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Serving up success

by system
Mon, May 14th 2007 12:00 am
Business First  [ View Original Article ]


Making sure a school cafeteria menu has a balance between nutritional, healthy foods that actually taste good isn't an easy task.

But that's a job carried out every day by Personal Touch Food Service for thousands of diners at dozens of schools throughout the Western New York schools, as well as resident facilities and businesses.

Beginning with one school back in 1985, the company has grown a reputation for quality staffing - quality food - that has allowed it to maintain some of its original contracts, some for over 20 years. It's a mainstay for the business, said Jim McHugh, president and founder.

"Through reputation and networking, the company has continued to grow over the years," he said, adding that personal touch is more than just a catchy name. "If the phone rings and there's a problem, we have the ability to be at that location in half an hour. Now one can really match our response time."

What's going on: Personal Touch provides food service management for 18 public school districts and 11 private schools and colleges, as well as businesses, religious residences and retirement facilities. The company provides cafeteria services, including staffing, management and some vending.

Who's who: Jim McHugh, president and founder; Dave Cervi, vice president

The company has 500 employees, 300 of them full-time positions, and nearly all off-site spread over locations in seven counties.

What was you and your company's biggest accomplishment this past year? Earlier this year, the company launched a wellness and nutrition program that includes educational programming, as well as menu and ingredient changes like non-trans fat oils, more whole grains and some whole wheat products as well as shifting from nacho cheese to light cheeses and changing to lower-fat soup bases. Though the company had been making nutritional changes in recent years in response to client needs, as well as requests by parents and students, the new program meets strict public school wellness policies, and in some cases, exceeds them, Cervi said.

"At the beginning of the year, we made a commitment to identify ways to have an immediate impact on the way we prepare or purchase our foods," he said. "What we've tried to do is manage what we're offering to make sure it fits in our program and theirs, and it's something that a kid would want."

What was the most extravagant business expense this year that was more than worth the price? Creating the health and wellness plan has so far been a $25,000-$30,000 endeavor, and costs will continue as the educational components continue to be developed and rotate monthly through the client sites.

"It's not like buying and showing off a piece of machinery, but it's proactive on our part," McHugh said. "It's putting together and disseminating information that will help our reputation in the longterm, and information that's important to the school districts and parents."

Describe how your company has grown over the years: McHugh started the business in 1985 just after graduation from Canisius College. He had worked his way through college working in food service, ultimately managing the cafeteria. McHugh was doing some networking when he was approached by officials at Canisius High School who encouraged him to start his own business.

"They also assisted me by making contacts for me at Holy Angels and Mount Mercy, so at the age of 25, I was lucky enough to start off with three of the private high schools," he said.

For the first 17 years in business, Personal Touch operated from Canisius High School, going from a 20-square-foot office to a 500-square-foot space, then the school allowed him to build-out a 2,500-square-foot space formerly used as a Jesuit residence on the school grounds. Four years ago, McHugh bought the former 97Rock building on Franklin Street, where he now occupies 5,000-square-feet and leases additional space to a tenant.

The company went through a period of fast growth in the mid 90s, but has since slowed to steady growth of about 5 percent per year. Keeping its customer base in Western New York is a planned strategy, Cervi said.

"We've been very proud of our restraint in growth we can handle," he said. "That's one of the reasons why we've kept our clients to this day. We understand what we're capable of doing."

Current revenues: Company revenues are between $10 million and $15 million

What does your company do to promote diversity? The company hosts a charitable event each year where employees are invited to work at Cradle Beach Camp for a day. The carnival and picnic is an opportunity for employees and their families to get together while providing a service to the community.

What is one "growing pain" you've experienced while building your business? The biggest challenge always has remained finding and retaining good personnel, Cervi said.

"Many of the jobs in this industry may be transitional - they may not be career-type things," he said. "It's important that we stay on top of our recruiting to make sure we retain the best talent that we can. It's a very competitive market."

Tell us about the first dollars you put into your business? McHugh was able to get $20,000 in bank financing from the start since he had his first three contracts all lined up. For collateral, he used a 1976 Comet, as well as references from his clients. But because all of his first clients were schools that were off for the summer, there were lean times when he relied on credit cards and family assistance to keep the cash flow going. Seven years ago, McHugh used a loan backed by the Small Business Administration to acquire a small company and for debt consolidation.

In which department/area do you expect see the most growth over the next year? Using the wellness program as a tool, Cervi hopes to land contracts with new schools who may not have considered using an outside vendor. Word travels fast in the Western New York community, and clients have already started talking with their colleagues about the program, McHugh said.

"It's a small community - there's not a lot of secrets out there," he said. "Our clients have been our strongest advocates."