Download our iPad App

FE&S's 2015 DSR of the Year, Troy Jacobsen, Hockenbergs, Eagan, Minn.

Jacobsen's the type to quote movies and make quick-witted jokes so fast that if you're not paying attention, you'll easily miss them.

Clever at heart, Jacobsen admits he's a "technical geek" and isn't afraid to admit that he was a good student with "good retention." That came in handy while going through grueling coursework at the University of Wisconsin–Stout where Jacobsen earned his manufacturing engineering management degree, which included courses on robotics, computer-handed manufacturing, drafting, CAD, scheduling, business, accounting, physics, algebra, calculus and even hands-on material welding.

Of course, the math whiz loved it all. He didn't even mind the technical writing, having taken honors English in high school. "I was always interested in the more technical side of things, and I liked manufacturing and production," he says, explaining the career choice.

At the same time, Jacobsen worked outside of school at another restaurant, Grandma's Saloon & Grill, where he moved up to senior sous chef and assistant kitchen manager, overseeing $80,000 in sales a week, including $5,000 to $6,000 in sales for lunch. He was good at it, he admits, but the work wasn't the type of mental challenge he was looking for in his coursework, and the hours were wearing him down fast.

So in 1999, he took a job in inside sales at JTS-Deluca, a local restaurant equipment dealership. Six months later he was moved to outside sales and then into project management. It was only a year after joining JTS that Hockenbergs bought out the company.

"During the transition, our contract department was two CAD guys and myself, so things got pretty crazy fast, and I got a lot of phone calls asking about projects and having to fill in," says Jacobsen, noting Hockenbergs kept him on board and even hired back some former JTS employees.

Little did he realize at the time that this juggling and quick learning on his feet would help Jacobsen excel tremendously in the future.

The Hockenbergs Transition

In 2000, when the century-plus-old, Omaha, Neb.-based Hockenbergs came to town, Jacobsen quickly fell in with the team, particularly Tom Schrack Jr. (now president), Tim Schrack, and David (Dave) Schrack, who would become his mentor before tragically passing away in 2011. He got to know the crew during a weekend of counting inventory and going through the entire warehouse.

"Honesty and integrity are two of our main values, and Troy exemplifies both of those very well. I never have to worry about him trying to change a spec or doing anything else we wouldn't want attached to the Hockenbergs name," says Tom Schrack Jr. "I have always completely trusted Troy. He is very knowledgeable in the industry, especially when it comes to working on schools, stadiums and university projects. He is an easy guy to get along with and very professional in what he does."

And then there were company-family Christmas party weekends in Omaha, golf outings, and other get-togethers over the years that have made Jacobsen a member of the close-knit Hockenbergs family. I say that because, as many in this industry know, Hockenbergs may be one of the largest dealers in the country, but the company operates its 10 branches nationwide as one giant family.

"It's great to be part of Hockenbergs and that the bosses let me do my thing here at the Eagan office," says Jacobsen. That's the Hockenbergs way — grow the business not by just buying out other businesses but giving them the autonomy to capitalize on their local and regional economies and do what they do best.

Working at Hockenbergs has essentially become the perfect job for Jacobsen, a way to combine his culinary background with his love of construction project management. "I'll sell whatever people want me to sell, but I try to offer them the best products that will work with their concept and the type of cooking they are doing," he says. For example, if an operation makes a lot of "caustic" or acidic sauces, like Indian food, that can actually eat away at the lining of a refrigerator so the unit should have a stainless steel interior. Another: sushi-grade product must be held at lower temperatures than traditional coolers, so it's helpful to encourage operators to choose wisely.

"I always tell new restaurant owners, I am going to ask you a bunch of questions and you may not know the answer right away, but you will need to find out," he says. That includes, "Do you know your food costs?" Those details impact equipment selection whether operators initially realize it or not.

It's this up-front and direct attitude that helps Jacobsen make and retain many long-lasting customers. "I try to be responsive and realistic," he says. "I don't want to just upgrade them like I'm selling them a Lexus — I want to get them the right products that will be great now and in the future."

He's also honest. "I sleep at night because I don't have to cover a lie with another lie," he says. "If I have a bad ship date, I'm not going to say, 'Oh, I'm going to check, we're trying hard, I'm not sure, but I'll get back to you.' I just give the straight answer. Why create lies and deceive people when they are supposed to be your customers? I don't want to work with people just once. And not just that, these are peoples' livelihoods."

In February 2014, Hockenbergs announced it bought design-build dealer Grand Restaurant Equipment & Design in Plymouth, Minn., bringing the total number of offices in that state to two, including the Eagan location.

Holy Land

People can stereotype Minnesota as being a homogenous state. But Minneapolis' huge Muslim and Somalian communities and a host of other ethnicities disprove that notion, Jacobsen points out.

"I've learned more about Middle Eastern culture working with Majdi," he says, referencing Majdi Wadi, the Jordanian owner of Holy Land, an imported gourmet grocery, bakery and deli/restaurant that makes everything from scratch. "He's worked hard to bring in the whole Muslim community since the '80s when he opened, and he's grown tremendously."

In fact, when we enter the expansive grocery-meets-restaurant, we get a tour of the back kitchen, which houses a super-efficient commissary for Wadi's massive hummus production, which includes nine flavors sold in his store as well as a $2 million production for Costco. We later try the hummus, and it's good. "No water added," Wadi boasts.

You would think Jacobsen just helped with the equipment for the restaurant side, but no, he worked with Tom Skotnicki, vice president of information technology at Hockenbergs, who has worked on major commissary projects, to design the high-volume hummus line in the tight space.

"They were here 24/7 helping out," Wadi recalls. "What I love about Troy is he gets back to me — I text him on Sunday, and he'll text me back. Yes, that's his job, but he wants to make you feel like it's a partnership."

Jacobsen even helped Wadi with the paperwork required for buying the hummus-making equipment overseas — going through Hockenbergs for the products would have cost well over Wadi's budget. "I want to take some of his money, but not all of it," says Jacobsen jokingly. Wadi has returned the favor with repeat business as he expands.

Dino's Mediterranean

While headed to Dino's Mediterranean, a fast-casual Greek concept in the area, we drive around the pretty UM campus, where Jacobsen casually points out a few of his projects, including a $50 million residence hall project that includes a $1.9 million cafeteria that he worked on with his design consultant friends from Robert Rippe & Associates. The cafeteria features a huge, top-notch gourmet kitchen. He also points out a family-owned place, Burrito Loco, he has helped over the years.

Jacobsen is not one to put numbers around things, of course, but this is for the magazine writer trying to get an idea of the scope of the deal. In addition to the TCF Bank stadium, he's also worked on The Barn, home of the university's basketball team, Mariucci Arena, Ridder Arena, and multiple locations throughout the U of M campus.

This particular Dino's location is lucky enough to sit in the middle of it all, even drawing revenue from its concession stand and carts at TCF Stadium. Along with the other five locations, Dino's has a permanent stand at the state fair grounds.

At Dino's, second-generation owner Jason Adamidis explains how the concept recently opened up its kitchen and set up an up-front, refrigerated serving line for a more customizable ordering system akin to Chipotle. You pick your pita sandwich, salad, rice bowl or plate and then your protein (gyro, rotisserie chicken), sauces and other toppings, or customers can choose from some made-to-order specialties. All of the equipment, including the four gyro rotisseries, can be seen from the counter now. Of course, Jacobsen helped with it all, except for the rotisseries, which he says he can't get for less than the operator can simply ordering direct from the vendor.

Adamidis hopes the new layout will not only bring the 37-year-old concept up to speed and make it a more replicable concept but also cater to the huge college and millennial customer base looking for that Chipotle effect.

Surly Brewery

OK, I've saved the best for last. We stop for lunch at the new headquarters of Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, otherwise known by locals as "the Mecca" and a $30 million, new-build project ($1.4 million of which was contracted for foodservice alone).

This truly does seem like a beer mecca, with its massive silver brewing tanks enclosed by a 30-foot-tall glass wall overlooking the main dining room, bar, retail store and wooden, deck-like patio beyond. Encircling the building are paved grounds where happy hour patrons can order beer from a separate line at the indoor bar and then hang out while waiting for a table for food, which can take up to 3 hours on weekends, Jacobsen notes. And this on-site brewery is nothing to sneeze at — by the end of this year, Jacobsen's been told, the 8-year-old craft beer institution with a cult following will be able to produce 100,000 barrels annually. Oh, and the entire upstairs features an expansive event space and a separate dining concept, serving even finer food in a more intimate, glassed-in section.

The new restaurant and bar feel like a breezy, indoor-outdoor party in Los Angeles, but we're in Minnesota (thankfully, during summer). The smell of earthy hops from the brewery side seeps into the dining space, outfitted in head-to-toe wood with wood walls, blonde wood tables made from reclaimed Minnesota elms and a long, wooden bar with a funky, alternating red and blue LED wall light display. Even the chairs are "sustainable," in that each is made with 150 Coca-Cola bottles; the outdoor furniture was made from reclaimed milk jugs. Jacobsen helped order it all, with the exception of the elm tables.

The food also stands out, thanks to the recruitment of acclaimed chef Jorge Guzman. The eclectic menu of griddled burgers, handmade gnocchi and barbecued brisket with homemade barbecue sauce fits perfectly with the eclectic beer menu, from lighter brews to ambers, stouts and even one infused with cacao beans and vanilla for a caffeinated kick.

While the new chef did wonders for the brewery, the possibilities he opened up did throw a slight wrench into the build-out project. "Food originally wasn't meant to be a focus — it was all about the beer — but once they got a great chef on board they realized food could be another part of the draw," says Jacobsen, who worked closely with Linda Haug, Surly's director of hospitality, and Steve Carlson of Robert Rippe & Associates, the lead designer on the project, to remodel the kitchen and outfit it with the proper equipment just six months before opening.

"Hockenbergs was my emergency place for parts from my time of owning a small restaurant in south Minneapolis," Haug explains. "What set Troy's bid apart for Surly from the beginning was that he followed our directions on how we wanted to see the bid formatted. Once I met Troy and his team in person I knew we had found the company that we would work with. I felt that Troy respected me and my role with Surly from the very beginning of the meeting. As a woman in a male-dominated field, brewing and kitchens, I am used to being shown less respect than what a male in a meeting might get. Troy treated me, and more importantly, our project with respect.

"Troy has always been there when we needed him; communication is always fast," she continues. "Troy and his team at Hockenbergs have not let us down."

Jacobsen admits, though, the Surly project featured a pretty compressed schedule and was "frankly quite stressful," from July to December of this past year.

Jacobsen even brought beer tap specialists to complete the front-of-the-house tap system that Robert Rippe & Associates started. When a leak occurred, late on a Saturday night, days before opening, he rushed his "beer guys" over and helped fix the problem in just eight hours.

While we're on the subject of Robert Rippe & Associates, Jacobsen admits he walks a fine line with design consultants because Hockenbergs has its own design team. "I'm a dealer with our own design manager, two full-time CAD designers including one who works in BIM and an intern, so it could be easy to step in and take over all the design," Jacobsen says. "We value the relationship with the design consultants, and the work they have done with the end user. Our goal is to make sure the consultant and customer are truly happy with the end result."

It's this strong relationship, not only with Rippe but other design firms, that has made Jacobsen easy to work with and has helped his company get the job even over other dealers.

At Surly, the brewery's motto spells it all out right on the menu: "The beer is what matters most, above everything else. We don't make beer for everyone. Beer for everyone is beer for no one. Our philosophy? Make great beer. Have fun. Give a damn about your community. Be independent. [Don't be a jerk — though Surly puts it more strongly.]"

This could easily be Jacobsen's motto — minus the language and "surly-ness." His classic work ethic and his no B.S., friendly, loyal and community-driven persona make it easy to see why he has great business partners and friends. And access to great beer, don't cha know.

Related Articles