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Image Credit: Neil Gross

South Africa-Native Transforms Business to Fill a Gap in the Market

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You never end up where you thought you would. It’s a running theme with business owners and entrepreneurs. You may start out with the intention to create one thing, but soon enough you realize that you’re on a completely different path. South Africa-native Neil Gross, founder of Chef Works, filling a gap in the market led him down a new path for his business. We spoke with Neil to learn more about his company, how a family owned business operates, and where he sees business going in the next few years.

What is your background and why did you start your business?

Then known as J. Gross and Co., Chef Works is a family business that started in 1964 selling protective clothing to miners in South Africa. We attended a trade show in Las Vegas in the mid 90’s and found a gap in the market to supply quality clothing to the culinary marketplace. Today Chef Works is the world’s leading manufacturer of culinary apparel with 18 global distribution centers, a customer base that spans 6 continents and over 60 countries, and annual sales of over $100 million.  Since the beginning, our focus has remained the same — to provide high quality fabrication, innovative design techniques, and a fashion-forward sensibility all at the most competitive price in the industry.

Tell us about the early days of starting your business and how did you develop it to where it is now?

Initially we tried to sell through distributors who, for the most part, weren’t interested in working with a new manufacturer. As such, we were forced to go out and sell directly to the chefs themselves.  As it turned out, this was the best decision we ever made. This led to us being able to develop a brand that is now very well known and respected throughout our industry, and growing in popularity on a daily basis.

How has it been running a family owned business?

Family businesses tend to bring out the best and worst among family members. It is critical in a family business to keep re-inventing yourself as the company evolves – otherwise the company evolves without you. The core glue of a family business is the family and it forces you to stay relevant and ever growing. Knowing that we all go through good and bad times together is very comforting. There is never a question that you have family watching your back.

What are some future trends in the global hospitality apparel marketplace and how are you playing a role in shaping that?

Certainly one of the largest trends is the standardization of products to leading Hotel and Foodservice partners who are looking for the same look worldwide. As one of the few culinary apparel companies that supply worldwide to over 60 countries, Chef Works is the ideal partner to assist in this standardization process. Chef Works is, and will continue to be, at the forefront of design and innovative product within our industry, including the launch of over 100 new products over the last 12 months.

Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?

Chef Works’ journey has just begun. We have built a business that is scalable and fully automated with systems in place that are equal to, if not better than, many public companies.  We have a highly motivated team that believes in the product and the future success of the company. The only constant in our business is change, and as such, we will continue to evolve and grow our product offerings so that our customers always have the most current designs to choose from.  Since the beginning we have never taken our customer and their needs for granted, and this will continue to be the cornerstone of our business moving forward.

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