar wise.” Some 18 months later, the restaurant folded. “I was out everything I had in my life, all my money,” he remembers.

Down but not out, Ken opened his address book and started to call friends and colleagues about a job. Dan Admire of John Q. Hammon’s Hotels, Springfield, MO, offered him executive chef positions in his pick of hotels in B and C markets. The Monacelli's selected the hotel in Joplin, MO, because Ken’s wife, Alyssa, who has supported him throughout, wanted to relocate closer to her family.

Ken was finally back in his comfort zone, a hotel restaurant, doing what he loved best. But not for long. Working nights, weekends and holidays was taking too much time away from his family life and Alyssa urged him to look for a different career. But food was the only occupation Ken knew—and loved. His initial thoughts turned to being a sales rep (an idea that his Sysco rep placed in his mind). Ken was encouraged by his wife’s advice to seek help from the best sales rep that he ever worked with. The choice was easy, according to him: Labatt Food Service.

“I just jumped in with two feet. It was sink or swim. There was no mentoring then. The training program consisted of 10 days in San Antonio and another two weeks riding with some of the salespeople in Austin and after that, “Go, knock’em dead.” They helped a lot. But there was nothing formal like we have now,” says Ken, adding that he never sold anything in his life and furthermore “I didn’t even like salespeople.”

Without a formal training program, Ken was forced to survive by his wits and heed the advice of seasoned colleagues like Al Silva and Cara Johnson, national accounts managers. He remembered the days when he was buying foodservice products and decided to avoid sales rep conduct that offended him. “I disliked sales reps always trying to get me on to their product or claiming to have the latest and greatest new product, as opposed to bringing me options,” he says. In dealing with operators, he explains, “I made an effort to observe how they would make sauces or soups. Or when he saw that a chef was struggling with a recipe, he would fall back on his operations background and say, ‘I’ve been there and this is how I did it.’” He adds, “I expected ideas from my rep and now I sought to provide ideas to my customers.”

Ken’s first high point with Labatt came after 16 months. “I had many cold calls and had gotten a lot of new business, but Brick Oven Restaurant was my biggest corporate chain sell. That was my first call that resulted in replacing a whole broadline distributor and taking over $15,000-$20,000 a week in business right off the bat,” he says savoring the memory.

After finding the proper approach to meeting the general manager, Joe Morales, it took Ken 15 minutes to convince him that he wasn’t just another DSR. “It was the first time, Joe later told me, that a salesman came to him and didn’t immediately sit down and say, ‘I’ve got this item, I can do it cheaper for you, I’ve got the right cheese for you, or I’ve got the right product. I can do it.’ I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t even try to sell him when I met him. I just sat down and said this is who I am, can I tell you a little about me and what we do and can I ask you some questions about your business. I didn’t try to sell him anything, I didn’t tell him we had a great distribution system, I didn’t tell him we had the best cheese. I just wanted to know about him and his business. When you’re telling someone that you’ve got the best product, you’re also telling him that the products that he’s using are bad,” he relates.

By analyzing each line item purchase of the restaurant against what Labatt could offer, Ken demonstrated to Joe that he could save him money on each invoice even though the cost of his top items went up. “I don’t sell by line item but by total procurement cost. I always preach total procurement cost. I ask my customers, you don’t measure your food cost by line item, at the end of the month do you only pick certain line items and put that in your P & L statement,” he explains. “Operators have paid $28 for a $3 case of scrub pads. But they’re not looking at that on the invoice. But they sure know when their cheese changes price by one penny a pound. That’s how I go to sell. That’s Labatt’s philosophy, too. I got that from Labatt, that’s how they trained me. It’s been a big education.”

Ken reached his first million-dollar mark at the end of 18 months and today his sales figure exceeds $11 million from regional chains, hotels, independent operators an military facilities. His strategy calls for becoming the operator’s prime vendor either from the ontset or within a few months. According to him, 80% of Labatt’s accounts are prime vendor relationships. “Whether it’s the whole school or a whole military account, or whole hotel chain, or whole restaurant chain, I tell the operator I’m not here to sell rice and scrub pads. I don’t want to get in the bid and buy situation. But you have to say it tactfully. I’m not really interested in sharing the business with other distributors. I start out by trying to be a least the only broadliner. If you have bread, meat and dairy companies coming in, we’ll get there. The main focus is to be your broadline prime vendor,” he says.

Labatt’s well-known DSR mentoring program began in 1997 and Ken was one of the first sales reps to be assigned a sales rookie. So far he’s worked with two of the them and is looking for his third. “I pass on the philosophy of national brands, over procurement costs, and educating the customer to understand the distribution business. We‘re still viewed as used car salesmen. That mentality is still out there. We’ve got to break that. This is a professional, consultative business. That’s why the mentoring program is important. We strive to never put someone in front of a customer who doesn’t know their business and has to say, ‘I’m new, I don’t know.’ Those words should never be spoken to a customer.”

In addition to business basics, Ken also strives to impress upon the rookies a sense of balance between work and home and that “your family is No. 1.” Ken says although he didn’t get every sale that he thought he would, (even though, he reminds his rookies, you need to think you’re going to) “what’s worth more than that is your honesty and integrity. Because if you have those, the sales will come. If you get hung up on your commission report and weekly paycheck, you’re going to hate your job. If you come to work and do the best you can, work hard, that will take care of itself.”

Ken says he’s right where he wants to be. His personal career goal is to assume more responsibilities with national accounts, corporate chains and hotels but he realizes the importance of the independent operator—the people of the business. Ken declares that when he loses sight of the people who are in the foodservice business, that will be the day when he’ll need to leave the industry. Technology and all the gadgets that sales pros carry to get the job done are fine, but “foodservice” will always be a people business.”