After almost 50 years in business, it still bothers Richard Jackson when his company, Glass City Food Service Inc., gets even the tiniest order wrong for a customer.
Though he is 77, Mr. Jackson is not above hopping in his car on a Sunday and driving 100 miles just to deliver the correct item - out of 6,200 different napkins, cups, ice cream cones, topping, and other restaurant supplies stored at its 35,000-square foot warehouse in Holland.
The firm sells to ice cream shops, fast food outlets, and independent restaurants in nine states. Its revenue is expected to reach $14 million this year.
"That's the only way to survive today," he explained. "The big guys, they can survive even while doing things wrong, but I believe to keep your reputation you still have to keep doing those little things for the customer."
A new customer in mid-Michigan contacted him recently about starting an ice cream shop, but she had little experience. "She asked me, 'What do I need?'•" said Mr. Jackson, who has volunteered to visit her store to help advise her on start-up supplies.
"They really are very accommodating," said Tommy Pipatjarasgit, owner of Magic Wok Inc., a Glass City customer for nearly two decades.
"If you're out of something, they'll run it out to you from their warehouse. Even if you forgot to order something, they'll bring it out to you."
Customer satisfaction wasn't just a goal, it was a dire necessity during the early years of the company.
Mr. Jackson and his wife, Ruth, started the company in 1958 in their garage. They moved it to a site above a diaper service in a building on Superior and Cherry Streets.
"It was a struggle for 13 years and my wife and I worked our fannies off," he said. He sold napkins, cups, and other paper products used by soda fountains. Several times he almost quit, but his wife talked him out of it, he added.
Urban renewal forced them to move to Hill Avenue in West Toledo, where Mr. Jackson said his fortunes began to change and the company hit $1 million in sales. In 1971, he built the warehouse in Holland.
He made a key decision to stay focused on ice cream, Chinese food, and small mom-and-pop restaurants. It worked.
The company kept growing and has a fleet of 17 trucks delivering products east to New Jersey, south to Bowling Green, Ky., west to Chicago, and north to the tip of Michigan's lower peninsula. Disposable items like cups and napkins account for about half the business; food items are the other half.
In the mid-1980s, Glass City dabbled with a process to chop candy and other toppings, which coincided with the growth of the frozen yogurt craze. The owner designed his own large, conveyor-driven chopping devices that could make 12,000 pounds of chopped candy daily.
It worked for ice cream toppings as well as for shakes sold by Dairy Queen stores, a customer. As the yogurt craze faded, the local firm in the 1990s decided to supply a cooperative of Dairy Queen stores, and now has 600 in four states.
It also distributes frozen novelties, such as ice cream cakes, fruit bars, and Dairy Queen Dilly bars, and its freezers frequently stock various fruits used as toppings.
"Demand for ice cream cones is shrinking," Mr. Jackson said. "My customers tell me there's less demand for sundaes and banana splits."
On the other hand, toppings and ice cream mix-ins are more popular than ever. Chopped peanut-butter cups are the No. 1 seller.
The latest trend, he said, is toppings and ingredients to make coffee drinks and frozen treats.
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