Perhaps one anecdote best describes the attitude the Whitcomb family brings to their Long Islandbased business, Whitsons Food Service. It happened in 1985, early in the company’s history, recalls Chairman/CEO Robert Whitcomb. The then-small firm had been invited to cater a luncheon for some 500 people during a mayoral visit to a homeless shelter. It was a significant opportunity to impress potential clients, but a miscommunication had Whitcomb believing the event would take place a day later than it actually was scheduled.
“Fortunately, we had bought everything early to be ready and I was sitting with a broker rep in my office on what I thought was the day before the event when the phone rang,” Whitcomb remembers. It was the Salvation Army asking where the caterers were, because the luncheon would be happening in little more than an hour and nothing was set up.
At that point, the conventional reaction would have been to fess up, admit the error and concede that there was nothing to do about it. But instead, Whitcomb gave his word that the event would come off as planned and everything would be ready.
What followed was a mad scramble with all hands on deck to finish preparing food (fortunately, much had already been done in advance) and loading it onto vans. Paul Whitcomb, currently the vice president of sales & marketing, says he still has a vivid memory of that day and of feeling like his arm was going to fall off from slicing deli meats.
The astonished broker rep was corralled into going to the local bakery to pick up the previouslyordered petit fours. By the time he returned, the caravan was already pulling out for the site.
“He met us at the end of the parking lot where we transferred the petit fours into the vans and took off like a lightning bolt,” recalls Robert Whitcomb. “Fortunately, the mayor was a little late and there was no traffic, so we made it on time, and it went off with none of the guests suspecting anything had happened.”
To put a capper on the story, the pulling-success-from-the-jawsof- disaster performance so impressed the Salvation Army that the incident inaugurated a strong relationship between the organizations that has endured to this day.
Were the Whitcombs lucky? Certainly. But also very dedicated and determined, and the company Bob Whitcomb, his eight siblings and their mother collaborate to operate still strives to run on those old-fashioned principles of sticking to your commitments and doing what it takes to honor them.
Yes, it seems anachronistic and somewhat hokey—until you talk to Bob Whitcomb and see how earnestly he believes it. And that same attitude is shared by the other Whitcombs and of the nonfamily members of the firm as well, and it goes a long way to explain why a company that got its start as an amateur restaurant operation teetering on the brink of bankruptcy today is a very successful foodservice contract management firm.
(The company name, by the way, is a contraction of “Whitcomb Sons” and refers to the family’s three oldest boys, who were the ones initially involved in the enterprise; by the time their sisters entered the business, it was too late to change the established brand.)
Last year’s sales at Whitsons stood at around $48 million, an impressive 20 percent jump from 2001 and the latest in a series of substantial annual increases that were all achieved without acquisitions, which the Whitcombs don’t absolutely rule out but basically shun as disruptive to company culture.
In the past 15 years, Whitsons established a strong regional foothold in three key onsite segments—schools, colleges and business dining—while also nurturing a flourishing vending business, a growing off-premise catering division and a booming culinary center operation supplying pre-prepared plated and bulk foods to clients in senior feeding, corrections, homeless shelters and childcare facilities.
Perhaps most impressively, this is all being done in the ultra-competitive Mid-Atlantic market, home base for at least half a dozen other major regional contractors and prime hunting territory for the three big national companies. Currently, Whitsons operates in a territory extending from Long Island into Connecticut to the north, eastern Pennsylvania to the west and Baltimore to the south, including New Jersey and Eastern New York State.
The Whitsons management structure defies easy characterization, infused as it is with family ties that transcend traditional lines of business authority. When the CEO, the president, the executive chef, many of the senior departmental vice presidents and even the manager overseeing the vehicle fleet are all siblings, flow-charted lines of authority can fly out the window. Add the fact that the Whitcombs pride themselves on the inclusiveness they extend to non-family members of the “Whitsons Team,” and you’d be forgiven for assuming that the company’s management is a tangle of separate-but-equal power centers and executive meetings resemble the breakfast table cacophony from Moonstruck.
But not so. Actually, the Whitsons management team has skillfully balanced and blended the divergent individual interests of each Whitcomb sibling—Andrew in culinary matters, Beth in finance, John in concept development, etc.—into an effective group augmented with longtime non-family associates filling key positions. The result is a rare executive culture in which everyone really does feel free to speak his or her mind while ultimately still holding the good of the larger enterprise as the overaching goal.
That has made Whitsons an aggressive and innovative company open to new approaches and one with an appetite for exploring new opportunities to expand its business. Hence, it’s embraced cutting-edge technology, menu innovations and emerging industry trends with equal fervor.
For its size, the company boasts an amazingly comprehensive portfolio of brand concepts, and it recently implemented a sophisticated online communications and data analysis system to streamline ordering and enhance oversight of unit-level operations. Also effected recently has been a management structure shift that more closely ties even departmental vice presidents to the success of unit-level operations (see sidebar).
Finally, as part of a long tradition of community and professional involvment, Whitsons was at the forefront of the industry’s relief efforts in the wake of the September 11, 2001, tragedy, and Bob Whitcomb has committed his time and efforts to the Society for Foodservice Management (SFM). He has served on SFM’s board of directors and this past fall completed his year-long term as the association’s president.
An expansion plan
Whitsons began in 1979 as a commerical restaurant operation and only entered the onsite side of the business by chance when some customers invited the Whitcombs to provide foodservice to their workplace at a nearby Travelers Insurance office.
At first, the Whitcombs simply regarded Travelers as a catering client, so they prepared the food at their restaurant and shipped it the quarter mile to Travelers.
“We soon realized that wasn’t the model,” Bob Whitcomb explains, encapsulating the emerging philosophy that subsequently drove the Whitsons approach to client and customer relationships since. “People want the chef on location, bottom line. They want to see the chef, they want to talk to the chef, they want to know what’s in the food, they want to be part of the process.”
Travelers “exposed us to that side of the business, and as we grew we bid on other contracts and got positive word of mouth,” he relates.
So why not stick with business dining? “Whenever you’re in one segment, you come to think that the others are better,” Whitcomb laughs. “Having gotten into business dining, we said, ‘Okay, let’s grow this business and see what else comes along in our geography.’” Soon afterwards, the company bid on and won the foodservice contract for nearby Nassau County Community College, its first college account. “That’s when we learned what it is to endure opening a semester in the fall,” Whitcomb says, “but we learned how to do the college business from that.”
The preparation of food in its own culinary center for homeless shelters and other related segments like senior centers followed, spurred in part by the relationship with the Salvation Army that grew from the nearfiasco- made-good related at the start of this article. The K-12 market was penetrated in the early 1990s to get volume and provide opportunities for the company’s growing roster of talented employees. The company’s first account was the 10-school Hicksville School District on Long Island.
Today, Whitsons operates in 13 public school districts as well as the United Nations International School and several residential schools. Its higher education accounts include the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island as well as Camden County (NJ) College, Molloy College and, most recently, Glouster County (NJ) College and the University of Baltimore. B&I accounts include MSC Industrial Direct, Tommy Hilfiger and Advanced Data Processing.
Paul Whitcomb says he sees promising growth avenues for the company in the continued expansion of its Culinary Center operations (see sidebar) and in niches like higher education and upscale eldercare facilities, where the company’s strengths in individual solutions and quality dining options resonate the loudest.
“We look for colleges where the demographics are growing and where they want the dining services to be a point of distinction,” he notes. The company is exploring a wide geographical swath between Connecticut and Washington, DC, mostly targeting colleges that already have contracted foodservice operations but are looking for an alternative provider to upgrade their programs.
On the eldercare side, Whitcomb cites the company’s contract with Carnegie East House, a recently-opened highly upscale senior living facility on Manhattan, as the model for a potentially lucrative new niche, one where the need for high-quality onsite dining options converge with a preference for working with a dedicated, accessible local provider.
On the K-12 front, Whitsons has branched into offering an innovative consulting service to districts even if they retain self-operated foodservices. The initiative, which originated with an ad hoc consulting relationship with Connetquot School District on Long Island four years ago, provides districts with some of the benefits of outsourcing— such as access to Whitsons’ marketing and merchandising resources—without committing to an outsource relationship.
“We audit their operations and draw up a list of recommended changes in the same way we would if we were preparing to go in as the contractor,” Paul Whitcomb explains. “But instead, we then put a consultant in there to work with their foodservice director to help them implement the changes we recommend. Our people who work with them are not in any authoritative position but work directly on different projects with the people responsible at the schools.”
The relationship has apparently worked for Connetquot. Paul Whitcomb says the district went from a loss to “a very significant gain” in the first year and they’ve since increased their bottom line annually, providing funds to reinvest back into the operations.
As at most food and hospitality businesses, talent retention is a key issue for Whitsons. “You have two devils at your door in this business," Robert Whitcomb says. “On the one hand are all these talented people you don’t want to lose, but on the other is the question of how far into the red can you run in the offpeak seasons and justify it. At the end of the day you have to make a profit or you can’t pay your bills, so we have to be careful stewards of this resource and the best way to do that is to grow the business in a way that is balanced and responsible.
One way to “grow the business” while being a “careful steward” is to ensure that your most talented and veteran managers have career growth opportunities. That is a primary motivation behind Whitsons’ Career Map, which proactively guides the firm’s managers through a systematic program of evaluation, goal setting, skill development and career guidance.
The comprehensive program sets out operational and career development goals as well as individualized career maps at the beginning of the year for all management staff. Each manager then meets with his or her immediate superior four times over the course of the year to track their progress and assess their performance in achieving their goals.
The operational goals are fairly standard— meeting profitability targets in their units and so forth—but the career development goals are a way to provide the company’s managers with a tangible sense of career advancement within the company. The career development goals encompass not only mastering industry- specific mangement skills but participating in professional development activities like taking Dale Carnegie courses, joining professional associations or being active with local culinary groups.
“I find outside activities very important because what they see here inside the company isn’t everything that’s going on in the industry,” explains Rosemarie Milano, vice president of human resources, who is in charge of administering Career Map.
Another aspect of the career development system at Whitsons is the practice of placing existing managers into new accounts, and newly hired managers into existing accounts. That way, veteran managers with experience in the Whitsons approach and culture get career-building challenges in successfully implementing operations in a new environment, while new managers get the opportunity to bring an outside perspective to operations already solidly entrenched in being operated “the Whitsons way.”
“That’s how people improve themselves and advance,” Milano offers.
Locking in customers
How valuable is each individual customer to Whitsons?
“Our financial model shows we need to get the same customer in four to five times a week,” offers John Whitcomb, vice president of merchandising & concept development, who is detailing the company’s approach to customer relations. That approach is predicated on the assumption that each customer has a “lifetime value” to the company, which represents not only the purchases made by that particular person, but by all the other people he or she influences. Whitcomb claims the lifetime value of a Whitsons customer can hit $20,000. How?
“Say you multiply a $4 check average by four days a week times 50 weeks a year times the number of years times the additional business he can bring in by word of mouth,” he explains. “That is a factor of four, the number of people the average person tells about a particularly good dining experience” (a bad experience, on the other hand, gets to a whopping 26 people).
Perhaps it’s a bit too theoretical, but the immediate lesson is quite clear. “We teach our managers that when you get a complaint, it’s an opportunity to make things right,” John Whitcomb says. “A customer telling you what’s on his mind is a piece of gold. So instead of looking at something like its a 75- cent sale, look at it like it’s a $20,000 sale. That’s the philosophy behind our approach.”
Pleasing customers and getting them to lay out the maximum amount on a meal is the driving force behind the company’s expansive, elaborate Signature Series branded concept program.
“We go to incredible lengths to develop very diverse menus that will play in all different kinds of environments because what may work in a corporate market may not work as well in a school market,” John Whitcomb says. While concepts are flexible between segments and unit managers have flexibility to use the menu choices they deem appropriate for their customers, the recipes are strictly enforced and the products centrally speced.
Merchandising help is available from Merchandising Director Erin Norton, who regularly consults with unit managers. “I go into different locations and help the managers look at how they display their menus, their menu items, their cooking areas, their serveries and help them upgrade them and keep them fresh and trendy,” she says.
A lot of signage is produced centrally at the Huntington Station headquarters where she is assisted in her efforts by Communications Director Jennifer Watson and Best Practices Director Holly Von Seggern.
Menu variety is of the essence. “If we don’t offer a lot of menu choices people will get into a ‘Wednesday is Spaghetti Day’ rut,” John Whitcomb says. “We want those menus changing all the time.”
To achieve even greater efficiencies Whitsons is implementing NetChef, an online automated costing, purchasing, reporting and data analysis system developed by Crunchtime Information Systems, the company’s third-party ordering platform services provider. Currently, about half of Whitsons managers have access to NetChef in its VPN (virtual private network) version.
“The beauty of NetChef is that when we contract for a price, that’s the price it’s going to come in at,” says Finance Vice President Beth (Whitcomb) Bunster. “It helps keep our costs in line, gets everybody on the same system with access to the recipes, which are precosted based on the latest purchasing information available on the system. The hardcopy books we used before were a pain and often outdated. Not only wouldn’t managers buy off the book, but vendors would deliver off the book. So by automating, we make sure we get the right product at the right price.”
The system has two modules. One is the web-based application that all the field applications are migrating to and the other, called Inventory Manager, is installed at the headquarters operation, where it is used to run reports and drill into data to analyze any component of an individual operation.
Bunster is a busy executive these days. Not only is she in charge of the financial end of operations, but she oversees the company’s technical evolution, which seems perpetual. Currently, not only is Whitsons implementing NetChef, but also undergoing a headquarters update, replacing servers and putting in a VPN that enables a user organization to use the intranet for secure internal communications. It is also looking at a variety of mobile computing solutions and considering a variety of POS upgrades that would permit better sales forecasting and data mining capabilities.
“I think it’s necessary,” Bunster offers, neatly summarizing the approach the Whitcombs have perfected while building their enterprise. “If we don’t do it, we’re going to wake up and find we’re behind the curve.”
Meals To Go for Young and Old
Michael Whitcomb is standing amid a jumble of production assistants assembling sandwiches, stirring huge pots of boiling meat, shrink-wrapping salads and pushing mobile transport carts. This is his particular domain in the Whitsons enterprise.
The Culinary Center operation he heads sits inside the Whitsons headquarters complex in Huntington Station, NY, and it is busting out at the seams. Trucks roll out from the facility six days a week (other trucks, belonging to Whitsons Fabulous Foods off-premise catering operation, also embark from the same complex, mostly on weekends). The trucks head to senior centers, Meals on Wheels staging areas, daycare centers and even a whitecollar minimum-security correction facility. And during Whitsons’ efforts to feed workers at the World Trade Center site following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Culinary Center was the “tip of the sword,” says CEO Robert Whitcomb.
“Basically, we have the capability to prepare any type of meal in any combination, any volume and any way a customer might want,” Michael Whitcomb says. Already, the Center produces an impressive array of preprepared foods. Some are bulkpacked for use in congregate feeding operations, while others are preportioned complete meals designed for consumption either by little kids, homebound grannies or any age in between.
Quite a Legacy
Elmer Whitcomb was a mechanical engineer who wanted to leave his nine children an enterprise that could provide them with economic security and also a chance to work together.
In 1979, on “a leap of faith”Whitcomb purchased the Bon Bon, a pair of upscale cafe diners located in Garden City,NY, using up most of his pension, his assets and his savings. It wasn’t a very good deal, and not just because no one in the family had any restaurant experience,“ We wildly overpaid for the first restaurant and only overpaid for the second by a magnitude of two,” chuckles eldest son Robert— secure today in the knowledge that it ultimately turned out well.
Stuck running a business they knew little about, and faced with making it a success or bankrupting their parents, the three oldest Whitcomb boys—Robert, Douglas and William—got the most primal of business lessons.
“We really went from the frying pan to the fire because learning the business takes time given the proper opportunity,” Robert explains,“but when you have notes to pay and your revenue is not enough to cover it you really have some serious issues. By definition and by necessity we had to learn to control costs and we had to grow revenue.We learned to massage the customer base and to pay close attention to them and they very quickly learned from us that we care a lot about the customer.”
He says he already had some of that instinct for customer service from working in some of his father’s side-business laundromats while growing up.“I learned that the customer is always right, essentially, and even when he’s wrong, you have to be polite and you have to take these difficult situations and turn them into positive ones.”
Still, it was a very difficult time. Robert remembers having to meet the utility man every month and either have a check or face getting the switch turned off.“We never missed a payment,” he says proudly.“We eventually paid all our debts and never went bankrupt.”
The Whitcombs finally sold the Bon Bon in 1987 to concentrate on their contract management operations.
Wedding? Company Picnic? Call Party Central!
If you were to operate an off-premise catering business, few markets would top Long Island and its many affluent suburban communities and industrial parks as a core market. It is a niche Whitsons has been exploiting for over a decade, and since the mid-90s with a dedicated division called Whitsons Fabulous Foods (recently changed to Andrew’s Fabulous Food & Event Management to honor Andrew, the Whitcomb brother who is the company’s executive chef).
The bulk of the business comes between May and September and involves graduations, wedding receptions and family reunions, often at private homes, as well as outdoor company parties at some of Long Island’s public parks, including a water park where it is the official caterer. Holiday parties are another staple business, and one that boomed this past year as companies scaled back events at rented halls in favor of more modest celebrations, either at the workplace or even in executives’ private homes—perfect occasions for what Andrews provides.
“We don’t compete with the wedding factories and country clubs,” says Whitsons Catering Director Eric Redlich.“We offer individualized, high-quality food and event management services and I don’t think there’s anybody out there doing it as well as we are, in terms of what our capabilities are.We’re not the type of caterer who is holding your food in a warmer for five hours.”
Andrews brings major resources to its business. It utilizes a fleet of 50 vehicles, including mobile kitchens “the size of UPS trucks,” says Redlich, as well as its own inventory of servingware and accessories for all sorts of themed events, all stored in its own 8,000-sq.ft warehouse. A lot of food prep is accomplished in the Whitsons culinary center at the company’s corporate headquarters in Huntington Station, NY, where its busy weekends contrast perfectly with the weekday schedule of the Culinary Center division. Space and labor are shared to control costs.
Andrews also provides Whitsons staffers with extra work opportunities, offering overtime and event pay. Managers operating in seasonal segments such as schools can also be put to productive use, especially since their down time coincides with Andrews’ peak summer season.
Andrews does most of its business on Long Island but also operates in surrounding states. It was crucial to the Whitsons effort to feed workers at the Twin Towers following the 9-11 tragedy and also did catering for rescue and cleanup workers at the site of the subsequent plane crash in Rockaway on Long Island.
“We got there when the plane parts literally were still burning and remained for three days straight,” Redlich recalls.“We served a couple hundred meals a day in the bitter cold, so it was lots of soup and chicken pot pies, anything warming.”
Fabulous Foods realizes around $1.2 million in revenues annually (though Redlich says it manages some $3 million, including many onsite catered events hosted by other Whitsons divisions to which it lends expertise). Aside from catering private events, it also picks up off-season business by catering business conference lunches and dinners at the many corporate parks in the surrounding communities, where it offers a cost-effective on-premise alternative to renting hotel facilities.
Triumph from tragedy
There is nothing Whitsons can ever do that is likely to top in memory its contributions to the post-9/11 efforts.The company was at the forefront from the very beginning not only in feeding the rescue workers for the many months that they worked at the World Trade Center site, but was on the leading edge of coordinating the effort to get meals from local restaurants to workers.
“The night of September 11, we were meeting here with our whole team, talking about what we could do,” Robert Whitcomb recalls,“when a call from the Salvation Army came, asking, ‘Can you get us 30,000 meals by tomorrow?’
To meet that initial demand,Whitsons teamed with several local mobile caterers to make enough sandwiches overnight and deliver them the following morning.They were met by a request for 50,000 more, which then quickly escalated.
“There was a lot of confusion because no one had been through something like this before so no one knew what to expect,” Whitcomb explains. “They just knew that what they needed was beyond description, so they’d call in numbers that didn’t make sense.”
The company quickly concluded that actual demand would best be gauged and met with onsite production, not deliveries of prepared food. A mobile kitchen was brought in the second day; eventually the 24- hour/seven-day operation would feed over 1,500 workers a day in two 12-hour shifts.
Later, the operation expanded to multiple sites, including the Medical Examiner’s operation and the Shea Stadium staging area. Whitsons President Douglas Whitcomb, Vice President Kelly Ann Friend and Merchandising Director Erin Norton spearheaded the company’s efforts. Friend and Norton also coordinated the enormously complex logistic undertaking posed by the foodservice industry’s Downtown Alliance effort, which brought meals prepared by downtown Manhattan restaurants to rescue workers, giving the establishments a revenue stream at a time when other business was slow to nonexistent.
“We had more than 150 restaurants participating, each with different capacities and different menus,” Friend says.“We had to coordinate who would prepare how many meals each day, get them delivered and them document it so they could be reimbursed.” The Alliance provided 6,000 meals a day on a cycle that tried to provide daily variety while giving everybody a piece of the business.