No matter whether it is a university student center or a hospital cafeteria, the design and equipment in eating environments are important. Fountainhead Foodservice Group plays a major part in helping those venues thrive, President, owner and founder Jim Whiffen says.
Based in Burlington, Mass., the company provides foodservice equipment contracting, as well as design and layout services, space and furniture planning, project management, installation, and custom millwork design and fabrication. A 30-year veteran of the industry, Whiffen started Fountainhead eight years ago.
Previously, he worked for US Foodservice. But when its parent company, Royal Ahold, chose to leave the equipment and design business, Whiffen decided to go out on his own. He took many clients with him, including Compass Group North America and other prominent foodservice operators.
“We were able to continue those relationships,” Whiffen says, noting that the majority of Fountainhead’s work today consists of collegiate and corporate dining venues, including Bowling Green State University and Raytheon Co. “[Those markets comprise] probably 60 percent of our volume.”
Fountainhead’s sales grew to $10 million in 2014, thanks to the addition of its latest client, a prominent hotel chain. “We’ve done 13 installations since February, and we’ve been killing them with service ever since,” Whiffen says.
The company serves clients well, despite a modest operation. “We don’t have a showroom and we don’t have a warehouse,” he says. “We’re a niche business.
“If you were to come to me and say, ‘Give me a venue, a menu and a budget,’ and go away, I could do it,” he says. “Our batting average is pretty good.”
Working on Campus
Whiffen is proud of Fountainhead’s recent university work, which includes a new student center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. With the combination of the equipment that Fountainhead provided and the work of the construction team, the center achieved LEED Gold certification, Project Manager Ryan Peach says.
The company also has completed work at the University of Miami. After aiding the campus with its Student Activities Center in 2013, “We were handed two new pavilions this year: the Hecht-Stanford Dining Center and the Whitten Student Center,” Whiffen recalls.
“Both of those venues were done in about nine weeks,” he continues, noting that the company started work on the buildings when the students left for Memorial Day weekend.
Fountainhead has nurtured a loyal customer base. “Between 70 and 80 percent of our business is repeat,” Whiffen says, noting that these clients include people who he has worked with for many years. These include Henry Patterson, a foodservice partner in The Delta Group, who Whiffen met in the early 1980s.
At the time, Patterson owned a chain of Bel Canto Restaurants. When he anticipated growth and opportunities for franchising, Patterson sought out a consultation from Whiffen, who was working for another firm, S.E. Rykoff Co.
When the two met, Patterson explained that he was trying to determine which pieces of equipment were best for certain applications, including sheet pan racked refrigerators. He then named two brands of reach-in refrigerators, and asked Whiffen to tell him why one was so much more expensive than the other .
Although a previous consultant could not tell Patterson the difference, Whiffen could. “He said, ‘Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the door on [those units],’” Patterson recalls. While one brand had plastic on the inside of the door, the other brand had a door finished with steel.
Whiffen also noted that the plastic doors had a tendency to break if they were closed on a sheet pan while it was still extended. “He knew immediately without my ever saying what I was up against,” Patterson recalls.
“Long story short, this guy is a walking encyclopedia of the features of these pieces of equipment, and [he] understands how these features are relevant to the applications,” he continues. “He’s also a real gentleman.”
Greg Bradley, the director of development at Rita’s Catering, agrees. “I’ve known Jim probably for 15 years,” he says, noting that he met Whiffen while working for a competitor. “Jim did all of our design and build-out work.”
Today, the two work together to meet landlords’ needs. “Jim gets above the competition in his service and attention to detail,” Bradley says. “He does make my life a lot easier. He’s one of the top [people] in this business.”
Bradley also praises Fountainhead’s staff for providing the same high level of service. “I can go to any of the people that work for him and I can get the same quality,” he says.
A Blessed Business
Fountainhead operates with a family style environment that includes an experienced staff, Whiffen says. “I’m surrounded by thoroughbreds,” he says. “As a manager and owner, I’m blessed, because I’ve got great people.”
Peach and Whiffen recently celebrated 10 years of working together, and Project Manager Cheryll Dossas has 20 years of working with Whiffen. His wife, Project Coordinator Wadad Whiffen, also carries 30 years of industry experience.
This expertise enables Fountainhead’s team to quickly develop solutions to its clients’ problems. “When we get out in front of our customers, we’re going to tell them what we’re going to do, not what we’re not going to do,” Jim Whiffen says.
Having a solution early on establishes a mindset on each project, he notes. “Are they going to remember the hornet’s nest [of a problem they had] or the solution 12 hours later?” Whiffen asks. “It won’t be the problem.”
But his staff’s preparation on each project is vital, he asserts. “One of the benchmark quotes of UCLA Coach John Wooden, was ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,’” he says. “We try to get out in front of projects.”
For instance, before Fountainhead completes an installation at a major hotel, the company will check field conditions and points of entry. “I want to make sure we’re not dragging a 700-pound oven through their lobby,” Whiffen says. “You [have] to get out of the way of problems.”
Keeping a skilled staff of “thoroughbreds” can be hard, Whiffen admits. “My biggest challenge is keeping them,” he says. “Everyone’s trying to steal them.”
Fountainhead is enjoying a strong market, Whiffen says. “If you’re not busy right now, there’s something wrong with your company,” he declares. “I’m very happy with where we are at Fountainhead.”
But that does not mean that the company will rest on its laurels. “I want to continue to be good at what we do,” Whiffen says. “I want us to work smart.”
That will include the company not bidding low on projects. “We’re not going to be the bottom feeder,” Whiffen says.
He explains that this gives Fountainhead a “boutique” feel that sets it apart from competitors. “We aren’t going to be for everybody,” he says.
However, its customers are willing to pay. “The fair majority of my work is negotiated,” Whiffen says. “Our customers realize the value of what’s fair and equitable, and that there is a value to customer service.”