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FE&S' 2014 DSR of the Year: Jason Sem

A few things about Jason Sem, FE&S’ 2014 DSR of the Year and a nearly 10-year veteran of R.W. Smith & Co.: The past 8 years running he’s won a trip to Europe because of his outstanding sales figures. Sem grossed $1.3 million last year and projects $1.5 million or more for this year. He married his wife, Carrie, 10 years ago this September overlooking the ocean in a beautiful park in Carmel, Calif. After a chance meeting on the street, the duo rekindled what was a brief college romance 10 years after the fact. The Marin County native admits he can’t swim well but loves the ocean and has even been abalone diving. While he can rock the nice pants, shirt and tie, and black-rimmed glasses each day, the blonde fauxhawk offers a look at the real Sem — a fan of metal bands and the Beastie Boys. His baby face shows 43 is the new 20.

JasonSem LureTillJason Sem was photographed at Lure + Till in Palo Alto, Calif. Photo by Craig Lee PhotographyTrue to his California upbringing, Jason Sem is just a cool and laid-back guy. And in just two days' time, we've become friends. I even got to befriend his super-friendly wife — also a customer-service-driven, not pushy, salesperson — who works in the dental industry.

"I'm kind of a big deal now," Sem would say to Carrie with a sarcastic yet endearing smile behind the scenes. That was the running joke during my visit. But that's just it. Sem doesn't take himself too seriously. "I'm selling pots and pans, not performing brain surgery," he says.

Still, even though he took a few lighthearted shots from his customers (who are also his friends), they turned to me when he wasn't looking to say they were very proud of his well-deserved recognition. It takes a master serviceperson and someone with years of experience from the operator side to really understand what his customers want and need — even before they know themselves. They told me this, and from what I could see, it was clearly true. They want someone who will answer emails at 2 a.m. and drive 500 miles a week to visit up to 12 customers a day (yes, he does this). They want someone who sends email follow-ups and fills orders immediately after a meeting, and then follows up again in person to make sure the orders have come in right — someone who gets samples sent to his house, not to the customer directly, so he can bring them in to talk about the stuff in person.

"All this doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is," says Miriam Russell-Wadleigh, executive chef of Piacere, a restaurant in San Carlos, Calif. She's worked with Sem for nearly 10 years since his beginnings as a salesperson. For Russell-Wadleigh, getting what she needed — and not having it arrive broken — on a consistent basis was an issue with other suppliers. "Jason is able to really anticipate what we need and is great at understanding what fits in the style of restaurant and with our budget. He knows from a practical standpoint what's best in terms of durability but also from an aesthetic standpoint." Most importantly, she notes, "he's there when we need him and works to meet our deadlines."

Matthew Meidinger, director of restaurant openings, transitions and concept development for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, concurs. "Jason and I interact nearly every day — he is incredibly responsive, throws together extensive cut sheets for orders containing hundreds of line items, answers my requests at all hours of the day and days of the week, sends samples all over the country for me, flies to cities to help put on presentations for third-party owners of mine, and meets me at the delivery date whenever we're receiving a major shipment to help check in all product and confirm that it was received in good condition," says Meidinger. "I stay loyal to Jason specifically, not necessarily R.W. Smith & Co. as a whole, because I know he will do what it takes to get the job done accurately, on time and at a fair price. He builds relationships and has earned my trust."

Sem may be laid-back on the outside — the California cool thing works for him — but he gets things done, and done well. Instead of a sales guy, he seems more like a "relationship professional" to me. My words, not his. Many in the foodservice industry say it's all about the relationships, but Sem truly embodies that mentality.

"Showing up is key," Sem says. "Out here the pressure sell doesn't work — people are way more laid-back and want to talk, unlike in the city where you might get 15 minutes with someone. I try to learn more about my customer and befriend them because not only are you bonding over what they like to talk about, you get that sense of trust, and then it's you who they are going to call when they need something — not the guy who never comes to see them."

Building a Business

Sem considers himself lucky that R.W. Smith & Co. gives him the autonomy to essentially "build a business within a business." Working on 100 percent commission and having a stake in R.W. Smith & Co. through the dealer's employee stock ownership program provides even more incentive to do well. And the company-paid trips overseas for hard-working team members like Sem aren't bad either.

And to think Sem's roster of 150 accounts started from so little. With just a few leads on his first day covering the South San Francisco Bay area, Sem had to make it on his own. "I called it dumpster diving," he says with a chuckle. Dumpster what? I pictured him jumping into garbage cans rifling for a lost dental retainer.

"No, I mean, that's where the kitchen is," he clarifies. "I would find a dumpster, which usually meant there was a restaurant, and start at the back door. It's always nice to have the chef on your side before you're hitting the food and beverage guy." A gentle explanation of his company or soft-sell approach — can I help you save some money or get what you need? — usually got Sem in the door and on a path to a long relationship, something the big broadliners didn't always provide.

If the customer turns out to be the buying kind, from that point on "I'm always available. If someone calls, I try to call them back within the hour, and I'm up all hours of the night," Sem says. Do you sleep? I ask. "Sometimes. I'm like a vampire."

It's at 5 a.m. every day that he says he finds his quiet peace before the day begins. After that, it's a series of emails and calls to East Coast customers, and then out the door seeing local customers, placing orders and doing follow-ups in between visits until about 6 or 7 at night.

To say Sem covers a lot of ground is an understatement. He's been known to drive up to 500 miles in a single week. He bought a 2-year-old Mercedes with 20,000 miles on it and proceeded to put another 145,000 miles on the odometer. Before the Mercedes — which he says he was reluctant to buy because of the snob factor — he burned through the engines and tires on two other cars. "I needed something durable — and comfortable." Given that he averages nearly 20,000 miles a year, that's plain to see.

Nowadays, of those 150 accounts, about 20 percent make up Sem's core business, including big hotel chains, country clubs, a couple of healthcare facilities and new restaurant openings around the country. The rest of his business comes from replacement and street sales, the independent restaurants that order a set of forks every now and then. He still maintains solid working relationships with those customers, but the big hotels and other high-volume operators drive Sem's business. Tabletop, R.W. Smith's specialty, accounts for nearly 85 percent of his sales. That's a feat considering large-scale equipment sells for a lot more.

"How do you pick new restaurants to visit?" I ask. "I look at the size — if the place is at least 40 or 50 seats and seems like it's doing well, I'll stop in for lunch," he says. "If it's busy and the food's solid, I'll bring Carrie back to dinner." He admits the duo is good at "making new friends" when dining out. New relationships usually begin by chatting up the owner or manager, and when they find out what he does, they often suggest Sem come back to visit. The place we stopped for lunch the first day, Town — an all-American, steakhouse-and-business-lunch type of restaurant in San Carlos that turns its tables well — became a customer that way. It helps that dining out is a "hobby," though he's lost 40 pounds cutting back a bit.

Restaurant Rewind

Sem easily credits his background in the restaurant industry with propelling him as a salesperson and enabling him to "read" his customers (i.e., know when they have time to talk and when they clearly don't).

Sem's first job at 15 was working as a busser, dishwasher and everything guy at Hilltop Café, a local restaurant in Marin County. He later spent summers bartending and waiting tables at McInnis Golf Club in Marin County. That's where his mentor, Gerard Giudice, then the owner, taught him everything he knows in the biz. "Not only did Gerard teach me the ropes, he taught me compassion and to give back," says Sem. "Gerard gives so much of himself. He volunteers for everything and is even president of the Rotary Club and so many other organizations and does so much for so many other people without expecting anything in return." The two still talk all the time.

But it was Sem's stepfather who encouraged him to go to college. "He was a mechanic — a very hard-working man," says Sem. "Every summer I worked in construction or landscaping, and after high school he said, 'You can do what I do or go to school and hopefully do something better.' I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to go to school."

So Sem enrolled at Sacramento State. But restaurants and the hotel industry, specifically, lured him back. After a life-changing corporate training program in hotel management at the Hyatt in San Francisco, Sem again came back to Giudice, who recruited the 24-year-old to serve as the food and beverage manager for the Oakmont Golf Club.

Landing at R.W. Smith & Co.

It wasn't just a loyalty to Giudice that lured Sem back to foodservice, it was an affinity for the entire industry. After a brief time working for a rental management company, he missed his old world.

Aside from his minor stint in the kitchen at Hilltop Café, though, Sem never had the inclination to go the cooking route professionally, though he loves cooking at home, especially during dinner parties. He even prefers to skip the local fast-food burger for one of his own making.

Still, Sem knew something about the restaurant and hotel world was always for him. "I always liked the camaraderie of working in restaurants," he says. "At that point I was my own boss all day long, which is sort of how it is now, but still really feel like part of a team. I missed the interaction with the actual client, whether it be putting food down at the table or sitting and talking to them at the host stand. I need that customer
relationship, and for me I need to really feel a part of a team."

Just as he was looking to get back in the industry, R.W. Smith & Co. called after landing on an old resume of his they found on Monster.com. "I had an interview the next day, and they thought I was a great fit right away."

Turns out he was. "We are very fortunate to have Jason as part of our team today," says Allan Keck, R.W. Smith & Co. president. "From the time he started in 2005, Jason has lived our mantra that receiving an order from a customer is our marketing opportunity for our next sale. Jason truly looks at the lifetime value of a customer and holds us all accountable to deliver on our promise, improving the profits and lives of our customers, one at a time."

With his San Francisco team Sem quickly found the autonomy mixed with that camaraderie he craved. Although he works alone covering the peninsula, Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz, he calls on the other Bay Area sales reps to share ideas and tips. "Jason's dedication, enthusiasm and insight are really inspiring. He is one of the most hardworking, determined, and dedicated individuals I know, who constantly challenges and inspires me to do my best," says Yesenia Lopez, a senior business development manager for R.W. Smith & Co. "He definitely is someone I look up to and strive to be more like."

He always works closely with R.W. Smith's design-build team to fill orders and see projects through around the country. And manufacturer's reps have become great assets, teaching him about the technicalities of bigger equipment as well as giving him new leads. He relies on Melissa Zbriger Miller, regional sales manager, "to make it all happen."

She had pretty nice things to say about Sem, too. "I have had the pleasure of working with Jason for almost 10 years," says Miller. "We began as colleagues in the San Francisco territory, and I became his manager in August 2010. Jason has an incredible work ethic. He completely dedicates himself to his customers and always goes the extra mile to make sure his customers receive excellent service."

Miller points out that, for Sem's larger projects, he'll even create full showroom presentations of samples, and he constantly remains in touch with out-of-state customers via email, phone and text. "As his manager, I know I can always count on him to take on an assignment, lead or new initiative; once he is committed to something, he dives headfirst and doesn't give up," she adds.

Though Sem says he doesn't see sales as customer service, in many ways it's just that, and that's part of what has helped R.W. Smith & Co. grow and build a strong reputation over the years. "I like that every day is new," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. It could all fall apart right now — we could get a call and have to run to San Francisco to fix a stove. Or we could get a call for a $100,000 sale, which I would love." (Chuckle.)

Hotel Happy

At our first stop at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Burlingame, not far from where Sem lives, he wheels a dolly with a box full of samples and catalogues — but not too many (more on that later). A severe car accident at 17 years old left his spine permanently damaged, and Sem can still feel the pain in his back and knees every now and then.

The dolly was a good investment, he says.

We enter through the kitchen, naturally, meeting the food and beverage manager to discuss new options for a condiments tray. This restaurant's current condiment tray consists of a collection of black plastic bar containers overflowing a wooden tray. Sem snaps a picture and promises to get back quickly with a better solution to fit in with the nice, contemporary setup he just helped build for the new breakfast buffet. He follows up later that day.

That evening we head back to the Marriot Waterfront on the way back to Burlingame to catch chef Dion Hawkins, whom we missed earlier. We're weaving in and out of the kitchen at lightning speed as usual. Sem whips out a cool glass dish for oysters. Hawkins loves it. Order taken. But Sem will also research a couple of sauce containers to fit the plate so it'll work better. Hugs all around. Literally.

When we visit another Marriot in Freemont to review china samples, Sem intentionally brings in a lighter load. "I try not to give my customers a stack of catalogues in their face," says Sem. "I went them to actually read the stuff."

That's the nice thing about Sem — he's not at all pushy, taking out only one or two samples to show at a time so as not to overwhelm his customers. When a chef's just about done thinking about ways to use the new plates, Sem might introduce a small brochure on some new food safety-related items or point out new coffee mugs that can save a few bucks. When he does show a brochure, Sem will keep the page open and circle the items in question.

Samples and catalogues really serve as mere talking points for Sem, and for the chefs, as creative outlets to help them think about all the different presentations and menu items they can make with the new plates. A few times during the trip, when Sem is talking to chefs, I notice their eyes widen as they dream up all the dishes they could prepare — from Asian-style crudo using curvy, ocean-colored glass plates to small stacked salads on square, slate-colored platters.

"Samples are fun because at worst people just pick them up and say, 'I hate this,'" Sem says. "And then I can ask, 'Well, why do you hate it?' If that leads me to selling better things, great."

Sem's been able to expand his offerings even more since R.W. Smith & Co. developed its own line of proprietary china and smallwares a few years ago. And because he truly trusts the products' durability, Sem enjoys showing them. Lately, R.W. Smith & Co. has expanded its e-commerce program to encourage more buying online, but Sem believes in solid one-on-one time with bigger customers. Still, he'll walk customers through the new site, even throwing a few things in their shopping basket to point out new products. Just another selling tool, another "edge."

Sem has incorporated digital technology into his daily tasks too. Instead of the traditional paper-and-pen duo, when visiting with customers, Sem uses his company-issued tablet computer to take notes, fill orders and follow up then or right afterward using his trusty Wi-Fi mobile hot spot. When he does have a little downtime, he'll read articles, manufacturer newsletters and websites to keep up on the latest trends. After visiting shows, he's even made small customer presentations documenting the hottest tabletop items.

Later that afternoon, we drive to Palo Alto to visit the then three-month-old restaurant The Epiphany, Joie de Vivre hotel group's hot, new Bay Area property.

This is a typical day and drive for Sem. We'll end up clocking about 80 miles today throughout Burlingame (where he lives), Freemont, San Carlos, Palo Alto and elsewhere along the southern San Francisco Bay. It's June, and the terrain is brown and crackly. At one point the Bay looks like it literally dried up. "This has been one of our driest seasons," says Sem, pointing out the wildfires that tore through the state.

Mostly Sem drives around California, but he'll travel by air a couple of days each month to oversee new openings around the country. Lately, he's been traveling a little more as Kimpton Hotels, another customer, expands around the state and country. The 60-unit company plans 8 new openings, including locations in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Savannah. The night before we met, Sem had flown home from San Antonio where he's been helping with the development of Kimpton's Hotel Emma, set to open in February 2015. Later this fall, he'll fly to Steelite's showroom in Chicago to host a huge presentation for Joie de Vivre, which has been looking to streamline its tabletop selection across the company's rapidly expanding portfolio of properties. Should be a good time.

It's just after lunch now, and Sem's still going strong. I begin to wonder what's with these DSRs and their walking like the speed of light. Maybe it's Sem's six-foot frame, but it's also this sense of urgency and hustle — a dying art, frankly — that makes people responsive and good at what they do. Maybe it's all those days on the wrestling team and growing up with that blue-collar mentality.

At The Epiphany, Sem's weaving again, this time through a tiny kitchen to share samples with the chef and chat up the hotel managers. Once again, the samples are a hit. Even the pastry chef comes over, eyes widening, talking about all the things she wants to make with the curvy glass vessels, showing tabletop truly is the fashion side of the industry.

The Independents

Later that afternoon we head over to the Peninsula Golf and Country Club in San Mateo. By now we're at stop six; Sem has some serious stamina. Other than a brief refueling for gas and coffee, he's still raring to go.

Brian Wong, the clubhouse manager, knows this. "He's a friendly guy who looks after our best interest," Wong says. "When I call, Jason comes. When I email, he writes back, even at the airport about to go on vacation. That's about the only time I say I don't want to talk to you."

At the Peninsula Golf and Country Club, Wong points out a few pitchers that need to be replaced because of refilling issues, and Sem takes note of the difficulty servers experience each day in dealing with the pitchers. We walk the grounds to take a look at some new renovations and see if there's anything else that's needed, and then it's off to the next visit.

Working with country clubs, but more so with independent restaurants, Sem admits, involves a lot of day-to-day follow-up like this and stopping by to talk and show you care. Today, we visit Piacere in San Carlos to help Russell-Wadleigh look for new wine glasses that don't break as regularly as the current iteration. Sem suggests watching the dish station to see if the racks — and dishwasher — might also be part of the problem and offers to help with proper sizing if that's the case. He shows her a couple of platters for her branzino idea — they match the decor perfectly and reflect prettily under the dining room skylights. She's intrigued, and then he makes a sale out of the trunk of his car where he's kept the rest of the samples. He kids, "Ever been to a trunk sale?"

Sem's interactions at Milagros, the eclectic Mexican restaurant in San Mateo where we shoot some photos the next day, also have that kind of street-sales, "bestie" vibe. "As long as you show you're going to show up every week, eventually they're going to buy something from you — maybe it's out of guilt," says Sem with a laugh. Oh, but it's so much more than that.

If he only knew.

Jason Up Close

  • Age: 43
  • Hometown: Novato, Calif.
  • First job in foodservice: dishwasher/busser at Hilltop Café in Marin County Hobbies: Golf, travel, wine tastings, dining out, riding ATVs
  • Favorite restaurant: Arzak in San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Favorite food to cook: Indian food
  • Last year's sales: $1.3 million
  • This year's projected sales: over $1.5 million
  • Percent of sales from tabletop orders: 85
  • Mentor: Gerard Giudice, owner, Sally Tomatoes, and former owner/manager at Hilltop Café, McInnis Park Golf and Oakmont Golf Club
  • Best advice ever given: Either find a job in the trades or go to college. He chose college.
  • Best advice he would give someone else just starting out: Don't give up establishing relationships — they take time!
  • Family: Carrie Sem, wife (10 years this September); two brothers and one sister; cat named Woobie
  • Nicknames: Snowdog, Semster
  • Favorite band: Beastie Boys
  • One funny thing people may not know: "I am a goofball and always talking to myself!"

 

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