By Stacy Ward
Editor in Chief
Hatco’s president, David Rolston, can point to just about any product in his company’s catalog and link its origin back to a specific customer request. “That’s been a big key to our success,” says the former GE engineer. “We solve a problem and then expand on the options and features.”
One of those solutions is a variation of the widely-used chute that helps transport burgers and other food items from the back of the house to the front of the house. “Those were requested by Burger King years ago,” says Rolston. “They had a unique shape and length, and we built them exactly as requested. Later, we realized we could sell them to other operators, so we made a standard set of specs and put it in our catalog. It was a popular item.”
More recently, a customer’s request led to Hatco adding an optional digital controller to its line of drawer warmers. There’s always been a mechanical thermostat built into the unit, but a touch panel and screen now give operators more control. They can set varying temperatures and times for each drawer as well as monitor food quality. “It’s really basic stuff but it’s not the kind of technology that’s always been incorporated into our industry because it drives the price up,” says Rolston.
Now, for many foodservice operators, leaning on technology is a must—particularly when it comes to managing the challenges that come with the day-to-day. For most operators, labor recruitment continues to be one of the most pressing. Two years ago, the annual employee turnover rate in the restaurant and hospitality sector was 73 percent, which costs the average full-service restaurant operator about $146,600 annually after expenses like training, paperwork and performance are factored in, according to the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University.
Meanwhile, intense competition is causing a spike in wages, which is driving up the cost of labor. The labor pool continues to shrink because of an explosion of new restaurants in certain markets. Energy costs in restaurants are among the highest and concerns around how to reduce waste are growing. Among the bright spots, food costs have continued to go down but all of the above is blocking the trickle of bottom-line payoff.
Adding even more context, Technomic’s Joe Pawlak reported at this year’s Restaurant Directions Conference in Nashville that “going back to World War II, only five other periods have been this tight on labor.”
Given the foodservice industry’s current struggles with cost containment and recruitment and retention, Hatco has been focusing its equipment solutions on two of the most burdensome issues, labor and waste. “We’re very conscious of trying to design and build equipment that’s easy to use and convenient for menus, and provides flexibility from one day to another,” says Rolston. “One of the biggest problems we see in the industry is that food either gets overcooked or undercooked so anything that helps reduce that food waste is valuable.”
Built-in timers, hot/cold shelves that allow a quick transition from hot to cold menu items and dual heated-and-refrigerated wells all address operators’ equipment preferences for ease of use, speed and versatility. “One of Hatco’s greatest strengths is the versatility that we build into the products that we offer,” says Rolston. “For instance, many of our warmers can be equipped with a wide variety of different sized pans. Our Ovention® products store literally a thousand programs that will cook food to perfection, and our toasters handle bread, bagels, muffins, sweet rolls, and many other items. We like to think that the products we make can work well with not only today’s food favorites but those that have not yet been developed.”
There’s also a heavy emphasis on making sure that each piece of Hatco equipment lasts a very long time—something that the brand is known for throughout the industry and was celebrated in the 50th issue of the company’s newsletter, “Hot Topics.” Reminiscing about the launch of its first product, the Electric Booster Water Heater, the manufacturer noted, “In 2011, a Hatco representative discovered a 50-year-old Booster Water Heater that had been installed in a church in Minnesota. The church had been remodeled numerous times, but the Booster Water Heater always stayed, doing its job quietly and unassumingly.”
Another vintage model was found in a school in Ohio.
“Our goal is to provide reliable equipment that our customers will never have to worry about,” says Rolston, “and both end users and dealers tell us, ‘If I buy Hatco, I never have to worry about it. It’s going to be reliable and if it’s not, you’re going to fix it.”
“I can’t tell you we’ve never had failures because certainly we have,” says Rolston. “We build a product that’s made by users. We stand behind it. We fix it, and we don’t give a lot of grief about it.’
That level of commitment to quality—and operators’ willingness to pay for it—is what Rolston thinks has helped Hatco go where only it has dared to venture in E&S. Upwards of 60 foodservice E&S manufacturers have Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) policies but Hatco is the lone wolf when it comes to embracing Minimum Resale Pricing (MRP).
“After the law was changed, we thought that others would either follow us or that the market would tell us that we could no longer do it,” says Rolston. “Neither really happened and we continued to have an MRP policy. It is the one thing that has allowed us to maintain our brand and steer the conversation away from price. It’s helped us discourage that race-to-the-bottom mentality.” ■