Ellison and Ed Berlin of Berlin's Restaurant Supply in North Charleston

Ellison Berlin (left) and his brother, Ed Berlin, look over some of the offerings in their longtime Berlin's Restaurant Supply store in North Charleston. Warren L. Wise/Staff

For more than three decades, Berlin's Restaurant Supply was a key go-to place for local dining establishments, hotels and others with commercial kitchens to shop for convection ovens, fryers and cooking gadgets.

The North Charleston business's main local competition was FRS, or FoodService & Restaurant Supply, off Azalea Drive.

But new arrivals are now crowding the restaurant kitchen supply market.

Earlier this year, New York-based Restaurant Depot opened a 65,000-square-foot, members-only shop at Shipwatch Square three miles south in North Charleston.

Next week, Illinois-based US Foods Chef'Store will begin looking to cater to local kitchens with a 59,000-square-foot emporium eight miles south on Meeting Street on Charleston's upper peninsula.

At Berlin's Restaurant Supply, co-owners Ellison Berlin and Ed Berlin don't intend to dawdle.

The brothers plan to build a chinaware showroom in their longtime Rivers Avenue site by early next year, and they say they already offer same-day delivery, equipment installation, a design team, on-site cooking demonstrations and other services designed specifically for local restaurateurs.

They also support a wide array of local causes, including the Charleston Wine & Food Festival and the Charleston Animal Society Chili Cook-off. They even offer free ice to restaurant clients when their machines go on the blink.

"The biggest asset is this company's years of experience, knowledge of the restaurant industry and how and who to contact to get things done," Ed Berlin said. 

Berlin's Restaurant Supply

Berlin's Restaurant Supply in North Charleston has been serving the Charleston region for 32 years. Warren L. Wise/Staff

The main 15,000-square-foot shop is set up like a kitchen store, with aisles of knives, pots, pans, glassware and most anything else needed for commercial kitchens. It also offers the heavy machinery of cooking such as stoves, refrigerators and such.

"It's anything a commercial kitchen needs unless you are special ordering," said Daniel Perlmutter, the company's operations manager. "A typical restaurant can get by with all the products we have here."

For those looking to build a restaurant, it offers a conference room where architects, engineers and restaurant owners come together to determine the building's cooking and dining room needs while laying out the kitchen and eating area on a large TV screen.

Looking down on the long conference table are photos of numerous restaurants Berlin's has served over the years — an eclectic sort of Who's Who of the Charleston dining scene — including F.I.G., Poe's, Tattooed Moose and many other recognizable names.

Out back, a 27,000-square-foot warehouse stocks extra products and holds items until they can be delivered to a customer. A fleet of trucks constantly delivers products to about 1,200 restaurant customers across the Southeast, from Florida to Virginia.

The business includes an appliance repair shop and office space in a former 4,200-square-foot Chinese restaurant next door.

Berlin's sometimes buys kitchen equipment from a restaurant that goes under, repairs it and resells it for those looking for used items.

Its biggest competition now is the Internet because restaurants often call to sell the company its used equipment after finding new products online.

Restaurant Depot in North Charleston

New York-based Restaurant Depot opened a members-only supply store earlier this year in North Charleston. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Ed Berlin believes the Charleston culinary offerings have grown greatly in recent years, continue to expand and can support competition on the supply side, but he wonders why the bigger players waited to join the party.

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"I was surprised it took that long for a superstore to come here," he said. "The Charleston restaurant industry has grown exponentially, and Berlin's has kept up with the times."

Wild Olive executive chef Jacques Larson has used Berlin's services for years to set up restaurant after restaurant.

He called newcomers in the supply market good for competition, but he said Berlin's has his business.

"They know what they are doing," Larson said.

US Foods Chef'Store (copy) (copy)

US Foods Chef'Store in Charleston is the sixth big-box outlet for the Illinois-based food distributor. It opens Thursday. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Ellison Berlin believes people will try out the US Foods Chef'Store initially because it is new, but he says his family-run business is ready to compete.

"They will have a lot of inventory of a few items," he said. "We have a few of 5,000 different products we stock."

Don Ball, president of FRS, said his company's four locations in North Charleston, Columbia, Florence and Asheville offer similar services to Berlin's and a huge part of the business is special orders.

He said the big-box stores are more tailored for repetitive purchases while the local operations cater to specific needs, often visiting commercial kitchen owners on site.

"We focus on taking really good care of the customers we have," Ball said. "Our job is to provide value to our customers, the services they need and do it at a competitive price.

Restaurant Depot operates in 33 states and has another South Carolina store in Mauldin near Greenville. US Foods has Chef'Store sites in five states and a distribution center in Lexington near Columbia. The Charleston store, opening Thursday, will be its sixth location.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.