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Hearth & Home August 2014

True Professional Series Undercounter Refrigerators, Glass Door and Solid Door.

True-ly American

By Richard Wright

What starts in St. Louis, remains in St. Louis – at least that’s the case for True Manufacturing and its line of refrigeration products.

A traveling (7Up) salesman walks into a bar. Have you heard this one before? No, well, the year is somewhere around 1947-48 and that guy is tired. He sits down, then looks up at the refrigerator behind the bar; it seems different from others he’s seen.

It is different because it doesn’t require those large, heavy, unwieldy blocks of ice. He talks to the owner of the bar, finds the fellow who created such a wondrous machine and, before 1948 has passed, the 7Up company has purchased its first order of True Roll Top Bottle Coolers and the youthful True Manufacturing Company is off to the races.

Actually, by the time that salesman sat down at the bar, True had been around – most likely struggling for liftoff – for about three years. Today, 69 years later, True Manufacturing’s products are sold in 95 countries around the world; it remains a family business and manufacturing is still done in the vicinity of St. Louis, Missouri.

Hearth & Home spoke with Steve Proctor, director of Sales and Marketing, who has been with the company for over 11 years.

Hearth & Home: Do you have an Outdoor Room at your house?

Steve Proctor: “I have an outdoor space. I don’t have an Outdoor Room. But I love to entertain and cook outside, and we’re lucky enough that we have a pretty good season here in St. Louis, although it’s approaching the uncomfortable factor right now and that will be the case for about the next eight weeks.” (Ed. Note: Interview conducted June 27, 2014.

We’re aware that True has been around since 1945, but when did the outdoor line begin?

Proctor: “Officially, we launched in 2008.”

Oh, what great timing (Laughs)!

Proctor: “(Laughs). Wasn’t it though? We had dabbled a bit in it beforehand – we did the HPBExpo – but we really didn’t have our act together until 2008.

“It’s funny. We started making coolers for the soft drink industry and didn’t diversify into the commercial restaurant side of the business until about the early ’70s, and really didn’t get that going until about ’81–’82. Of course, you couldn’t pick a worse time to enter a new market then either.  

“So we’ve got an historical track record of entering the market when it’s down, but at the same time that tends to be a good thing because of the strength in our commitment to the product. We’ve done our due diligence, and being a family-owned company we’re able to ride that wave a little bit as opposed to some of the public companies out there that don’t necessarily have the patience.”

Your website informs me you have under-counter refrigerators, refrigerator drawers, a wine cabinet, beverage dispensers and beverage centers. Is there anything new to add?

True Professional Series Beverage Dispenser.

Proctor: “That’s everything we currently have. We have some exciting launches coming next year, but I can’t say a word about those today.”

What’s your best-selling product for the outdoors?

Proctor: “It’s probably the glass door refrigerator or the refrigerator drawers. Those are two very popular models that we sell a lot into outdoor applications.”

I assume all those products are going into something you and I would call an Outdoor Room. Correct?

Proctor: “I would say, yes, for the most part. We do have some customers that have a simpler outdoor venue, or outdoor kitchen, that you might not classify as a room. But most of the outdoor kitchens that our product goes into is a pretty elaborate space just because of the premium grade, the nature of our product and our customers who want something that is going to be able to be used, just as they use their indoor appliances.

“They want to create a space that is functional in the outdoors, and there are not a lot of products out there that will hold up year ’round to the demands of the various climates like our product does.”

If we had a list of all the companies that make outdoor refrigeration or wine cabinets for the outdoors, where would you fall in terms of price point? Are you at the higher end?

Proctor: “We definitely would be at the higher end. There are brands out there that are more expensive than we are. So we’re not the top, but we certainly pride ourselves as being a premium product. If customers can get over the initial price point, then our point of differentiation is life cost – long-term performance. Our products are going to last 15, 20, 25 years. How many of the other brands will you have to buy to satisfy your needs in that timeframe?”

In the U.S., where do your outdoor appliances sell the best?

Proctor: “It’s funny, because you would typically think it would just be the Sunbelt area. We do see very strong markets in Southern California; the Palm Springs area is a very strong market for outdoor kitchens. Florida, and South Florida in particular, is very strong for us. However, we also see a lot of our products being installed in the Northeast, on Long Island for example.

“There are a lot of larger properties in the Northeast, but in addition, we see our products being installed in urban areas such as Chicago and Manhattan. There are some nice, very urban installations on roof decks. So it varies.”

When the HPBA does its biannual consumer study of barbecue usage, they find that the greatest incidents of year ’round grilling is in the Northeast, particularly in New England. That seems just counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

Proctor: “It does. Well, if you look at the sheer density of population in that part of the country, and extrapolate that, it’s just a big, big use. People want to be outside, especially with the winters you’ve had in the Northeast for the last two winters.”

When you entered the outdoor category, did you have to establish a completely different channel of distribution?

Proctor: “Yes, definitely. We had to go out and find outdoor kitchen dealers and outdoor landscapers. That was a completely new channel for us. When we got into the consumer side, we thought premium independent retail appliance dealers would be a good fit. Some of them do outdoor kitchens, but the majority of our success in the outdoor world has been companies that specialize in the outdoor kitchen, outdoor landscaping and Outdoor Room aspect.”

I assume many of those companies would sell hearth or patio products, in addition to barbecues and refrigeration?

Proctor: “Definitely, and some do it better than others. Some of our dealers have a different seasonal business. We’ve got a great dealer in Nashville that half the year is selling hearth products, and then they switch and ramp up for their barbecue and outdoor appliance business in the spring and summer months. A lot of our dealers are also doing hearth and fireplaces as well.”

If you drop back 10 or 15 years, there were many more hearth retailers selling barbecues, but many didn’t go high-end enough and were competing too closely with Big Box stores. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t work and they dropped the category. What they’ve got to do is go high-end and offer a full array of products for the Outdoor Room – one stop shopping. Then I think they will do well, as long as somebody at their company takes ownership of it and knows a bit about marketing.

True Professional Series 15 in. Wine Cabinet and Solid Door Undercounter Refrigerator.

It strikes me that the Outdoor Room trend is still in its infancy, but it has reached into all areas of this country and it’s rolling along very nicely in Canada. Is that your sense, Steve, that this is a really strong trend that’s going to be around for a long time?

Proctor: “Yes, I would agree with that. Not a whole lot of people were doing a good job with the product mix back then because, to your point, they were trying to compete with the Lowe’s and Home Depots of the world, the Big Box guys. That is just not sustainable long term because they can’t do the volume.

“I agree there is huge growth in Outdoor Rooms if you get the product mix right, focus on the premium side, and bring something as an independent retailer that the Big Box stores can’t bring – a level of service that is so different. At that point the independent dealer has a great opportunity.

“I think they should have a few select partners per category and not try to have 20 variations of the grills and 10 different refrigerators, and they should focus on a mid-level and a premium level and stick with that.”

Do you sell into Canada?

Proctor: “A little bit, yeah. It’s a very small part of our business on the residential side. I think there is a great opportunity up there. It’s just about finding the right representation.”

What about other countries?

Proctor: “Not currently. We entered the residential consumer side in 2008, and are still fairly new. I think we have demand because our commercial brand is so strong throughout the world. With our commercial business, we ship to over 95 countries throughout the world. We see web traffic, e-mails and calls from Saudi Arabia, from Latin America, even as far away as Australia asking for our products. We will get there eventually. We are just not quite there yet on the consumer side.”

Could you describe the commercial products you refer to?

Proctor: “They are restaurant grade, such as stainless-steel, double-door refrigerators. There’s some bar equipment, beer dispensers, bottled beer equipment for various commercial restaurant bar settings. It runs a gamut really. Over the past 65 years we have gone from 10 products to over 900 on the commercial side, and we started with the consumer outdoor side back in 2008 with four products and now we have over 52.

“There’s a clear parallel as to what we have coming down the pike for additional products that provide solutions for outdoor spaces. Not just here, but ultimately, down the road, we want to bring this to other parts of the world.”

What have I not asked about your product or the Outdoor Room that you would like to discuss?

Proctor: “What really makes us distinct compared to a lot of other brands is the use of materials. It’s pretty common with cooking equipment such as barbecue grills or burners, to use a certain grade of material and certain parts that have been weatherized for outdoor use. We take that same approach with our units.

“What’s distinct is that we use a 304 series stainless steel throughout the entire unit and that is something a lot of companies do not do, especially on the refrigerator side because it adds cost. By doing that, the product becomes something that can be installed on a beachfront property and not be susceptible to the damaging effect of saltwater.

“The other thing that is very unique with our product is we have a dual UL rating for both indoor and outdoor use, so you don’t have to go to another SKU. You don’t have to add a huge upcharge. It’s simple, and a testament to our brand.”

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