September 28, 2012By Corbin Murray
Greg Lewis is owner and president of Jacobi-Lewis Co. in downtown Wilmington. Started by David Jacobi in the 1940s as David Jacobi Supply, Jacobi-Lewis now is one of the largest dealers of restaurant equipment in the Wilmington area.
Lewis relocated to Wilmington from Elizabethtown in the 1950s when his father, a former hardware salesman and distributor, bought into the company with Jacobi. Since then, Lewis has worked in every aspect of the restaurant supply business including metal fabrication and selling door-to-door.
In this interview with the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Corbin Murray, Lewis discusses the history of his company and how it has grown with Wilmington, as well as the unique demands of a coastal restaurant supply company.
GWBJ: Jacobi-Lewis has been in the Wilmington area for a long time. How did you and your father become involved with the company?
GL: Back then it was David Jacobi Supply, and it was downtown on 2nd Street. When my dad bought into the business, they sold some restaurant equipment, but they also sold paint and a few fishing supplies.
My dad bought into this business in the late 50s, and we relocated to Wilmington. Once he was fully involved, he began to change the business and move away from the non-food service related items.
Eventually this building [622 S. Front St.] was built for us, and we relocated from the building on 2nd Street to here.
I started when I was 14 and worked in the summers. At the time, we had a small fabrication business, and we would make some of the equipment that we sold. So I cut my teeth, so to speak, in the fabrication and delivery aspect of the business.
GWBJ: Jacobi-Lewis uses computer-aided design to design kitchens for clients. That seems pretty unique. What exactly is the software used for?
GL: The computer-aided design, or CAD, software that we use is industry specific, which means it was made for designing restaurants and food service applications.
The health department requires a draft of your menu and the items you will use and an equipment list with equipment specs. So the customer designs their menu, and then we design a kitchen capable of producing those products.
Once that is done, then you take that to the health department for what’s called a ‘plan review.’
We have to design the kitchens to meet state health codes. It is required to have a design to scale of the kitchen area. It is a must. It’s like building a house. You have to have a plan.
We also do design for a lot of architects because an architect has to build, let’s say a church, and that church has a kitchen. The architect won’t know a whole lot about the kitchen requirements, so he hires us to do it.
GWBJ: You’ve been in the business for a while and seen these changes in technology come about like the CAD software. How have the changes in technology affected your business as a whole?
GL: Two things have really changed with the growth of technology that I can think of. One, of course, is the CAD software. The second is the Internet.
It has made it so easy for a consumer to just look products up online. They used to have to physically come here and say ‘Can you show me a refrigerator, or a range, or a dishwasher?’ and you would pull out the catalog.
Now there’s industry specific software that has a database of almost every product out there. So now you can just say, ‘Hey, I want a fridge or a range,’ and we can pop it right up on the screen with a full spec sheet. Technology has really changed the business. The day of the catalog is over.
GWBJ: Have you seen an increase in the demand for technology from your customers in the products that they buy?
GL: No. This industry is not a cutting-edge industry. It is veryantiquated. For instance, people still ask for gas ranges with manual, standing pilot lights like a range that was made 50 years ago. Part of the reason I think this is, is because for our customer base they aren’t looking for something that will be the most energy efficient.
They’re looking for something that will be more trouble-free. In other words, they don’t want a Jaguar; they want a Ford because they can keep up with it – something sort of basic.
In an area like Wilmington – Wilmington is not Charlotte or Raleigh – we only have a 180-degree radius of customers. I always like to say the fish don’t buy restaurant equipment. So being at the end of the line, you have to put in products that are reliable and that can be serviced. A California manufacturer may make the greatest equipment in the world, but it’s generally not serviced and parts aren’t stocked in the East. So
if you buy this product and it goes down, you could be out of commission until it’s fixed.
GWBJ: Has working in the restaurant industry changed the way you enjoy going out to eat?
GL: I think my view on restaurants when I go out is probably a little more lenient than most people.
I know what they go through, and there are a lot of factors that I wish the general public knew about health codes. When they see a health grade that they don’t think is as high as it should be, then they think the place is dirty. That’s not always the case. That low score could come from something totally non-kitchen related. It could be something in the bathroom like not having the correct water temperature. It gives someone a new appreciation for what they go through to get it out there.
I have also started to see more sophisticated menus, which I’m very excited to see. And one of the things to thank for that, in Wilmington specifically, is the influx of retirees that expected that from the larger cities, as well as the film industry.