With a territory sprawling from Auburn to Burien to Northgate, Elliot Bay, and Snoqualmie Pass, a food scene exploding with new restaurants, chefs, and influencers every day, and a staff of 44, Seattle General Manager, Jeff Gentling, has a lot of exciting opportunities on his plate. In our latest Branching Out feature, Gentling opens up about one of his most inspiring customer moments, the importance of listening, and the simple joys of working in the foodservice industry. Read his interview below.
Pictured above: Jeff Gentling
Describe your journey leading up to this point. How did you get to where you are today?
I started in September of 1987. I was looking to get out of the restaurant business and was a Bargreen Ellingson customer while I was working at RUI as a chef. I liked the company, and thought it would be a good transition out of the kitchen to start selling products that I was familiar with. I went in for an interview and my timing was perfect as they were currently looking for a downtown Seattle sales representative. I worked on the front counter for four days and then went straight into the territory. It was wild and crazy, but I succeeded through hard work, perseverance and getting to know my customers' needs. Emergency deliveries were never a problem and I was willing to get them the products they needed as long as I could get my hands on them.
In 1996, I took the General Manager position for the Seattle branch. It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years as manager of the branch. I have been very fortunate to have worked for the Ellingson family as well as a great team of hard working employees that have excellent customer service standards. I can honestly say that I enjoy walking through the door every morning.
Just being part of the food service business and all of the great people that you meet. The industry is such a fun business to be associated with and loaded with great customers, along with the team here in the Seattle store. Both the customers and our team understand a hard day’s work - I am surrounded by wonderful employees and customers.
What is your greatest challenge as GM?
I would say, keeping up with the ever changing technology. I am sure that the crew would classify me as being old school, so keeping up with a young sales force is both challenging and exciting! I still try to give them a run for their money and show them that an old guy can still sell. With that technology, there has sprouted all of the online dealers which are a thorn in everybody’s side. Learning how to sell against them and combating some of the low margins or low-quality products can be tough at times, but it all has made us better at what we do. We are very fortunate because we offer tangible value here in this company, so learning how to use those tools is key to landing the order.
What has been your greatest success?
I would like to think that my greatest success is the development of our sales team here in Seattle along with the development of successful concepts for customers. If I have done my job right, both the team and our customers know that we always have their best interest in mind, have their backs, and will support them in any way we can to make them successful. The team here prides itself on great customer service. Each and every one of them has been instrumental in building the Seattle branch into one of the best dealerships in the nation with a highly trained and motivated sales team.
How do you see the Seattle food scene changing in the future? What are some of the everyday challenges associated with these changes?
The Seattle food scene is growing and changing so fast that it is impossible to keep up with all of the new restaurants and names in the industry. The greatest result of this growth happens to be for young new chefs and chefs with minimal budgets, as well as our company and sales team. The influx of capital that has spread to some areas unlikely to have a cool new food scene has generated new business and opportunities for some poorer neighborhoods. It is really fun and exciting to see a run down neighborhood brought back to life and energised with a new restaurant.
Some of the challenges include keeping up with all of the new restaurants and design and build opportunities You always want all of the business, and when you don’t get a shot at a project it is disappointing. With all of this growth, the Seattle traffic has become a little tough to deal with as well, but that just comes with the territory.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day is spent in the office working with the crew, customers, and helping at the front counter. I try to visit one or two customers a day outside of the store, either visiting a customer on my own or riding along with a territory or contract representative to help with a project. Keeping up with email is a full time job as well!
Contract team at Din Tai Fung. Right to Left: Justin Freeman, Chad Allars, Allison Boyce, Rachel Smith, Lucas Ellingson, Joe Unsell, Keelan Hooper, Eric Ellingson
What draws you to the restaurant and hospitality industry? Why?
I was raised in the restaurant business as my parents owned a restaurant in Eugene, Oregon so I got my start early on helping wash dishes, bus tables, and eventually cooking in the kitchen. I love the business, love the people, and love food! It is so fun to experience great food with good friends and loved ones.
What is the best advice you have ever received throughout your career and how do you apply this advice to your job every day?
Listen. It’s more important and meaningful to hear what others are saying than it is for you to be speaking. I always try to be a good listener, but it is hard sometimes, and I need to reel myself in when I am talking too much and not listening enough.
Please walk me through the most inspiring client story you’ve recently experienced.
It has to be the building and opening of Cinque Terra restaurant. Early on, Lucas Ellingson and I were meeting with one of the three brothers, Roberto, to begin the design of the restaurant. Roberto was not feeling well, but we thought it was something small that would go away soon and he’d feel better. He ended up having had throat cancer and had to completely remove himself for the next 6 months to combat the cancer. I would get periodic updates on his health from his brothers, but they were visibly very concerned for his health. Lucas helped build a beautiful new Italian restaurant for the brothers and on the night of their grand opening, I saw Roberto for the first time since his diagnosis and saw that he was going to be okay. It was a very emotional experience for me, and I felt that we had all worked together to get Roberto and the family a beautiful new restaurant for them all. These 3 guys are some of my favorite customers, and it's great to see them all doing so well.
What are you most looking forward to in the future?
I look forward to traveling with my wife, Patti, family, and friends, and seeing the world. And of course, eating my way through those travels.
Does the Seattle branch have any special traditions?
Being that we have a test kitchen, we like to celebrate and enjoy a good meal now and then with a crew lunch. We celebrate Halloween by getting dressed up in costumes and carving pumpkins, and every Christmas we sponsor a family, provide gifts, and donate food and money. We also help serve at FareStart as a team. We just started sponsoring a Big Table event which will become an annual event, and some of the young bucks play on a soccer team which has a few Ellingson’s as ringers.
Visit the Seattle branch at 3627 1st Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98134.