Firm Offers A Slick New Service

August 30, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Greg LieVan brought a new service to the KentCounty food service industry with his opening of a local FiltaFry franchise in June, and is already halfway to his account goal.

Cleaning and maintaining deep-fat fryers is one of the most unpleasant tasks in the food service industry. Often done late at night, the task is time-consuming and unpleasant. In an effort to minimize the risks of dealing with hot oil, the fryer is cleaned while cool, which causes the oil to become thick and unmanageable. Once emptied, the fryer is cleaned with solvent chemicals in a process called boiling out.

The oil used in the fryers is normally thrown away once it has deteriorated and is no longer of usable quality. This practice makes frying oil one of the few food products that restaurants and food service providers are not able to convert into a revenue-creating product. Unlike food, beverages and liquor, cooking oil loses its value as it is consumed, so the longer its use is maintained, the more value it provides the company.

"That was the primary thing that got me interested," LieVan said. "We get paid out of our customers' savings. The goal is to cost the restaurant nothing. We get their oil to last longer, the food tastes better — it's a real value story being brought to the restaurant. And usually we can add savings back into their budget."

FiltaFry offers a unique mobile onsite service for the micro-filtration of cooking oil and vacuum-based cleaning of deep-fat fryers. Fryers strain cooking oil to around 200 microns, while LieVan's service filters the cooking oil to 3 microns. The higher filtration removes contamination that drives the breakdown of the oil. Cleaner oil affects the quality of the final product, but more importantly, the filtering can potentially double the life of the oil. That could cut the cost of frying oil for a restaurant in half, he said.

The cleaning portion of the service eliminates boil-outs, providing savings in labor costs, while the service's regular checks of temperature gauges and equipment can prevent food loss and accidents due to equipment malfunction. Both help alleviate some of the threat of accidents, burns and other injuries to staff associated with the frying operation, providing a possible reduction in lost time and insurance claims.

The service is unique in that United Kingdom-based FiltaFry is the only established company worldwide that offers such a process and service. Currently, the eight-year-old corporation has virtually no competition in the U.K, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Mexico, or in the United States, a market it entered only two years ago.

A 20-year veteran of the semiconductor and aerospace industries, LieVan discovered FiltaFry late last year through an Internet search. He was at that time the business development manager for Smiths Aerospace in Cascade, a position he had relocated his family from Plano, Texas, to take. Caught in the middle of a rift within the company, LieVan began parallel searches for new employment and possible entrepreneurship opportunities.

FiltaFry, with its custom yellow Ford Aerostar vans and its overseas success, caught his eye. By February he had finished his due diligence on the franchise, and had begun the transition into the new industry.

"It's a big jump in the type of products and the type of sales," LieVan explained. "But it's still people. You've still got to have compelling reasons and provide value. The interpersonal dynamics are really nothing new."

Since its launch in June, the service has gained 14 accounts, including a number of Applebee's locations, a Rio Grand Steakhouse, a T.G.I. Friday's and The BOB.

With currently one van and one full-time technician, LieVan is capable of accommodating only slightly over 30 accounts. A service visit takes less than an hour, but the majority of LieVan's customers operate on parallel schedules. None can afford to clean the fryers, even one at a time, during the busy lunch hour or at dinnertime, so there are only a few hours available each day when the majority of restaurants can be serviced.

"We're trying to add more accounts that only serve dinner," he said, "so we can take advantage of some of that extra day time."

With some variations nationwide, 30 percent to 50 percent of FiltaFry's market has historically been found within institutional food service including cafeterias and catering, such as those found at hospitals, large factories and schools. LieVan has yet to approach any such companies.

"I don't want to take on more than I can handle," he said.

With nearly $100,000 invested in the beginning phase of his business, LieVan intends to add two more service vans within the next 18 months as he expands his operation across KentCounty

"You know I haven't really sat down and digested our growth in the first month," he said. "I think we're right about on track, though. The first expansion cycles I plan to move a little slower than the next two as we learn some of the fundamentals of the business, but we're on course to hit our conservative goal of adding another van in six months."    

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