By DENNIS SEID / Daily Journal

TUPELO • For nearly 50 years, Ken Jeter Store Equipment has been quietly successful, installing commercial equipment in restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and service industry businesses.

But people outside of those businesses often don’t realize the store has been around that long and don’t even know where it is.

However, its new owner, Jason Steele, hopes to change that.

Steele, who bought Endville General Store in 2004 and opened Steele’s Dive restaurant in 2014, bought the store last Dec. 1.

“Basically I was approached by my accountant, who was also working with the Jeter family in selling the place through a broker,” Steele said. “This is a specialized field, and there aren’t a lot of takers. I had dabbled in trading and buying used equipment over the years, and I had a mechanical background.”

It was no secret that Jeter was wanting to sell, and the business had plenty of inventory. There was a retail side as well as service side of the business, and there were offers to buy one but not the other.

When Steele was approached, he sought advice from Mark Hawkins, who serviced Steele’s restaurant. Hawkins at the time owned 4M Mechanical and had also worked for Jeter for 17 years.

Steele admits it wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“I was sitting there thinking I’ve got a restaurant and it’s rolling along pretty good, I finally have a great general manager taking care of things and I don’t have to be around all the time,” he said. “So Marc comes to the house and says it was the weirdest thing. He had had a dream that somebody had bought out Ken Jeter and he’d gone back to work there.”

“I knew this place could be a gold mine if run right,” Hawkins said. “It didn’t take me long to decide.”

Steele didn’t think the deal would go through, but it did, and after talking through the details, Steele and Hawkins merged Ken Jeter Store Equipment and 4M to form Ken Jeter Store and Restaurant Supply.

“There’s a lot of things that had to go in the right direction to make it work,” Steele said. “There’s a ton of money involved and there’s a ton of inventory to look at, but six or seven weeks later, we had the deal done.”

Since taking over, Steele and Hawkins have seen sales increase on both the retail and service sides.

“It’s been good and busy, and we’re already up over the first half of the year compared to last year,” Steele said.

Steele primarily takes care of the sales side of the business, while Hawkins handles service.

The company has a social media presence for the first time, going to Facebook a couple of months back to help spread the word. A few changes were made, including with some personnel, to relaunch the business in some aspects.

“We’re looking to hire some more down the road,” Steele said.

So what exactly does Ken Jeter Store and Restaurant Supply do? The name is pretty self-explanatory, but in essence, it installs and services commercial refrigeration equipment – walk-in coolers, freezers, deli cases, reach-in cases, meat counters, etc.

Jeter himself had a mechanical background and used to draw up store plans. Todd’s Big Star, for example, was set up by Jeter. Walmart has tapped the company to install and service its equipment. Stores and restaurants of every shape and size have relied on Ken Jeter.

“And of course we have any kind of cooking equipment, from smokers to deep fryers … anything pertaining to cooking or holding food, warm or cold, we basically service and sell it,” Steele said.

The store isn’t exclusive to commercial accounts; anybody can come in and buy equipment and supplies from coffee makers and mixers to salamander broilers and popcorn makers.

“Everybody needs pots and pans, too,” Steele said.

Name recognition

Steele and Hawkins contemplated changing the name of the business, but after nearly half a century of being in business and a known quantity, they decided to keep it.

Ken Jeter Store and Restaurant Supply’s customer base reaches as far as Savannah, Tennessee to the north, Columbus to the South, Cleveland to the west and east as far as Red Bay and Hamilton in Alabama.

It also services Dodge’s Stores within a 100-mile radius.

“That was a big discussion between us about renaming the store, but we both felt like there was more good to keeping it than changing it. Every kitchen and supermarket within a 100-mile radius has a Ken Jeter sticker on it somewhere with phone number. And it would create less confusion with our vendors.”

Still even with that swath of territory the business covers, Steele and Hawkins find themselves introducing their business to somebody unfamiliar with it.

“The biggest thing I guess is how many didn’t know what this was,” Steele said. “When I run into some people who tell me they haven’t seen me at their restaurant, I tell them I’m also working at Ken Jeter. And a lot of them are like, “what’s that?’ And it’s been here for 47 years.”

Having reconnected with some past customers and finding new ones, the business has added five employees in the past six months, boosting the total to 17.

“If we get any busier, we’ll have to have more mechanics,” Steele said. “That’s a good problem to have, though.”

Hawkins agreed: “I’ve been saying if we get any busier, we couldn’t stand it – we couldn’t service them efficiently. But we want to grow – just not too fast and get overwhelmed.”

An experienced staff also helps – several have been with the company at or near two decades or more.

“It’s a good company – always has been,” Hawkins said. “Ken was a great man and treated everybody fairly. What I am I owe to Ken for giving me the opportunity back in 1995, making $6.50 an hour. I got hired on a Wednesday, started on Thursday, then went to a Walmart Supercenter in Grenada to do an installation that Monday. It was the best thing that happened to me by far.”

And for Steele and Hawkins, continuing that legacy is what they hope to do for the next half-century.