Robert Whitcomb: Family Ties

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Robert Whitcomb learned foodservice the hard way, and it took his entire family to make the business thrive.

Bob Whitcomb, Whitsons Culinary Group, Silver Plate 2009, FoodService Director, April 2009

At A Glance: Robert Whitcomb
•Chairman and CEO
•Whitsons Culinary Grou, Islandia, N.Y.
•Grew up in Huntington Station, N.Y.
•Bachelor's of business administration from Hofstra University
•Married to Mary Lou; four children Ashley, 31, Ryan, 26, Shannon, 23, Robert, 16
•Enjoys spending time with his family, lounging poolside and traveling. He is planning a trip to South Africa this year

•Oversees Whitsons Culinary Group, a contract management company with an annual budget of $95 million. Whitsons serves approximately 250,000 meals per day at more than 200 locations. Whitcomb leads a team of 2,000 full-time and part-time team members.

•Whitsons Culinary Group is made up of corporate dining, school nutrition and a culinary development center. At the culinary development center, Whitsons produces products for its dining clients as well as prepared meals.

•Whitcomb's strength is in his ability to develop programs to meet the changing demands of his customers. For example, to meet the demand for lower cost items in light of the current economy, he has launched programs such as Target 5, which enables customers to buy a complete meal for $5, and Budget Bowls, which are small portioned meals that keep costs down.

From his humble beginnings running the family coffee shop, Robert Whitcomb has helped his family-he's one of nine children, eight of whom work at Whitsons-turn that coffee shop into a $95 million contract foodservice company, Whitsons Culinary Group. As CEO and Chairman, Whitcomb still believes in his family's philosophy of treating customers and colleagues with dignity and respect, and this belief has served him well during his 30 years in foodservice.

"When my dad retired, he decided he wanted to start a family business. So in 1979, he, my brother Doug and I came together and helped purchase a restaurant in Garden City, N.Y., called the Bon Bon Restaurant. But because my dad decided to mortgage the family farm, Doug and Bill immediately started working there and I came along a month later. My dad was a pretty quiet person, so Doug, Bill and I managed the restaurant and pretty much learned the business the hard way. I call it a massive and very expensive learning experience. We had committed to buying the owner's second shop in the first deal, so six months later, before we knew what we were doing, we opened the Blue Chip. Both were coffee shops. We had to dig deep to survive, which meant putting on aprons and working the counter and grill ourselves-you name it; we did it.

My dad died in 1984. When he died we got together as a family and said, ‘What are we doing here?' The truth is we were very seriously thinking about how to get out, but we couldn't. We had to rededicate ourselves, find new avenues of growth and bring culture around the company. So we decided to implement a philosophy of always treating our customers and team members with dignity and respect. We figured if we did that, we could grow the business.

What we found was that we had a very loyal customer following. We had several business people in our community come and say, ‘We love your food, could you come in and run our company café?' We would cook at the restaurants and transport the food to these cafés. Our first client was an insurance company, and once that was successful other people wanted the same thing for their cafés. Soon we realized that the restaurants weren't really equipped to do all the cooking, so started putting chefs on site. It allowed us to grow on the contract management side when we didn't even know what that was.

Because we grew in an exploratory way, we were able to grow in several different avenues. We have the corporate dining group and the school nutrition group, where we focus mostly on K-12. We also have culinary development, which has grown into a huge business for us. That grew from some small catering contracts to our culinary development center, which is a 55,000-square-foot facility that houses our corporate headquarters and has space for full-meal and product development and production. It is serving an enormous number of meals on a daily basis to institutional customers and direct-to-consumer brands.

We're trying to be sensitive to the fact that customers are under pressure because of the economy. They seem to be coming in with the same frequency, but they're just spending less. So we've done several things to cater to these customers. We have the Target 5 program, which was developed to give the customers a better deal. The program offers an entrée that costs $5 with tax and it's very successful. Anything we can do at that $5 and below is magical-people will participate. We also have something called Budget Bowls where we put smaller portions of stir-fry, compound salads or grill specials in what looks like Chinese takeout containers. By creating these Budget Bowls, we're able to get the price point down a little bit and make it easier for customers to come in.

Across all our businesses we have a big emphasis on nutrition. We have an edge in that because we can use the culinary center to create products that can be used in corporate dining and school nutrition that are nutritious and not available elsewhere. A lot of times these things are available, but they are very high-cost, so the trick is to make them available and affordable.  This is especially important in school nutrition. It definitely resulted in higher sales per capita than we ever had before.

One thing I'm very proud of is the very significant concept program we've developed. Every station-from the grill to the world market station-has been very fully developed with recipes, food specifications and instructions on presentation and promotion. We've just recently created, particularly for corporate dining, a cycle menu that incorporates all of the signature stations. It doesn't tell the account exactly what to run, but it gives them a range of options. What it allows us to do is get a better purchase price on products and give the customer a good value. We take the same concepts and we apply them in school nutrition.

Looking forward, I'm very excited about continuing to integrate products from the culinary center into the various businesses in different ways. I'm going to be looking for opportunities for products that can fit for both groups, which can be made efficiently with a high nutritional value. Since our business is growing, we have more people interested in growing with us. It puts us in a position where we can seek out high-quality business partners.

I think what makes us successful is the fact that we run our business the same as we ran it in 1979. The restaurants were built around giving quality customer service. So we're trying to live like we always did, and we want to make sure our systems are serving that same purpose. That is a challenge as you grow. Anyone can come in and talk to me or my brothers or sister about anything. There is also that added challenge of working in a family business, which has its advantages and disadvantages. There are currently eight of my siblings working for the business. What makes it work is that we all specialize in different areas. Doug's president; Mike does purchasing; Beth is CFO; Johnny manages school nutrition; Bill is in vending; Paul is in charge of sales; Andy is a chef-we all take these areas and become experts in them. The disadvantage of working with your family is, obviously, everyone doesn't always agree, but we always work it out. It's especially helpful in tough times like these because everyone pulls together. I think another advantage is that it's part of our corporate culture-our employees and customers can be a part of our family in a sense. It's part of who we are and we can't deny it."