A successful chef requires a successful kitchen. Behind many successful kitchens of the world’s most successful chefs is the craftsmanship of Quebec City, Canada – based SML Stainless Steel Group, which in less than a decade has become a leading supplier of custom-made and turnkey kitchens that literally embody the concept of high-end functionality. As a manufacturer of custom designed, world-class stainless steel kitchen equipment, SML has become the first choice for leading chefs and restaurateurs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Indeed, SML produced made-to-measure equipment for Vongerichten’s first U.S. restaurant – JoJo in New York City – and has gone on to supply equipment for his Market in Paris and Vong and Leonard Street in New York City. It’s no surprise, then, that Vongerichten says, “When it comes to custom stainless steel fabrication, SML is my first choice.”
A little over 40 years ago, what was then called Sani Metals Ltd. started up as a kitchen equipment shop for small restaurants, eventually growing to become, by the late 1980s, a $5 million-a-year OEM of made-to-measure stainless steel components and turnkey systems for foodservice and institutional customers across Canada. It was primarily bid work, and the company was highly successful. Then, in 1999, SML was contracted to provide all aspects of stainless steel fabrication for Dune, Vongerichten’s new restaurant opening in the Bahamas.
“It started out as a $300,000 kitchen that became a multimillion dollar project,” notes Francois Morin, vice president of business development. “It also introduced me to Mark Stech-Novak (owner of Restaurant Consultation and Design in Oakland, Calif.), a leading kitchen designer who partnered with Jean-Georges. This led, in September 2001, to an invitation to meet with about 10 of the world’s most well-known designers and foodservice consultants, including people like Tim Harrison (of San Francisco-based Harrison, Koellner LLC) and Russell LeBow Stillwell (of Next Step Design based in Annapolis, Md.) to discuss chef Thomas Keller’s ideas for a new restaurant in New York City that became Per Se.”
Today, Per Se is considered one of the world’s finest and most exclusive restaurants. Occupying 12,500 square feet on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, Per Se operates a combined 5,339-square-foot cooking and preparation center comprising three kitchens, a full-service bakery, butchery and pot and dishwashing rooms. SML got the contract to do it all.
White Gloved Precision
“When we were composing our proposal for Per Se, I was trying to write a letter about our capabilities and was not quite satisfied with what I was trying to convey in words. I took a break and started walking around our production facility, which has all this impressive looking, high-end equipment,” Morin recounts. “I came by this polishing station, and there was a pair of white cotton gloves our workpeople use to prevent fingerprints from getting on the stainless steel, and that image just struck me as epitomizing our service. We put the delicate finishing touch of meticulous attention to detail on premium equipment that defines the category. All of our equipment fits perfectly together. Fusing an odd joint in the field so it integrates seamlessly is the kind of craftsmanship that’s expected for a world-class kitchen. That’s the kind of scrupulous detail we supply. So I sent a pair of the white gloves along with our proposal. I do know it made a difference as it encapsulated our dedication and approach.”
And SML delivered the proof in the pudding. As reported in the July/August 2004 of Food Arts magazine, Keller’s response to SML’s craftsmanship was that, “Francois understood the quality of work that had to be done here…He took industry norms to a higher level.” Those higher norms encompassed 12-gauge stainless instead of the typical 14-gauge, laid over 5/4 inch marine grade plywood to prevent warping; 16-gauge cabinet bodies instead of 18-gauge; brass drawer pulls laminated onto the stainless and cabinet drawers fronted with Corian wrapped around stainless shells, and under counter refrigerator doors hung on hinges developed by SML’s engineers for train doors.
Success breeds success, and while SML continues to provide equipment to government, military, healthcare and other institutional customers, it’s custom, high-end kitchen work has grown tremendously. Indeed, in 2003, the company changed its name to SML Stainless Steel Group with a stylized logo that reflects precision to better signify its expanded business direction.
Morin says the importance of reputation can never be emphasized enough. “Word of mouth is extraordinarily important and has largely accounted for our growth in the custom, high-end kitchen equipment segment. Once the key influential people come to know and depend on the quality of your work, word does get around.”
Today, SML continues to work for Keller and Vongerichten, as well as projects with such notable chefs as Michael Mina, Grant Achatz, Alain Ducasse, and Rob Feenie. A big part of its custom business is with casinos, which include Caesars Palace, Stardust, Wynn, Ballys, Casablanca Casino and Virgin River Casino in North America, as well as the Atlantis Resort and Casino and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The Atlantis Resort was a $10 million project for the manufacture, supply and installation of eight kitchens, seven cafeterias, and 16 bars that was the largest contract ever awarded to a Canadian foodservice manufacturer/distributor.
Morin is quick to point out that SML’s custom work is more than a business relationship. “It is about sharing a passion with the chefs. We are so lucky to work with these renowned chefs and designers. They are demanding, but no more so than they are demanding of themselves. That’s what got them to the levels they’ve attained. And they couldn’t be a nicer group of people to work with. In fact, I consider these people my friends. But, you don’t get work merely out of friendship. We, the chefs, the designers and the people of SML, help each other by pushing the limits further. Each project is special, each project is so rewarding, not only terms of the completed kitchen, but the pleasures in working with these people.
“We are not looking to break up existing relationships chefs have with other dealers,” Morin continues. “Sometimes a chef is not ready to change supplier but he is looking for something special, a show piece around which his new restaurant concept revolves. That’s when they call on our team’s savoir faire to make their vision reality.”
Such is the case of Charlie Palmer for whom the company has developed service carts, desserts carts and wine carts for many
of his new restaurants. Daniel Boulud shared his idea for an avant-gard display case to showcase his products in his new establishment to open soon in NYC.
An extraordinary group of people: SML’S Team Morin emphasizes that SML’s success is a team effort. “Time and again, as a company we have risen to the occasion because of the combined expertise of our people,” Morin points out. “We have people in our shop who have been with the company almost from the start. At the same time, we have young people who are just as enthusiastic and dedicated to their craft as our veterans. Sure, we’ve automated a lot of the processes, like every manufacturer we seek to reduce costs by doing more work with fewer people, but in the end you need the knowledge and dedication of highly skilled craftspeople to turn out a top-of-the-line product. You can’t scrimp on that. It’s the same thing with our suppliers. We’ve developed relationships with suppliers that work with us to meet the highest demanding standards of our customers. That’s why we’ve been so successful – teamwork among time-tested relationships based on a commitment to the highest standards of design expertise, on-time project management, and product quality.”
Morin notes that teamwork is particularly crucial in complex projects that typically have tight schedules to begin with. “All of our projects are delivered on-time. They just have to be. So, upfront planning is important, and, consequently, effective teamwork becomes all the more essential. So, again, it’s the quality of the relationships among all the people involved throughout the project that ensures what needs to get done gets done the way it should be done that is almost as important as the actual manufacture of the equipment itself. Because it doesn’t matter how well the equipment works or looks if it isn’t ready when the restaurant is scheduled to open.”
While SML continues to be in demand for high-end kitchens and restaurants, it also services the restaurant in need of a turnkey system with a custom look. “We’re very interested in the bistro segment,” Morin says. ”Making affordable kitchens is very important to help make celebrity chefs’ cuisine more accessible to a broader range of people. It is also vital to help launch new restaurants headed by younger chefs so they can tap in their full potential.”
SML employs 200 dedicated men and women, located in the head office in Quebec City, Quebec and affiliate locations in Las Vegas, New York and Toronto, as well as at various ongoing installations throughout North America. The company is ISO: 9001-2000 certified. It maintains a 70,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel and non-ferrous metals parts and equipment in Quebec City, along with an additional 10,000 square feet of office space and another 30,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel parts and finished products; a 30,000-square-foot production facility for millwork, natural and man-made stones, laminates and related materials in Lauzon, Quebec; 10,000 square feet of office; a 21,000-square-foot production facility for stainless steel parts and equipment and architectural work in Las Vegas, Nev., and storage facilities and offices in Toronto and New York.
Like any manufacturer, SML has had to confront the rising costs of raw materials. “Because of our loyalty to our suppliers and our reputation, we are able to take advantage of large volume discounts,” Morin notes. “Again, it’s the quality of the working relationships we have with our suppliers that enable us to get our raw materials at the best prices.”
Yet another example of successful relationship-building relates to the community where SML does business. “This was actually an idea of Tim Harrison’s and Thomas Keller,” Morin says.
“Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, and as a celebration we’re looking to arrange four gourmet dinners at four different locations on four different dates. The idea is to feature the best of the culinary traditions that have influenced our culture here: French, English and American. We’ve contacted several big name chefs and they’ve agreed to donate their time to this endeavor. It’s a great way for them and us to showcase our skills and do something special for the city we work in.
And it couldn’t happen without the relationships we’ve cultivated over the years with these chefs. They’re doing it out of friendship, not business reasons. It’s that kind of thing that makes my job really great.”