Mix two ingredients, both practiced with a zeal bordering on fanaticism: a relentless drive for perfect customer service and an unabashed pride in providing jobs for every associate in the company family. The result would probably look a lot like Nicholas & Company, a broad line foodservice distributor in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Operating in six intermountain states, Nicholas is a third-generation family business that competes directly with all the large national distributors from a single distribution center on the western edge of the city. Officially, the company was founded in 1939, making it 66 years old. However, the Mouskondis family has recently found a few old receipts that suggest that founder Nicholas Mouskondis may have had a business as early as 1926.
Nicholas & Company is a concrete example of the American dream in action, says Peter Mouskondis, president of the company and a member of the third generation in the business. Making his way from the island of Crete, speaking only Greek and entering the United States through Ellis Island in 1917, Nicholas Mouskondis got to Salt Lake City by wearing a sign on his back that said “Utah.” There, he tried working in a copper mine like his cousin, but at only 4'-10" and extremely slender, he couldn't handle the tools needed. Finding less strenuous work, he began buying dented canned goods from the railroads, boiling off the labels, and putting on new identification for local sale.
From that point came slow, constant growth, with Nicholas taking out the first business license in the residential area that then bordered downtown Salt Lake City. Rather than consolidating in a single location, Nicholas & Company at one time operated from six separate buildings. It was not until 1999 that the company moved into its new headquarters and distribution center west of the international airport.
Renovated distribution center
Even then, the frugality that built Nicholas & Company was evident. The company took over an old Rockwell International manufacturing facility and leased part of it to a tenant already operating in the building. Since that move, Nicholas has taken over the entire complex and expanded it to a total of 220,000 sq ft, including a new frozen foods department that holds two million cubic ft of storage. Next on the agenda is a new cooler with 45,000 sq ft of space. The existing 25,000 sq ft of cooler space will be converted to additional dry grocery warehousing.
From that single warehouse, Nicholas & Company serves foodservice outlets within a 450-mile radius of Salt Lake City. The large oval trade area extends from the southern half of Idaho to the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. To the west, it takes in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the surrounding communities along with central Nevada as far west as Winnemucca. To the east and north, distribution stops at the Colorado state line, but continues north to take in West Yellowstone in Montana, all but one restaurant in Yellowstone National Park, and resorts in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
This entire trade area is served on one-day routes containing as many as 18 stops and covering up to 250 miles. Covering such a large area without overnight routes is possible because Nicholas & Company has a total of 50 resident drivers stationed in three separate locations. To the south of Salt Lake City, the company has 30 drivers in Cedar City, Utah, allowing it to serve points in Arizona as well as Las Vegas. Another 16 drivers in Pocatello, Idaho, deliver to western Idaho as well as customers in Montana and Wyoming. Two drivers based in Boise, Idaho, take care of customers in western Idaho. All three remote driver locations are close enough to Salt Lake City to allow delivery of two loaded trailers on each shuttle run and return to headquarters in a single driving shift. The longest shuttle run is a 340-mile round trip to Cedar City.
Large backhaul volume
Whenever possible — and Idaho is a perfect example — shuttle drivers return to Salt Lake City with a full load of inbound freight for the warehouse. For instance, Nicholas & Company is able to backhaul about half its annual volume of 500,000 cases of frozen potato products from Lamb Weston plants in east central Idaho. Typically, shuttle drivers deliver route-loaded trailers to the resident drivers and then go to the backhaul locations where they wait for trailers to be loaded.
Customer orders turn on an extremely short cycle. The last order cutoff of the day is 7 pm, by which time a good proportion of other orders have already been selected. Selection goes on through the night with the last order completed around 4 am. That gives the night crew two hours to clean up the warehouse and get ready for the day shift to show up and begin receiving at 6 am.
Nicholas & Company serves the entire spectrum of foodservice outlets from schools and hospitals to chain restaurants to upscale fine-dining establishments. National accounts make up 55% of the delivery stops.
“Every little town has a convenience store, and these days most of those stores have an associated fast food restaurant,” says Jerry Turner, senior director of operations. “We serve the restaurants, not the stores. Serving convenience stores would put us in the grocery business, a market where we lack the necessary expertise.”
Independents require flexibility
The other 45% of business at Nicholas & Company is independent restaurants along with schools and institutions. Although national accounts and independent restaurants are served on the same routes, the two businesses are quite different, Turner says. “National accounts operate in an extremely regimented fashion with set delivery schedules and extremely predictable orders,” he says. “Their orders are so repetitive that we could almost fill them without ever hearing from the restaurant manager.
“On the other side of the business, independent restaurants have a wide range of requirements and need tremendous flexibility on our part. One of our strengths is that we are an independent distributor that can cater to those independent restaurants. For instance, we stock about 12,000 line items in the warehouse and fly in no fewer than 16 specialty items on a daily basis.”
Serving 3,000 active customers with a fleet of 70 tractors, 115 refrigerated trailers, and six straight trucks, Nicholas & Company runs almost five million miles a year. Of that total, more than 70% is devoted to delivery with only 30% of the fleet total required for shuttle service. With so many customers spread across such a wide area, most customers will never see the company warehouse or meet senior management, Turner says.
“To most of our customers, Nicholas & Company is our driver along with the tractor and trailer that shows up with the order,” he says. “For that reason, it is imperative that the fleet and drivers represent the desired company image.”
Positive temperature control
Trucks and drivers must be clean for every stop, and every carton of product must be in prime condition, Turner says. For that reason, the entire fleet is equipped for multi-temp operation with three compartments in trailers. All three compartments have positive temperature control with the nosemount refrigeration unit cooling the front compartment and two remote evaporators for the other two temperature zones. Trailers are divided using folding, insulated bulkheads from Randall Manufacturing.
Compartments can be cooled to any temperature desired, regardless of location. “We can put dry goods in the nose compartment and frozen foods in the rear, if that's what we want,” Turner says.
Within the past year, Nicholas & Company has put 40 new Kidron Emperor distribution trailers in service with about half for fleet expansion and half for fleet replacement. Depending on delivery conditions, trailers are 35 or 42 ft long. Specifications for the highly specialized trailers has evolved over the past two years to produce trailers that can survive the high mileage, tough terrain, hot environment, and almost 24-hour continuous use that Nicholas & Company requires.
Trailers have to be tough because of the conditions they endure. In reality, trailers were never intended for urban foodservice distribution because the delivery areas are so congested, Turner says. However, trailers in city delivery are a reality forced on distributors by the volume of product they handle and the number of stops required, he says.
Long life anticipated
“The equipment is so new that we don't have a firm trade cycle in mind yet,” Turner says. “We know it's durable because we have one Kidron trailer that we bought used 16 years ago. We will wait to see how long they last, but we anticipate a service life of at least 10 to 12 years.”
Trailers are built to suit loading and delivery conditions. For instance, Nicholas & Company requires four inches of insulation in sidewalls, floors, and ceilings. “We want to deliver when it's 116° F in Las Vegas without any danger of product temperature variation. We also want trailer interiors to withstand the rigors of loading at our dock and at backhaul vendors. For that reason, we have the trailers lined with Bulitex panels from US Liner that are protected at floor level by tall, extruded aluminum scuff plates. Randall bulkheads are built with high-impact composite skin material as well.
“We have two reasons for the tough liners. First, we want to prevent damage to the interior sidewalls. Secondly, we want to prevent cracks in the liners that would allow moisture to seep into the insulation, because water in the foam can lead to all sorts of problems including loss of insulating capacity, increased trailer weight, and mold in the cargo compartment with food deliveries.”
Driver safety plays a big role in equipment specifications as well. Drivers unloading through the narrow center door panel of the three-panel read door use a 16 ft R•O•M RoadwarrioR aluminum ramp that stows under the trailer floor between the rear suspension rails. Drivers have access to the middle curbside door with a three-step folding stair that slides into the trailer structure, and unload from the nose compartment using a folding R•O•M ramp that stows in a box under the trailer for transit.