Visiting a restaurant supply is dangerous. Once you get in there, and expose your predilection for kitchen gadgets to wall-to-wall stainless steel, ceramic, and glass, you will suddenly need a robot coupe, a hummingbird-sized ramekin, a pizza warmer, a fake wheel of Wisconsin cheese, a 60-gallon stock pot, and a set of candle-heated butter warmers. So here’s a word to the wise: Leave your wallet in the car. You will inevitably fetch it, but out in the fresh air cooler heads will prevail, and you may only spend half a paycheck.
Restaurant supplies are the restaurateur’s hardware store; in fact, many won’t even sell to folks without a license. Those that do are less consumer friendly than, say, Cooks of Crocus Hill. You’ll find them in ill-marked and often abandoned-looking buildings and, once you’re inside, there’s no sampling salty chocolates or browsing cookbooks. In many cases, you’ll be left to wander blissfully alone among metal shelves, piled high with wares, some new, some used, some still in boxes, and most without a price. As one fellow told me: It’s a rare occasion that a new restaurant owner walks in and outfits their shop in one fell swoop of brand new. So the small wares we consumers love are mainly there to be tossed gratis on top of a charbroiler as a restaurant owner hauls it out of the building; they make their money on large kitchen equipment and design. Still, suppliers are proud of their wares and, where you and I see a cheap white plate, they see an inexpensive 12-inch, rolled-edge dinner plate made of dense, vitrified china fired at incredibly high temperatures to be able to withstand the hungry public, the occasionally clumsy waiter, and 17 trips a day through the washing machine.
In the mini reviews below, we tried to look at roughly the same items at each establishment, choosing middle-of-the-road options that were basic but of good quality. However, it’s hard to formulate an objective comparison between restaurant supplies because they are so variously stocked and, as we mentioned above, many maintain an old-school approach wherein price is based on the whim of the seller, how much you buy, how frequently you buy, and (one sometimes suspects) your character. They are also unquestionably a competitive lot — we had to show identification to be allowed to take photographs — so a little polite haggling is sometimes permissible.
It’s worth noting that nearly everyone offered to order us whatever we needed, and they all seemed to be ordering from the same catalogs. Also, in all cases, a version of greater or lesser quality was available.
Hockenbergs recently moved into a brand new warehouse in Eagan. It is a clean, well-lighted place filled with eager staff people ready to help you find whatever you need on the vast sales floor (see photo, top) or in a catalog. If you’re looking to browse a broad range of quality, shiny new stuff – from glassware to giant woks and industrial toasters to ice cream scoops in every size — this is probably your best bet.
As a national chain, Hockenbergs may offer the largest selection of small wares of any of the restaurant supplies listed here and the closest thing to a “normal” retail experience. Yet their focus is really on kitchen design and large equipment. When asked, they will say that their super power is leveraging their presence and knowledgeable staff to find whatever big equipment the restaurant owner needs, quickly and at a good price – and then delivering it with their own truck to ensure it arrives in one piece. “I recently found a used six-burner convection oven in 15 minutes!” one fellow told us.
How does that help the consumer? Not at all. Apparently, Hockenbergs’ buying power doesn’t translate to great prices for the home cook, since most items were a bit more expensive there than elsewhere. That said, it’s still a better deal than your average cooking store, and browsing the racks and racks and racks of stuff is great fun. Bonus: It’s all priced, so if you want to shop in anonymity, you can.
12 balloon wine glasses: $41.39 Libbey Vina
12 white, rolled-edge dinner plates: $64.54 China World
12 stainless steel bouillon spoons: $9.08 World Tableware
13-quart stainless-steel mixing bowl: $8.68
30-cup rice cooker $503.00
Gallon of snow cone syrup $5.99
28-inch iron wok $50.17
2015 Silver Bell Rd
Eagan, MN 55122
612.331.1300 | hockenbergs.com
The second place we visited — St. Paul U.S. Foods Culinary Equipment / Superior Outlet Center / Next Day Gourmet — has more names than Prince, and is a whole lot less recognizable if you aren’t paying attention. Apparently, U.S. Foods bought Superior Outlet Center, which is also called Next Day Gourmet. Turn into the driveway marked “Superior Outlet Center” and then, once inside the building, enter the door marked Next Door Gourmet.
Once we found them, the folks at U.S. Foods were nice and helpful, and, though not specifically catering to the home cook, empathetic to our cause. They told us that the sales floor offers a small selection of the things most restaurants need starting out, including prep and bar ware. They also told us that the dish, glassware, and silverware selection is small, but they have catalogs. And then they kindly pointed us to a door at the back of the room that leads to the clearance goods.
There we found bargains galore. Apparently, if one plate in a set of 12 breaks, they will sell the remaining 11 individually. We found plates, bowls, wine glasses, beer steins, and other dishware priced from $1 to $3 a piece and in a useful quantity. If you collect Fiesta, get thee to the clearance room. There were also a few professional 4-slice toasters, a pizza warmer, a giant industrial lettuce chopper, and all manner of fun professional kitchen gadgetry.
Overall, U.S. Foods is a good option for the person who likes a bargain, but not a strenuous one; who doesn’t mind used, but also wants the option to buy new. All the new and used wares are clearly marked and easily accessible, and the salespeople are readily available to take an order.
12 balloon wine glasses: $34.50 Libbey Vina
12 white, rolled-edge dinner plates: $40.99 The World Porcelana
12 stainless-steel bouillon spoons: $10.49 Radian 2
13-quart stainless-steel mixing bowl: $12.99
Homer Laughlin China: $1 each
36-inch butcher block tops: $150.00
Chrome butter warmer: $14.69
Pizza warmer: $999.00
St. Paul U.S. Foods Culinary Equipment / Superior Outlet Center / Next Day Gourmet
2621 Fairview Ave N
St. Paul, MN 55113
651.638.8993 | usfoods.com
American Restaurant Supply & Warehouse is another hard one to find, tucked as it is into a nondescript business park of suites and warehouses whose tenants do not provide any exterior signage. Here’s the deal: Go in the far right entrance at the front of the building and head down the hall to suite 5, which will be on the left-hand side.
You’ll want to call ahead, as American Restaurant is a one-man shop owned and run by Iqubal “Lucky” Sajady, who is sometimes out delivering his wares to restaurants. If he is in, the door will be open, revealing a relatively small warehouse stocked absolutely floor to ceiling with boxes. Sajady claims to offer the best selection of dinnerware in the Twin Cities, and we did find a nice array of dishes, in a variety of shapes and sizes that we did not see elsewhere. We were particularly enamored of a small Fiesta cup and saucer and, in a manner of seconds, the sprightly Sajady was up a ladder and down again, offering us the same set in four more colors. Given the compact size of his shop, this dedication to china leaves space for only a modest selection of the most common small wares. And, unlike his competitors, there were only a few pieces of used professional kitchen equipment hunkering, almost invisible, in the corner.
Sajady’s prices on small wears and china are fantastic, but he is also incredibly friendly. When we asked about the balloon glasses, he gamely demonstrated that what the super heavy glass lacks in aesthetic beauty it makes up for in durability by giving it a firm whack on a shelving unit. It didn’t break. This is the spot for home cooks looking to populate their china cabinet and, along the way, fill in a few items missing from the kitchen drawers. Note: None of the prices were marked.
12 balloon wine glasses: $21.00 International Tableware
12 white, rolled-edge dinner plates: $49.00 International Tableware
12 stainless-steel bouillon spoons: $5.00 Winco
13-quart stainless-steel mixing bowl: $2.99
Fiesta Ware cup and saucer: $3.18
Steak weight: $7.00
3-oz stainless steel sauce cups: $3.99 / 12
White waist apron: $3.99
8601 73rd Ave N, Suite 5
Brooklyn Park, MN 55428
612.229.6102 | arswarehouse.com
Monday-Friday 9am-4pm (call first)
If, in your mind’s eye, you crossed a restaurant supply with Gringotts, the goblin bank in Harry Potter, you’d have a pretty fair approximation of what it feels like to wander the 15,000 square feet of cold and rambling warehouse that is Jos. F. Palen Company. On entry, Joe Palen called out a curmudgeonly hello – the kind that says, hold up a minute — from behind the shop’s long counter. Eventually he warmed to us, turning on the heater, which started up with a massive growl and shudder, and leading us through towers of used kitchen equipment to point out the door to the small wares. There he left us to find our way, declaring that everyone was quite busy at the moment, but to come find them if we needed anything.
At that moment, we felt disheartened; this was probably going to be a bust. But, oh my, when we rounded the door, such a pile of china and glass greeted us it nearly took our breaths away. Here were stacks and stacks of plates, cups and bowls; nifty metal bins crammed with odd salt and pepper shakers; an entire wall of glassware; and in between, shelves of mixing bowls, Bundt pans, slotted spoons, steak weights, plastic prepware, and the like. One whole room was literally overflowing, floor to ceiling, with silverware. The Palens stock the shop with about 75 percent used goods, but something about the chock-a-block presentation and the sheer quantity of it all made every piece, even the gently worn bits, seem pretty much like treasure.
None of it was priced. For the sake of our review, we asked for some publishable prices, but Joe Palen was hesitant to give them. Prices, he says, are based on the condition of the item, as well as quantity, and how often you shop there. Eventually though, his son Joshua came to check up on us, and as we ambled about picking things up, gave us ballpark prices in the range of half off regular retail price for a new item. At the cash register, Joe chatted amiably, gave us the opportunity to haggle, and even threw in some reading — photocopies of editorials on everything from philosopher Cornel West to the Mall of America, Occupy Wall Street, and Zygi Wilf.
If you’re the adventuring type who likes a bargain, doesn’t mind digging a little, and has both time and patience, this is the place for you. You’ll likely find what you are looking for, but you’ll definitely want to call ahead and make sure that either Joe or Joshua is there, otherwise no one can give you a price on it.
Jos. F. Palen Co.
1055 N 5th St
Minneapolis, MN 55411
Monday-Friday 9am-4pm (call ahead)
Located just off Highway 12 in Hudson, J.R. Ranch Equipment is kind of like the restaurant supply version of an estate sale. The home cook should go there looking for the unexpected treasure – not something mission critical for Thanksgiving dinner.
J.R. Ranch specializes in used restaurant supplies, which they gather from all over the country. About 95 percent of the main sales floor is large equipment, but there are a few racks of random new and used small wares. We came perilously close to purchasing a couple fake wheels of Wisconsin cheese and a small fish bait fridge for the office (second from top).
Luckily, at that moment, the sales clerks arrived to take us upstairs, where most of the small wares live in a small, ill-lit loft. There we found a mondo stack of hot dog bun pans, a bunch of flour scale weights, random vases, a brand new stainless-steel mandolin slicer, and some very awesome pint glasses rescued from a Chinese restaurant, among other things. Nothing was priced, but the friendly sales staff was happy to tag along and provide prices. They seemed as surprised and pleased as us to find a giant glass etched with the word “Turkey!” and priced it at $1. Cheap at twice the price! New items were a little bit pricey, and we couldn’t tell if there was room to bargain.
If you love estate and yard sales and happen to be driving down the 12 with nothing to do, we recommend stopping by for a look around. You never know what you might find, and the prices on used items are very reasonable.
Two fake cheese wheels with displays: $5 used
Heavy-duty mandolin slicer: $90 new
Paul Lee glasses: $1 each, used
Fish bait fridge: $295.00, used
Retro Champagne glasses: $.50 each, used
Hot dog bun pan: $20 used
J.R. Ranch Equipment
588 Schommer Dr
Hudson, WI 54016
715.386.6190 | jrranchequipment.com