Executive Refreshments is celebrating its 20th year with the wisdom gleaned through the test of time and relentless pursuit of the ever-advancing possibilities ahead. The father-and-son duo who lead the business credit their decades of success to their versatility, personability and an emphasis on respect and integrity.
In 2003, Lou Baresh had recently retired from a 30-year career as a regional sales director with General Mills. “But I had a few days left in my life,” he quipped. “So, I decided to open up a business. I didn’t know exactly what it would be. I had been doing some research on various businesses and, quite honestly, not anything to do with vending, just different industries, because I knew I was going to do something afterwards.”
Then, by chance, Lou ran into someone who happened to be in the industry. The conversation led Lou to an operator with a small OCS route who was willing to sell. Despite having almost no industry knowledge, Lou jumped on the opportunity.
“I said, what the heck? I don’t even understand OCS; I don’t understand vending. So what? Let’s see what happens.” Lou bought out the operator’s handful of customers and then found himself swimming solo in the deep end of his new venture.
“The previous owner worked with me for about three weeks and said, ‘You’re on your own.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you find new customers? How do you do this?’” So, Lou bought a box truck, rented a storage unit and got to work.
Aside from building his business with a handful of referrals, Lou spent the bulk of his time making cold calls. He was a one-man show, driving his box truck, making deliveries, and meeting with potential customers. “I would run the route. If I had an appointment, I’d have my dress clothes with me,” he reminisced. “I’d stop somewhere, change clothes and go to the appointment.”
After four months, Lou hired his first employee, who handled the bookkeeping so the fledgling operator could focus on sales, while both continued to run their respective routes.
Lou credits much of Executive Refreshments’ success to slow, steady growth. The company never leveraged credit or went into debt and, to this day, has remained debt-free. “I must have some angels watching out for me, but the growth was at a level where I could afford to pay for things as I went,” Lou commented.
For nearly a decade, Executive Refreshments continued as a two-man show. With a solid foundation, Lou decided to bring on a few salespeople to handle cold call and referral volume.
Lou says that his biggest hurdle entering the convenience service space was learning to service and repair the myriad of machinery and equipment on the fly. “I had no knowledge about vending in particular and had no expertise in coffee brewers. But I took on anything,” he recalled.
Until 2014, micro markets were not even on Lou’s radar, and vending represented only a fraction of Executive Refreshments’ business; OCS accounted for the lion’s share. Being adaptable and open to the growing trends, Lou began expanding and diversifying his convenience services. By 2015, Executive Refreshments’ breakdown was approximately 60% OCS, 30% micro markets and 10% vending. Incorporating micro markets into the company’s offerings only set the stage for what was yet to come … and what’s ahead.
Louis joins the team
In April 2020, Lou brought on his now 26-year-old son, Louis, as his right-hand man. Although they share the same name, the father-son duo settled on a distinction between the two. “My father’s real name is Louis, but he prefers to go by Lou. My parents named me Louis, and I liked the name, so I go by Louis,” the younger operator joked.
Upon graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in business management, Louis began a career with Ben E. Keith, a regional food and beverage distributor based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in Texas. Working as a sales representative and then as a supply chain analyst, Louis developed a thorough understanding of food and beverage sales and distribution. Laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, Louis was armed with the skillset and passion to join his father’s business.
Louis is now pursuing his MBA at Southern Methodist University, and he is an Automatic Merchandiser 40 Under 40 Award recipient, which recognizes young professionals who are making a difference in the convenience services industry.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many operators were concerned for the future of the vending industry – and rightfully so. But Louis only saw huge potential. “I always tell people that it was the best time to join the industry when everything shut down,” he said.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the OCS industry was in a state of disarray, as workers were sent home and office doors were closed. While others panicked, Lou doubled-down in pursuit of new opportunities. “We didn’t put our head in the sand and get afraid,” he commented. “Whenever there are things that are upsetting, or uncertain, there are opportunities.”
While many of the large players in the industry scaled back their operations, Executive Refreshments dove into the fire head-first and sought to fill the gaps that were created in the market. “We could turn and be very nimble and offer things that our competitors weren’t doing,” according to Lou.
That opportunity was micro markets and pantries. “With COVID, micro markets and pantries really began to gain steam,” Louis reflected. “That’s where our business has grown. It has sustained us through COVID, and since then, our business has taken off.”
By taking over the day-to-day of sales and marketing operations, while bringing on new-school methods and practices, Louis freed up his father to focus on the big-picture and long-term growth of the company.
One of their first micro markets installed as a direct result of the pandemic was in an office space that previously had a cafeteria. After COVID, the office downsized from 1,000 to 700 staff members, and only 15% of staff were participating in the cafeteria. Executive Refreshments stepped in and pitched its micro market model, which proved to be a great success.
Follow the money
To continue growing through 2020 and beyond, Lou knew that he had to identify which sectors of the economy were still alive. He pitched his services to essential businesses and secured substantial new locations in that segment. The operators also worked to integrate an online ordering system, which brought in significant leads and website traffic.
As workers returned to the office, Executive Refreshments heavily targeted the tech sector, which boomed throughout the duration of the pandemic. “There were a lot of tech firms that were so flushed with cash that they were spending beaucoup money to keep their employees happy,” Louis recalled.
Executive Refreshments prides itself on offering a huge variety of products to meet customers’ exact wants and needs. “It’s a big differentiator. We’re willing to go out of our way to make sure that we’re getting the products that our customers will want,” Louis said. “And I always tell a potential customer, if there’s something that’s not on there that you want, let me know what it is and let me see what I can do. If I can’t find it, I’ll send them an Amazon link or something. I want to make sure that they’re able to get what they want.”
Executive Refreshments’ exemplary customer service speaks to its core values. From their customers to their employees, the operators place respect above all else. “We always want to have honesty and integrity, and treat everybody with respect,” Louis proclaimed. “And everything else follows behind that. Of course, we want to be profitable and successful; but if we do all those things, it will happen.”
This translates into how they run their business. The operators entrust each of their seven route drivers to cover each sector of the services provided at the accounts they serve, granting them autonomy in their work and decision-making.
Louis sees a tremendous benefit in each of Executive Refreshments’ drivers covering all facets of the business at each of their stops: office coffee service, micro markets, vending and pantry service.
“It’s a huge advantage, especially in the selling process. Everybody else in this market area, including the really big guys, has all these different drivers,” he pointed out. “And I tell our potential customers, ‘Hey, you’re going to have one driver who’s going to do your micro market, your coffee and your vending.’ They love that because they know that they’re going to be there servicing everything so they’re not waiting around for another person.”
With today’s rapid inflation, the rising cost of goods, food and shipping has created severe challenges for the vending industry. Lou knows the only way to continue thriving in this rapidly changing world is to – as Executive Refreshments has always done – adapt.
“We try to give very fair pricing,” Louis said. “And my big concern is at what point would the sticker be so high that the consumer stopped buying? I don’t know what’s coming down the road; but the surprising thing is, knock on wood, we’ve been able to pass on those advances in our pricing to our customers and the consumers.”
He attributes customers’ willingness to absorb their share of price hikes passed down through the supply chain to its simple yet enticing offering: Executive Refreshments offers high-quality, ready-made food and beverages at a reasonable price, competitive with supermarket and convenience store prices, with products delivered right to the customer’s doorstep and customized and merchandised to their specific tastes.
The nitty gritty
Still, OCS remains the bread and butter for Executive Refreshments. The operators place a large emphasis on providing first-rate coffee, which is reflected in their customers’ rave reviews. They work with Distant Lands Coffee, a roaster based in Tyler, Texas, to provide coffee to their customers’ specifications. “We let the customer make that decision. A lot of operators want to push their coffee, but whatever the customers want, we’re going to get for them,” Louis said.
Their go-to bean-to-cup coffee machine is the Zia by De Jong DUKE, which is easy to clean, has a sleek design and a user-friendly interface. For espresso, they use the fully automatic Sego-12 by Bravilor, which has a small footprint, intuitive touchscreen and easy maintenance.
Executive Refreshments’ point-of-sale software of choice for its micro markets is 365 Retail Markets’ solution. On the backend, the operators use Seed by Cantaloupe, and Cantaloupe credit card readers have proven top-rate for transactions.
‘Surround yourself with people smarter than you’
Louis will be the first one to admit if he lacks knowledge on a particular subject. For this reason, he surrounds himself with experts to achieve his goals, including working with a restaurant consultant to implement cutting-edge hot food technology and menu items in Executive Refreshments’ offerings.
“I’m not an expert in that field,” Louis said. “But you partner with these people who are experts, and you form very close relationships, and they’re going to help you because you’re going to help them be successful at the end of the day.”
The same holds true for partnering with brokers. “The brokers, and the manufacturers that they represent, carry a lot of knowledge. We should be listening to the information they’re bringing to us,” Lou emphasized. “We should be partnering with them to help us as operators grow our business, and they can provide a lot of dollars and resources if you reach out to them.”
By fostering relationships with large distributors, brokers and suppliers, Executive Refreshments takes advantages of rebates and special promotions to pass along to its customers as well as provide a diverse and innovative product offering. “And they’ll give you a lot of free sporting event tickets and stuff,” Louis added. “Why not enjoy that?”
“This industry is probably 20 years behind on understanding category management, shelf management, new product opportunities, and how to market,” Lou stressed.
He attends trade shows such as the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) Show; NACS (National Association of Convenience Stores) and the National Retail Federation Big Show, which brings together retail technology innovators, industry experts, brands and retailers. These shows adjacent to the industry put cutting-edge technology on display, much of which could be applicable to the vending space.
Louis has a grand vision for the future of Executive Refreshments. He views the ever-evolving family business as an all-encompassing unattended retail company and is working to grab space in any market where the model can be applied. As the cost of goods and labor skyrockets, Louis sees the demand for unattended retail burgeoning.
Executive Refreshments is looking to move past its traditional customer base of offices and warehouses. Its visionary leaders see opportunities for micro markets in apartments, universities and hospitals, where the biggest challenge is security. They are constantly researching advanced technological solutions to make these markets less vulnerable to pilferage in public sites.
Looking at the next 20 years on the horizon, Lou will continue to do what he has always done: find what the customer wants, and find a way to provide it. “Whenever we go into a location, I’ll sell anything. You want this? Why not? We can find it.” ■