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Out-of-the-Box Business Thinking with Mike Winkelmann, West Coast Food Machines

By Sara Bedal |

When Mike Winkelmann opened his high-end butcher shop and deli, little did he know that its failure two years later would be a blessing in disguise.

Mike Winkelmann was living his dream in 2006. He had finally opened his own butcher shop and deli in Surrey, B.C., after having worked for other butchers since age 16. But in 2008, the economic downturn started taking a big bite out of business, as customers opted for ground beef instead of steak, and some of the restaurants he supplied were closing.

By August of that year, Winkelmann had declared defeat and closed his shop. "I needed a job," says the 37-year-old. But first, he thought he would try to recoup some of his losses by auctioning off his food service machines and equipment online.

Winkelmann turned to eBay and the winning bidder paid $3,500 for a sausage stuffer that had cost him a few hundred dollars two years earlier. He proceeded to sell most of his remaining equipment online in weeks and was soon hunting local auction houses for bargains that he could refurbish, if necessary, and then re-sell on eBay. In 10 months, his on-line sales totalled $150,000.

For Winkelmann, there's been no turning back. In March 2009, he launched West Coast Food Machines and now sells everything online--new and used--from fitness machines and electronics to barbeques and mobility equipment. "I can't wait for the Olympics to be over," he says, betting that there will be a ready market for Vancouver 2010 memorabilia.

He recently spoke with CanadaOne about his whirlwind entrepreneurial experience.

Which of your strengths and personality traits have helped make West Coast Food Machines a success?

As a butcher, I was in sales for almost 20 years so selling online has come naturally to me. I know how to identify items that will sell well and I research their market value. Product knowledge is key and I'm constantly searching eBay to determine the trends.

I also enjoy working with my hands. I did all the electrical and mechanical repairs in my butcher shop. It's easy for me to repair and refurbish equipment I buy online and then auction it off.

Lastly, I'm honest. I represent my merchandise accurately. I've had more than 600 positive comments from customers on eBay. The funny thing is, I don't ever see or talk to them. That speaks volumes. Instead, I write to them, giving them every piece of information they want.

What has been the steepest learning curve for you?

The logistics of shipping to a worldwide market. A butcher shop has a customer base with a radius of only a few miles. With online, it's the whole continent and beyond.

At one point, I had to figure out how to ship a 1,000-lb. meat grinder from my garage to the eastern U.S. It's $1 per pound to ship to the U.S. and then there are customs and brokerage to sort out. A lot of sellers let the customer handle those but I don't think that's fair. I learned through trial and error, with a bit of help from a shipping company.

Since starting your new business, how has your personal life changed, if at all?

Closing the butcher shop was disappointing, to say the least, and running the deli was taxing to my family and marriage. My wife and I worked 10 hours a day, every day, and when the shop closed it was a great relief. Actually, leaving the meat industry has been a blessing so far. I spend more time with my daughters and wife, work half the hours and, at the end of the day, there's money in my wallet.

What have been your biggest challenges?

When I was starting up, it was finding supply to sell. I would run out of inventory. Now I'm buying directly from manufacturers in China and hope to visit their factories later this year. I also worried about how I would get paid. I use PayPal, which takes care of a lot of headaches.

How has the economy affected your business?

There will always be foreclosures, and restaurants upgrade equipment all the time. Restaurant chains change their menus, on occasion, and that often requires new machines.

If you had one piece of advice to offer other entrepreneurs, what would that be?

Buy low, sell high!

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