Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Welbilt Corporation
Sales: $105 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 3556 Food Products Machinery; 3589 Service Industry Machinery, Not Elsewhere Classified; 3634 Electric House wares & Fans; 3822 Environmental Controls; 5046 Commercial Equipment, Not Elsewhere Classified; 5099 Durable Goods, Not Elsewhere Classified
Frymaster Corporation, a subsidiary of Welbilt, is the leading manufacturer of commercial, open-pot fryers in the United States. It also manufactures pasta cookers and three different gas-fired fryers not utilizing the open-pot design. Its primary units, its deep-well, high volume open-pot fryers, are used for preparing a wide-range of fried foods in restaurants and fast-food chains both in the United States and abroad, particularly in Europe’s Common Market countries. According to the company’s president, David E. Mosteller, “nine out of the top 10 hamburger chains in the U.S. use Frymaster either predominantly or exclusively.” The same equipment is used by these chains operating overseas. Frymaster’s ultimate parent is London-based Berisford International PLC, an international conglomerate with investments in food, property, and commodity trading as well as kitchen equipment and building materials. Berisford has customers in over 65 countries.
Frymaster was founded in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1935 by P.F. Ratcliff, who was then struggling to keep his family business, Ratcliff Barbecue and Market, viable, a tough job during the Great Depression. Although he never progressed beyond a grade-school education, Ratcliff was a gifted amateur inventor who constantly tinkered in his two-car garage in Shreveport. It was there that he fabricated the first Frymaster deep fryer using the new idea of the open frypot and master jet burner, a design eliminating the need for visible heat exchangers that made pot cleaning difficult.
His business was slow in developing, partly because Rat-cliff was forced to pinch pennies. His first fryers looked crude, but he was able to sell them to area restaurants because they worked better than established-brand fryers. Although it was tough going, he gradually began selling fryers to a widening circle of customers, transporting his wares in the trunk of an old Ford coupe that he continued to use until the end of World War II.
In 1939, Ratcliff was able to move his operation from his home garage into a storefront located on Marshall Street. He also hired two men, neither of whom had any previous shop experience. In 1940, just before the war, he added a third employee. The fryers then cost about $50, a price that represented only a small markup above the cost of materials and labor. With the economy in the doldrums throughout the 1930s, there was a relentless need to find sufficient operating funds.
World War II to Ratcliff’s Retirement: 1941-55
Ratcliff’s inventive genius helped his company survive the hard times, both in the Depression and World War II. He worked with a Shreveport doughnut bakery to develop glazing machines and doughnut-proofing boxes, eventually getting patents for the processes. By 1953, the doughnut-making equipment would account for about 20 percent of Frymaster’s sales. However, deciding to specialize in fryers, in the late 1960s the company stopped making the doughnut equipment and sold its patents to another manufacturer.
World War II brought special problems in the form of material shortages and government regulations. In 1942, Frymaster had to get a ruling from the War Production Board stipulating that its fryers did not constitute heating appliances, devices placed under a wartime manufacturing moratorium. Planned expansion was also slowed. Although a slab for a new manufacturing site was poured in 1942, the building was not completed until war’s end. In addition, both raw material and labor were scarce, which slowed down operations considerably.
Growth remained very slow through the late 1940s and into the 1950s. In 1953, there were 29 fryer manufacturers nationwide, and Frymaster ranked dead last in size and sales. But important changes were underway. In that same year, Ratcliff hired the company’s first engineer, L. Frank Moore. Until that time, he had used contract draftsmen for design specifications necessary for patent applications and client literature. Then, in 1955, Ratcliff decided to retire and sold the company to three men: Moore; Hershel H. Herring, the company’s CPA; and Robert L. Dunkelman, who came to Frymaster from General Electric. Herring served as Frymaster’s president from 1956 to 1966, when he retired and sold most of his stock to Travis E. Schermerhorn, Jr., who served as the company’s CFO. Upon Herring’s retirement, Moore became Fry master’s president and CEO, serving in that capacity until 1982.
Technological Development and Growth: 1956-84
In 1955, Frymaster had gross sales of about $400,000. It was still housed in its 28,000-square-foot plant on Fortson St. built at the end of the war. Growth remained slow for another two years, until the company began fabricating more accurate temperature controls and earned design certification on its standard models from the American Gas Association. Its high-efficiency gas fryers gave Frymaster a needed growth nudge, for it was these fryers, equipped with built-in filtration and later computer control, that would eventually attract such customers as McDonald’s and Burger King and turn Frymaster into the world’s leading manufacturer of commercial gas and electric fryers.
The company’s determination to adapt to new technologies accounted for much of its success. In addition to using the open-pot design, early on Frymaster developed and patented fryer jet burners and its doughnut making equipment. In 1954, it built its precision 1° F action thermostat to replace the much less accurate units then in use. Over the next several years it would add cooking computers for precise cooking control, automatic basket lifters, built-in fat filtration systems, integrated pasta cookers, and high-efficiency gas fryers. In combination with the accurate temperature and computer controls and built-in filtration, the high-efficiency fryers provided Frymaster with a fast-growing worldwide market.
Although the company’s customers still include independent restaurants and cafeterias, starting in the 1960s, most of the company’s growth came from rapidly increasing sales to fast-food chains. Besides the fryers’ efficiency, other features appealed to quick-service drive-ins, especially the automatic basket lifters. Frymaster’s first large chain account was Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was followed by Marriott’s, Bob’s Big Boy, and Dairy Queen. McDonald’s joined the ranks of customers after extensive testing of a new, high-performance fryer. For that large and demanding chain, Frymaster incorporated special features, including an automatic melt cycle for frying with shortening and extra safety devices.
In 1965, the company moved to a new site on Hollywood Avenue, made necessary by the spiraling demand for its fryers. The new plant nearly doubled the size of the Fortson St. facility, and over the next few years was enlarged twice, to reach 96,000 square feet, finally to be replaced when Frymaster moved to its current 22-acre site in the 1980s.
By 1975, when Dunkelman retired, Frymaster’s gross sales went over $5 million for the first time. Five years later, in 1980, sales had tripled to over $15 million, with 25 percent coming from foreign orders. The company bought the new site in that year, but signs of market softening put building plans on hold for a couple of years, even though between 1980 and 1984 Frymaster’s sales doubled again.
In 1982, Moore and the Welbilt Corporation formed Wel-moore Industries, a joint venture created to purchase four companies in the Sunbeam (Allegheny International) group of equipment manufacturers, including Frymaster. Moore, as Wel-moore’s president and CEO, appointed Schermerhorn president of Frymaster. Two years later, Moore sold his interest in Fry-master to Welbilt.
Welbilt, founded in 1929 by Henry and Alexander Hirsch, started out making ovens and survived the Depression; but after an ambitious expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, the company almost failed in the economic downturn of the 1970s. Forced to retrench, it restricted its line to commercial cooking equipment and, under the control of Henry Hirsch’s son, Richard, began purchasing companies that manufactured such equipment, a policy that continued after Jerome Kohlberg bought the company in 1987 and Richard Hirsch left the company in 1991. Despite ongoing financial problems, the company survived and by the middle 1990s had became a solid market performer, with Frymaster recognized as being “a strong pillar of Welbilt’s success.” In January 1995, through a stock buyout, Welbilt and its subsidiaries were acquired by London-based Berisford International PLC, Frymaster’s ultimate parent.
It is our goal to continually meet and exceed the expectations of those we serve by performing our work in a quality manner. We not only intend to be error free, but we always work to improve previous performance. Quality has a special meaning with regard to Frymaster’s customers. We will design, build and service our products in a manner which makes us the best fryer manufacturer anywhere in the world. The emphasis in quality extends from the smallest detail to the issues of greatest importance. Frymaster’s success rests solely on the degree to which each of us makes the quality of our performance our most important objective.
It was in 1987 that David E. Mosteller became president of Frymaster, coming to the company from Toastmaster Corporation, where he had served as president from 1985 to 1987. Before that he had served as vice-president of operations for ITT-Blackburn and also in managerial positions with L.P. Nelson Corporation and GE Food Service Equipment Division. In 1990, he also became Welbilt’s vice-president of international operations. Since Mosteller directed two other Welbilt subsidiaries—Varmixer and Dean—Frymaster enjoyed a close working relationship to two other manufacturers of commercial cooking equipment. Dean fabricated fryers at its facility in Gardena, California, while Varimixer, also located in Shreve-port, manufactured commercial mixers, featuring more sizes than any other line. Dean fryers appealed to a different market segment than Frymaster’s and used an entirely different Thermo-Tube heat-transfer rather than an open-pot design.
Throughout the 1980s, Frymaster continued to lead the industry in adapting to changes in technology. It refined its highly efficient infrared burners and fully-controlled programmable cooking, utilizing fryers that automatically adjusted the cooking time and temperature, filtered out the waste, and shut themselves down. These features justified their cost, which in 1987, for example, ranged from $1,600 to $5,500, depending on size and features. Importantly, the automated and computerized controls guaranteed uniformity in taste, an extremely important factor in sales to giant food chains.
1990s: Physical Expansion and Automation
In 1991, Frymaster began transforming its 170,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Shreveport into a state-of-the-art facility. The company planned a system that could employ computer-assisted automation, utilizing bar codes and radio frequency data communications (RF/DC) to streamline its operation and track and validate business orders and inventories. It also began using CAD/CAM automation, cutting unit parts from sheet metal with laser precision and moving them to assembly or inventory storage locations on fully-automated vehicles. Bar code scanners and RF/DC terminals were introduced to keep track of both inventories and work-in-progress, speeding both the handling and shipping of buyers’ orders.
In 1992, when it employed about 430 workers, Frymaster won the coveted “E Star” award given by the U.S. Department of Commerce for excellence in exporting. At that time, about one-third of the company’s annual sales of over $50 million were made in foreign markets. It also registered with the International Standards Organization by meeting the five ISO 9000 standards for quality assurance accepted around the world, a virtual must for companies doing business in Europe.
Since 1992, the company has made additional modifications to improve its operation. For a brief time, company executives considered expanding into surrounding states or even Mexico, but giving a vote of confidence to the workers in the Shreveport area, decided to stay and grow in Louisiana. By the mid-1990s, Frymaster had enlarged it plant to 250,000 square feet and further refurbished its operation. In 1997, new tooling was also introduced. Until that year, Frymaster had used Mate Precision Tooling’s standard 112 tools for its stamping operations, but its new, high-speed turret machines needed a better system. The company found that the old 112 tools were wearing too quickly, either getting dull too soon or failing altogether. For example, the 0.109” round punch, used for nibbling corners in steel panels, had to be replaced after each run. The solution was to move to Mate Precision Marathon Tooling, which provided much more durable service and improved the quality of the machined parts. The new tools lasted an average of 15 times longer before requiring resharpening and greatly curtailed the need for the manual intervention of tool operators. In 1998 Frymaster again expanded, adding 150,000 square feet to its plant. It also began recruiting additional employees, boosting its workforce to about 650, with plans to eventually bring that figure to around 720.
Company Problems and Prospects
Throughout its history, Frymaster has led the field in many important innovations. It introduced the first high-efficiency fryer, the first fryer with a built-in, automated filtration system, and the first system to use computer-controlled frying. It experimented with a system that virtually eliminated the chance of human error or contamination, automatically taking food from a freezer, depositing it in a fully-automated fryer, removing it when done, and conveying it to the appropriate dumping stations. The company continued to pride itself on the high quality, energy-efficient, and space-saving design of its cookers. Its compact, small-footprint fryers were built to reduce labor and waste. However, responding to consumer trends towards healthier, low-fat foods, Frymaster was also experimenting with oven preparation alternatives to deep-frying. One possibility was oven baking, though there were serious limitations to the method. It both changed the taste of food and made thorough cooking very difficult for fast-food operations.
“We are working on solving these problems, as are many others,” said Mosteller, in a February 1996 article in Appliance Manufacturer. He continued, “If fryers are going to become obsolete someday, then we want to be the ones who make it happen with our own products.” Still, he remained confident that fryers would never be passé. They provided too many foods with a special flavor that no other method of preparation can duplicate. The ubiquitous french fry was a special case in point.
The company continued to push towards the completely automatic fried-food preparation system described above. A prototype of this automated system was introduced in 1994 at the National Restaurant Association Show, but the finished product still remained on the drawing board. However, the company recently introduced SinBaD, a single basket hopper that kept fries frozen and automatically dispensed them into the open-pot fryer one basket at a time. The dispenser saved time, eliminated waste, and reduced food handling and labor, making it particularly well suited to preparing fries during high-volume rush periods. This sort of improvement kept and promised to keep Frymaster on the leading edge of its industry.
Babyak, Richard J., “Frymaster Sizzles As Market Leader, Appliance Manufacturer, February 1966, pp. W20-W24.
“Frymaster Corp.,” Journal of Commerce and Commercial, March 5, 1993, p. 4A.
“Frymaster Receives ISO 9000 Registration,” Nation’s Restaurant News, January 4, 1993, p. 46.
Remich, Norman C., Jr., “Tool Has 15 Lives,” Appliance Manufacturer, July 1997, pp. 41-44.
Ringer, Richard, “Welbilt Sets Merger Agreement,” New York Times, December 21, 1994, p. D4.
“Stamping Out a French-Fry Maker,” Manufacturing Engineering, February 1997, pp. 78-81.
“Strahan to Rep Frymaster, Dean and Bevies,” Nation’s Restaurant News, October 19, 1998, p. 80.
Welsh, Jonathan, “Welbilt to Be Acquired by Berisford in Transaction Valued at $312.7 Million,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), December 21, 1994, p. A6.
“When It’s Hot, It Sizzles,” Automatic ID. News, September 1996, pp. 18, 41.
—John W. Fiero