Alto-Shaam Inc. is one of the best-known names in the restaurant industry. Most Americans have eaten food prepared with one or more of the company’s systems, but most people don’t know what the Menomonee Falls-based company does.
The company, founded 55 years ago, is best known for its cook and hold ovens, known in the restaurant industry as prime rib ovens. When they were developed, the ovens made it possible for restaurants to cook and serve large pieces of prime rib. The ovens are able to detect when the internal temperature of the meat has reached a predetermined point, and then switch to a holding temperature.
“In the food service industry, (a cook and hold oven is) usually called an Alto-Shaam,” said Robert Simmelink, corporate executive chef and business development manager in its domestic sales division. “Our sizes run from a countertop unit to a large double oven. They can handle anything from 20 pounds to up to a 240 pound capacity.”
Alto-Shaam’s cook and hold ovens rely on a patented system it calls Halo Heat, which uses a thermal cable, connected to a thermostat, which is wrapped around the heating or holding area. Halo Heat systems effectively and evenly distribute heat, eliminating hot spots and uniformly cooking food.
Today, Alto-Shaam uses its Halo Heat system in more than heat and hold ovens – it produces display cases, drawer warming units, banquet carts, smokers and other heating or temperature-holding devices with the technology.
The company also makes a wide range of Combi-therm ovens and steamers, which have also become prominent features in many commercial kitchens.
“Today, Alto-Shaam is the national leader – we supply more combi steamers than anyone else in the country,” said Jack Scott, vice president of sales and marketing. “And our boilerless technology, which produces steam without a boiler, eliminates about 80 percent of the maintenance (that a typical steamer needs).”
The boilerless technology has made Alto-Shaam’s Combi-them ovens and steamers much more reliable than its competitors. While the company’s products frequently cost more than its competitors, it still holds the largest market share.
“Reliability is huge to casinos, cruise boats and resorts,” Scott said. “And they all have Alto-Shaam units because they are more reliable than anything else.”
Alto-Shaam sells its products in 90 countries around the world through four corporate offices in North America and Europe, said Todd Griffith, vice president of sales and marketing.
Part of the company’s success has been its ability to develop large, complex systems that allow resorts and casinos to feed large numbers of guests with a minimal staff.
“We have banquet systems that can feed 12,000 people at a sit-down dinner,” Griffith said. “They combine combi-steamers with blast chillers and companion warming technology. With these systems, one person can handle 40 trays of food from production to plating.”
The Menomonee Falls company also has a large presence in grocery stores and delis that use rotisseries, deli cases and warming display cases.
“Supermarkets have gotten back to some of the prepared meat sales that they lost to quick service restaurants,” Griffith said. “Our sales there are rocketing. People are trading down from places like Olive Garden and other restaurants.”
Alto Shaam was founded by Jerry Maahs in 1955, and his children, Steve Maahs and Karen Hansen, still own it. The company has about 325 employees and occupies about 220,000 square feet of space in two buildings.
In response to the soft economy, the company went through a lean transformation earlier this year, changing many of its processes and the layout of its facilities.
“These changes increased our efficiency and cut our waste enough for us to finish 2009 in a good position,” said Steve Maahs, president of the company. “Because we don’t expect the economy to dramatically improve in 2010, we’re already making the necessary manufacturing and sales adjustments to ensure we come out of 2010 in a similar condition.”