The family environment continued to grow at SS Kemp when Mark and Steve Fishman took over the company. To this day, Immke even refers to them like they are his own brothers.
And he makes a point of paying it forward, in sales to his company and also in mentorship to his team and new company salespeople. "I keep an open-door policy," he says. "I encourage others to call me and ask me questions because I can save them the headaches I had to go through when starting out."
In the years past, Immke never had much of a team — it was just him on the streets, making the sales calls and filling the orders, all by himself. These days, he calls himself just one piece of the puzzle: "Without them, none of this happens," he says.
Immke's right-hand woman is Stacey Jones, who's been by his side for 11 years and in the last 3 years has handled the smallwares side of his business, which accounted for $2 million last year.
He refers to his relationship with designer Joe Peterlin like a marriage, a 25-year one to be exact. "Everything starts with Joe," Immke says, noting many of the leads do come through Peterlin's door first.
"We sit down together and go through the whole project as a team," says Peterlin, noting the two often feed off each other's ideas. "It's always a pleasure working with Bill. We're friends as well as coworkers, but the important thing is we see eye to eye, and have the same goal — to keep the customer happy and provide the best service we can."
Keith Chessey and Sherrie Steffensen are the newest additions to the team as project coordinators. Both have had the benefit of Immke's mentoring persona. "Since starting with TriMark SS Kemp a year ago, Bill has been very supportive in my transition to a new career," says Chessey, who concentrates on Immke's chain accounts. "He never hesitates to answer a question or give advice on how to handle a situation. He is also very hands-on and involved in all of his projects."
Steffensen shares a similar perspective. "I came into TriMark SS Kemp with a degree in social services and no foodservice experience whatsoever, save for the occasional college job bartending or serving," she says. "When I first started, I was new to everything — not only the computer systems we use, but the actual field itself. At first it was extremely overwhelming and at times frustrating; however, Bill never was too busy for my questions and always had so much patience."
Stop 2: Hospitality Restaurants
Customer meet-and-greet number two is with George Schindler of Hospitality Restaurants (HR) at Rosewood Grill in Strongsville, one of two locations in the Cleveland area. Immke tells the story of first meeting Schindler, when Bill was a driver supplying the now acclaimed restaurateur's first bar business. These days, HR owns and operates five concepts not including Rosewood Grill, from the multiple-award-winning Blue Point Grille and Salmon Dave's Pacific Grille, both seafood-focused restaurants, to the original Cabin Club Steakhouse, a 54-seater raking in $3 million a year, as well as the Thirsty Parrot and Delmonico's Steakhouse, where we lunched on wedge salads earlier in the day.
"I've known Bill since the 1980s," Schindler says while seated across the long, slate-topped bar with a pass-through window exposing the kitchen and its focal point, a tiled wood-fired oven. "One of reasons Bill is so good at his job is that he started from the ground floor and knows every inch of the operation, and he also understands the inner workings of what TriMark SS Kemp can do.
"He's seen different product lines from day one, so he knows what's reliable and what's not," Schindler adds. "When Bill recommends something to us, we know it's not just because he's trying to sell a certain product that month – it's coming from genuine experience and advice."
And frankly, Rosewood Grill is one of the most immaculate restaurants I've ever seen. In fact, the general manager was even touching up paint on the walls in between service periods. That's George's style, Immke tells me.
Meticulous, calculated and careful, Schindler only opens new restaurants when he sees potential for long-term success like his first. He's positioning Rosewood Grill, his latest concept, as a restaurant replicable throughout the state and potentially out of state down the road.
In fact, Schindler presented Immke with one of his first tastes of multiunit work as well as the extreme attention to detail and the need for round-the-clock attention that come with it. "Bill makes himself available 24/7 so we know we can call him if there is a problem," Schindler says. "We may not talk for two months at a time, but we might talk five times a day every day if we're in the middle of a project."
Schindler also appreciates that Immke gets along with his main interior designer. In fact, Immke has stepped in to work directly with the designer on supplying furniture or fabric where needed.
It's this sense of teamwork, attention to detail, vision and urgency that propel Immke's chain account activity. In the last few years, his roster of chain accounts has grown to include multiple Quaker Steak & Lube restaurants around the country as well as Hofbrauhaus in Columbus, a design-build project with rapid expansion plans, and about 10 Beer Market locations in Cleveland, the Chicago area and other markets. Immke also does work for local Cleveland chains Panini's and Bricco Restaurant, a referral from Schindler, as well as Copeland's in New Orleans.
Immke is working on an exciting and tasty new endeavor close to home — with details he can't disclose publicly just yet. Menu testing for this venture by a local franchisee has gone on daily at the TriMark SS Kemp test kitchen, where Immke set up three tandoori ovens and combis for experimentation. He pats his belly talking about the fun times, and then I realize the reason for the salad lunches and dinners this week.
The trick to working with chains, Immke explains, is not just being there when they need something, but really, really being there. "Chains are extremely demanding and want everything now, even if they make the request late in the day. I try to get them an answer in an hour, and if I know I can't, I tell them right away it might have to wait until tomorrow," he says.
This type of work also means going through different channels to get the right answer. "They might call and say, 'Our fryers aren't keeping up. What do you think the problem is?' They'll usually want to call a service agent right away to check it out, but I always try to call the store first to ask some questions. Is the gas hose connected? How about the shut-off valve? Is it parallel with the line, or is it up? Sometimes they just have the gas inadvertently shut off."
A similar situation happened during lunch at Delmonico's when Schindler's partner asked Immke to check out a malfunctioning refrigerator. Turned out, it was a matter of turning on a simple switch. All those years of fieldwork continue to pay dividends.
Immke also makes a point of planning for the next year when working with chains. Doing so helps Immke's supply chain partners prepare, too. "I always try to sit down with my customers and go through what we're doing next year, what is our reality, what are our expectations, what could we do, what would be the worst-case scenario," he says. "That way, when I go to the manufacturers, I have a forecast of what my business is going to be next year, and they know exactly what I will need from them. I told one furniture company once I was going to order 1,000 units of a product in the coming year, so be ready."
The manufacturers and reps appreciate the planning, too. This sense of trust and good rapport have earned Immke solid footing as a supply chain partner in the industry. "I never ask for special favors or deals unless I really need it," Immke adds. "I try not to beat up the vendors."
Stop 3: Lizardville and Winking Lizard
Last, but certainly not least on our tour, we swing by Lizardville, the craft beer shop and cozy bar across from the larger Winking Lizard beer hall and sports bar in Bedford.
This is just one of three (soon to be four) Lizardville locations and 14 Winking Lizards. Jim Callam also owns Wink's, a newer concept in downtown Cleveland focused on local Cleveland beer and food, plus small-batch whiskeys and a more chef-driven menu, with plans for expansion.
We belly up to the wooden bar lined with beer taps, specialty whiskeys and miniature replicas of the iconic, leggy, fishnet-wearing lamp from Bob Clark's 1983 A Christmas Story (filmed in Cleveland, of course). Behind us, rows upon rows of hard-to-find Belgians, rare, single-batch domestics and other interesting craft beers pack the wall, available for individual purchase or custom six-pack making. Nearby, a refurbished, old-fashioned cooler in the shape of a beer bottle chills beverages to the perfect temperature. Immke says he's helped Callam come up with some interesting pieces like these to fit his unique needs here, from reach-in coolers with pass-through doors connecting the indoor and outdoor bars, to special mug frosters and another beer chiller made from a box of sorts with high-speed fans.
Immke has also outfitted Callam with special smokers and a series of blast chillers for Winking Lizard's larger-scale production in the commissary kitchen for all of the restaurants and the catering business. In fact, this side of the business goes through 3,000 to 4,000 racks of ribs a week. In addition to on-site banquets, Winking Lizard also runs an off-site catering service for parties and other get-togethers.
"Jim is the type of guy who never gets mad — ever," says Immke. Callam's low-key yet driven and smart attitude matches up with Immke's goals. Their love of food and hospitality also runs deep; Callam spent years as a cook and kitchen manager.
"I always go with Bill's recommendations," Callam says. "He knows his products but also what we're trying to accomplish. We have a very casual working relationship. I can pick up the phone and call Bill anytime, and he's very responsive."
"I've been told not a lot of people do what I do anymore," Immke says, referring to this type of on-the-call behavior and his no-fear attitude toward on-site installations and regular follow-up.
Sometimes, old school is the new school.
Cleveland and Clevelanders are easily misunderstood. Mention Cleveland, and many people think: middle of the country, setting for A Christmas Story, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but what else? For many, it takes a visit or two to get beyond these nuggets and see the down-to-earth people; tons of local produce, meats, and other foods; and a lakefront to rival the best of them. Fact is, Cleveland covers the range — from down-home cooking and dive bars to four-star restaurants run by acclaimed chefs, handcrafted cocktails and an exploding craft beer scene.
In a sense, Immke embodies his city.
An East Sider, he prefers neighborhood joints and Yuengling beer, and he knows what a purple-magenta sunset looks like by boat at the end of a long day. Every week he catches up with his old friends in his neighborhood. But he can still throw on a suit, rock a Robert Graham shirt, travel the country and golf with the best of them.
Horatio would be proud.