One way a species keeps progressing is by passing the hard-won knowledge it has gained from generation to generation. Nowhere is that more true than for A.J. Silberman and Co., a member of the endangered species of independent convenience store distributors, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2010.
Matt Silberman, vice president of purchasing and marketing, attributes the company’s longevity to “keeping the customer happy, each generation passing on the knowledge of hard work and keeping that philosophy alive.” Vice President of Sales Gary Gloeckl agrees.
“We like to think of our customers as our friends,” he adds. “We’ve had a lot of growth with our customers buying more stores. We help them find the properties that are for sale and work with the sellers and lenders to make the transactions as smooth as possible. Many of these people are new to the business – they start with one store and end up with 10.”
A.J. Silberman and Co. distributes cigarettes, candy, snacks, tobacco, beverages, frozen foods, deli products, and home and beauty care products. Its customers are full-line convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, tobacco outlets, beer distributors, newsstands, gift shops and colleges.
“We deal largely with independents, and that’s a unique thing about us – there’s no one customer that makes up more than 2 percent of our business,” Gloeckl reports. “Western Pennsylvania is distinct in that it’s predominantly independent stores. In most other areas of the country, large chains make up the landscape of convenience stores, so we have a very diverse group of customers.”
The company is expanding its item selections to correspond to nationwide trends. They are carrying more energy drinks, shots and teas than before as those beverages replace soda pop. More snack fruits – like bananas, apples and oranges – are being sought as consumers seek out healthy alternatives. Upgrading coffee quality is also a trend the company is helping its customers follow. “Coffee is the No. 1 moneymaker in convenience stores with the highest margin,” Silberman points out.
A.J. Silberman and Co. sells the ingredients for breakfast and lunch sandwiches to convenience stores, which then make them on site. Breakfast items include egg patties, croissants, biscuits, muffins, bacon and sausage. In addition to lunch sandwich ingredients – such as bread, lunchmeat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes – the company also supplies pizza, burgers and other convenience store food specialties. For stores not having the food preparation facilities, ready-made sandwiches are available.
Frozen Foods are Hot
To take advantage of the growing trend toward frozen convenience foods, A.J. Silberman and Co. is expanding its warehouse freezer capacity by one-third – from 4,000 to 6,000 square feet – by December. Three years ago, it moved from its 50,000-square-foot warehouse in Braddock to a new 120,000-square-foot space in Harmarville, Pa. Time-pressed consumers are tending more toward prepared, grab-and-go foods, and convenience stores are filling the need. “It’s definitely a growing category,” Gloeckl concedes. “Depending on the equipment and the size of the store, we recommend certain levels of prepared foods.
“Some of it can be as simple as just thaw and place in the cooler,” he continues. “If they have a full kitchen and can make certain things, we will recommend they go with more of a component-based system. It’s a higher quality product, and foods prepared on site are more profitable. Every store is different. You find what your consumers want, and you cater to it.
“Our regular overall business is up about 10 percent this year, and if you just take the frozen food/foodservice segment, it is up 35 percent,” Gloeckl reports. “It’s outpacing everything else.”
Grow Your Own
Another reason for A.J. Silberman and Co.’s longevity is that it helps people get into the convenience store business, thereby building its own loyal customer base. If a customer wants to buy another store or has a relative who does, “We’ll tell them about what’s available and see what kind of store he’s looking for and try to find a fit for them,” Gloeckl explains. “We walk them through the process step-by-step, from obtaining the licenses and equipment they will need to creating a layout of the store.
“We do a complete CAD drawing of the layout, where the counter should be, where the cooler should be, and so on,” he continues. “If needed, we’ll work with the construction people to coordinate the building of the counters, the purchase of equipment, and any plumbing or electrical needs for the coffee system, microwave, etc.,” he continues.
This can include details of the shelving and its position, as well as the flow of the store and what merchandise should be carried. A.J. Silberman and Co. even will make the opening order, deliver it and tag the store.
Sales representatives are on a biweekly rotation at their accounts. “They see them every other week to make sure they keep the stores up-to-date with the current trends and new and discontinued items,” Gloeckl explains. “We call them consultants because we consider our sales staff to be more than just your average, stereotypical salesperson. We follow the model that each store is a little different, and the better you consult them, the better they will be, and overall sales will just come from that.”
For larger accounts, one Silberman employee may handle that customer exclusively. “In a sense, we’re giving them an extra employee,” Gloeckl maintains. “Our consultative kind of approach is very unique in our business. It really makes a difference for our retailers. We really work hard for our customers.
“When people hear our name, they think of customer service. Taking care of the customer is paramount, because if we don’t, somebody else will.”
A.J. Silberman and Co. is licensed to operate in four states – Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Its 13 trucks cover an area within an approximate 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. “We know our way around pretty well here and made a really nice name for ourselves in this town,” Gloeckl asserts.
A.J. Silberman has several national and local competitors, but sets itself apart with its customer service. “We are more flexible to work with and help everyone through the daily grind of owning or running a convenience store,” Gloeckl maintains.
The company was founded by brothers Alfred and Joseph Silberman in 1935. The second generation of management includes Lisa, CFO, and Mark, president. A third sibling in the second generation, David, passed away. In the third generation are Matt, Peter – who is vice president of operations – and Gloeckl. “Even though he’s not a Silberman, he’s like a brother,” Matt Silberman insists.
Like the longevity of the company, employees at A.J. Silberman and Co. have lengthy tenures. Of its 140 employees, nearly 30 have been with the firm for a minimum of 15 years. Gloeckl has worked there for 16 years.