Business on The Front Burner

Superior Equipment & Supply, located at South 13th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue on Milwaukee’s south side, doesn’t look like much from the outside.

However, plenty of interesting things are happening inside the 10,000-square-foot building, and the company has major growth plans on its front burner.

Superior is a wholesaler of restaurant and supermarket equipment and supplies. The company also operates a retail store for home cooks looking for chef-quality equipment and recently opened a test kitchen inside, where chefs can test the latest equipment.

Home chefs can take cooking lessons in the test kitchen every Wednesday night.

Superior’s main floor also features a showroom of stoves, deep fryers, commercial coolers, soda and nacho machines, as well as pots, pans, knives, glasses, plates, silverware and other commercial supplies needed to operate a commercial kitchen.

The company’s basement is literally filled to the rafters with paper and plastic bags, deli trays and janitorial supplies that it sells to grocery stores, delis and restaurants.

The company’s inventory needs are growing because its revenues will nearly double this year, from $3.2 million in 2006 to about $6 million.

“We tried to really focus (this year),” said Samina Mahmood, 51-percent owner of Superior. “It’s helped a lot.”

The company is out of space and is now looking for an 80,000- to 90,000-square-foot building to move to by next spring or early summer. Once it has moved, Superior plans to greatly expand its products and services, Samina said.

Superior expects to bring in $10 million to $15 million in revenues for 2008, Samina said, in part because of the move to a larger location and the planned expansion into new services.

“The projections are good,” said Mike Mahmood, Samina’s husband, who owns 49 percent of the store. “We’ve just got to take advantage of all the possibilities out there.”

Superior’s business will increase dramatically with a new and larger location, Mike said, because customers will be able to see everything that Superior does.

“If we could show what we have downstairs, the business would grow a lot,” he said. “Now they (customers) don’t see downstairs, and they think it’s all up here. But it’s a whole lot more.”

Careful consideration

Samina oversees the company’s supply business, while Mike oversees its equipment side.

Although their company is out of space, Samina and Mike aren’t going to look for a new building until after the first of the year.

“It’s more important to work on the processes, to make sure that happens before the move,” she said. “We need to have the systems and functions in place for our everyday functions. Growth is great, but not if it’s not structured. We don’t want to lose our existing services for our customers, so we need to have our processes and procedures up before the move.”

Earlier this year, Superior built a new test kitchen inside its recently renovated retail area. Professional chefs can try the latest equipment inside the test kitchen, and home cooks are offered cooking lessons there.

The company also renovated its Web site and is developing an e-commerce site for both wholesale and retail customers, Samina said. The e-commerce site should be operating by the start of 2008, she said.

Expanded services

At the front of the new store, customers will find a greatly expanded test kitchen with seating for 80 to 100 people, television monitors and mirrors mounted so students and other chefs can see what’s happening, and a small restaurant, Samina said.

The restaurant will serve as a showcase for other ethnic restaurants in metro Milwaukee, Samina said. It will be leased to different operators for four to six months at a time, so Superior’s customers will be exposed to a variety of different foods and cultures over time.

“We want our shoppers to try different restaurants, to try different ethnic foods,” Samina said. “It will be a very small operation. But food comforts people. This will be there so (customers) can buy something when they’re shopping and try something unique.”

Superior’s own staff is diverse, and Samina said the new store’s restaurant will try to reflect that diversity.

“For us, we have so much diversity in our company, and the idea is to have people be able to buy something to eat, but not just a hot dog or nachos,” she said.

The larger facility will enable Superior to launch new services it can’t provide now because of the cramped space, Samina said. The new store will include a service, used equipment, rentals and parts department, she said. Each department will have its own service counter in the store, she said, and all of Superior’s products will be available on its shelves.

Each of the company’s new departments, from service and used equipment to rentals, will operate in a similar fashion – with one person managing most of the day-to-day operations.

“With each department, we want someone to run it,” Samina said. “We need people with a sense of ownership to them. We’re all about our people. We want, and need to have, a winning team.”

Superior is already eyeing another service it wants to add – build-out consultation services for new restaurants, convenience stores, coffee shops and other businesses, Mike said. Although that service is in the conceptual stage, Samina envisions hiring a full-time employee who would handle CAD designs for Superior’s customers.

“It’s a natural extension,” Mike said. “We’re focusing on turn-key, giving them equipment from scratch. We’re doing it (consulting) all the time anyway, and we want our customers to stay with us for supplies and everything else.”

Growth potential

Superior’s growth prospects improved even more last week, when it received its federal minority business enterprise certification. Mike and Samina are both originally from India. The designation will allow Superior to bid on federal contracts and contracts for large corporations such as Harley-Davidson Inc., Johnson Controls Inc. and others, that are seeking diversity suppliers.

The results could be dramatic – the federal government requires at least 15 percent of its food service contracts go to minority- or women-owned businesses.

“There is a huge opportunity here,” Samina said. “And the state government is similar. We’re so excited about it. It’s something we’ve had for so many years, but we’ve never thought about it.”

Community’s growth

Superior’s growth since it was started in 1984 has mirrored the growth of Milwaukee’s minority business community, Samina said.

When they married in 1989, Samina moved to Milwaukee and joined Mike in the business.

“In the first few years, I had to learn the culture and language,” she said. “Mike would go out to sell, and that’s when I would think about the store while I was answering the phones.”

As its customers grew in complexity, Superior expanded its services and the products, Samina said. Customers who started out with one or a handful of gas stations branched into small grocery stores or restaurants, and some even grew to open hotels.

“A lot of it was self-taught,” she said. “We could go to (trade) shows or people would ask for things. We would just listen to what our customers wanted us to do. And it really worked.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, many of Superior’s customers were Indian, Pakistani and Arab entrepreneurs, most of whom owned gas stations and convenience stores. The couple’s ties to those communities gave Superior early opportunities, because customers from those cultures felt comfortable dealing with the company, Samina said.

“There is a certain level of comfort people have with their own culture,” Samina said. “It helps a lot when you can relate with what they’re saying.”

Superior’s employees have developed comfort and competency in dealing with American culture, as well as ethnic minorities that are emerging as significant business forces in Milwaukee. Superior has several Hispanic employees, including one in its sales department who has ties with the city’s Latino business community.

Other workers have ties with Milwaukee’s emerging Asian business community, which has developed several new Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese restaurants along south side streets such as National Avenue in recent years.

When she joined the business in 1989, Superior had about 50 customers, Samina said. By 1995, when she started marketing to grocery stores, the business had about 100 regular customers, some of them placing weekly orders for bags, deli trays and other supplies.

Today, Superior Equipment & Supply receives weekly orders from about 200 customers. In total, the business has 300 to 400 customers between its equipment and supply sides.

Although Samina does a significant share of her supply business with larger stores such as Sendik’s, Sentry, Piggly Wiggly and El Rey grocery stores, she and Mike want to keep their new location on the south side of Milwaukee, so they can be close to the many minority-owned businesses they’ve worked with over the years.

Part of Superior’s success has been its ability to partner with customers, to delve into what they need to make their businesses successful, Samina said.

“We try to understand their needs and take care of them,” she said. “They’re all very entrepreneurial.”

Superior Equipment & Supply
3101 S. 13th St., Milwaukee
Industry: Restaurant and supermarket equipment and supplies
Revenue: Projected $6 million for 2007
Employees: 21
Web site:

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