By Tim O'Connor
To Alto-Shaam President Steve Maahs, the last real innovation in cooking was the microwave oven. But as any chef will tell you, microwaves don’t produce high-quality dishes. They trade speed for flavor and, as a result, they are sparingly used in professional kitchens. But today’s consumers want food to be both fast and delicious, challenging manufacturers to develop new equipment that can offer both. “The way society is moving, everything has to be quick,” Maahs says. “We want fresh and we want quality and [we] want it fast. Sometimes those things are opposing dynamics as opposed to dynamics in concert with one another.”
With its Vector® Multi-Cook Oven, Alto-Shaam believes it has achieved that balance between speed and quality. The product offers multiple cooking chambers in a single oven, each capable of cooking at a different temperature and being set at different fan speeds and cooking times. By using exclusive Structured Air Technology ®, the Vector Multi-Cook Oven uses high speed upward and downward air flow to focus heat, delivering faster and more even cooking than convection ovens. Further, it is waterless and is available in countertop and full-size models to accommodate any kitchen space.
The first Vector Multi-Cook Oven hit the market about 18 months ago and sales have been encouraging. “Results are exceeding my expectations,” Maahs says. “I do believe the industry is starved for innovation.You go to any show, any conference, and that’s a consistent theme.”
Promising sales, thus far, could signal that the industry is finally speeding up its adoption of new technologies as the next generation of restauranteurs enter the field, says Maahs. “It very well may be younger chefs are more open to adapting than prior [generations],” he contends.
Alto-Shaam’s multi-cook oven is the latest in a six-decade legacy of pushing forward cooking technology. Maahs’ father, Jerry, founded the company in 1955 and was the inventor of Halo Heat® technology, which uses gentle heat to keep food warm without the use of extreme heat elements that can dry out dishes. The breakthrough allowed for better holding cabinets and the first cook-and-hold ovens, which are common in kitchens today.
Alto-Shaam’s next breakthrough came in the early 1990s when it brought Combitherm® ovens to North America. The technology, which replaces the functions of a convection oven, kettle, steamer, fryer, and dehydrator, originated in Europe but Alto-Shaam was one of the first manufacturers to license it for the American market. “We were the third combi oven maker in the country and now there are 30-plus,” Maahs says.
Today, it sells products in more than 90 countries and has sales offices and inventory located in cities around the world. However, every piece of equipment the company produces is still made at its facility in Menomonee Falls, Wis., which Maahs believes gives Alto-Shaam a closer connection to its American customers.
He credits the manufacturer’s accession to its commitment to making quality products that are easy to use and service. “I believe that in today’s environment, whether it’s in this industry or everyday life, that a quality customer experience is something that’s in significant decline,” he says. “We strive to provide a high level of customer service. I think you need to do more than focus on product.”
In accordance with that approach, Alto-Shaam practices selective distribution and chooses only distributors and dealers that want to be part of its customer service network. Because it limits which sellers it works with, the manufacturer can offer more training and support through the 25 test kitchens it operates at its headquarters and around the country. “We’re constantly running training sessions in our facility here in Wisconsin to train and educate distributors,” Maahs says.
Leading through Innovation
As the second-generation owners of a family business, Maahs, along with his sister, CEO Karen Hansen, understands the importance of continuing the company’s reputation for innovation.He officially joined Alto-Shaam in 1988 but grew up doing small jobs at the company’s facility. That experience has served Maahs well now that he’s in a leadership position. “I’ve done the factory work, production floor work, field service, customer training—so I’m able to relate to pretty much the entire employee base,” Maahs says.
Under the siblings’ leadership, Alto-Shaam has remained a bright spot in the foodservice equipment industry. The company has experienced a compound growth rate of 10 percent during the past five years despite not having made any acquisitions in that period. Maahs believes that growth is a testament to the manufacturer’s ability to satisfy customers. “We focus on selective distribution as well as providing eye-level customer service and customer experience,” he notes.
Maintaining a close relationship with its customers enables Alto-Shaam to stay ahead of industry trends. With the rising popularity of pop-up restaurants and delivery services, kitchen space is at a premium. Cooking areas are getting tighter every year and Alto-Shaam is introducing products that cater to its users’ evolving requirements, most recently by introducing more flexible and ventless equipment that can be placed anywhere. “Having equipment that can perform multiple functions is needed,” Maahs says.
The next level in the relationship between Alto-Shaam and its customers is involving end users in the development of its products—a request Maahs hears often. “We’re not being overwhelmed, but more customers would like to be engaged early with a manufacturer as they are developing new products,” he says.
It’s not just the big chain, he notes, but even the smaller-scale customers want to be in on the front end of product development. More restaurants are now offering to field test equipment so that they can provide feedback and get a glimpse of the advancements that could be coming to kitchens in the near future.
Maahs says Alto-Shaam is excited to take users up on that offer. “We’re always looking for field test sites, beta test sites,” he explains. “Those are hard to come by so if someone says, ‘I want to beta test with you,’ we’re open to that. You have to get the products in the field because the lab can’t replicate everything that happens out there.” ■