Director of Food Services
What's on Ron's Plate
Annual Food & Beverage Sales: $9 million (does not include vending)
# of Locations: 18 (located in NJ, NY, CT, PA, FL, MN, AZ and Ireland)
Meals Served Per Day: 13,000
Check Average: $2.70 (breakfast); $4.45 (lunch)
Lifting one #10 can isn't such a big deal, but hoisting the equivalent of 60 of them at one time? That's a different story; we're talking 450 pounds!
It's not how most foodservice directors would think to raise money for a cause. But Ron Ehrhardt, director of food services for Prudential Financial, trained for three solid months to benchpress this weight and raise $10,000 for the Society for Foodservice Management's (SFM) Hunger Awareness Committee, which supports local food bank programs.
Ehrhardt's reputation for bringing this kind of steadfast commitment to onsite foodservice operations, people management and industry causes is only one of the characteristics that earned him this year's Silver Plate award in the Business and Industry category.
Those close to him use "determined" and even "stubborn" to politely describe this force of nature. But Ehrhardt comes by these traits honestly. When his grandparents, Esther and Francesco Zanusso, emigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1930 with their daughter Rina (later Ehrhardt's mother) in tow, their life was not easy. Food was scarce and they spent many hours scouring the shores of the Bayonne, NJ, bay, collecting driftwood to heat the one-room structure where they lived.
Although living conditions for the family had definitely improved by the time Ron and his brother and sister were teenagers, Ehrhardt says he learned early on that "for the best eats," the kitchen was the place to be. And the more time he spent there, the more his mother and grandmother infused into him their passion for food, as well as teaching him a thing or two about food preparation.
By high school, Ehrhardt was helping his family prepare hors d'oeuvres for the political fundraisers in which they'd become actively involved. These included events for such rising stars as Christine Todd Whitman (later governor of New Jersey), which were often held in the family home.
It was in 1975 that Ehrhardt was hired for his first official foodservice job. That's when his older brother, who worked for Marriott Hot Shoppes on the New Jersey Turnpike, called their mother one afternoon and said, "Bring Ronnie in." By the end of the day, young Ehrhardt had started the first of what would eventually become a countless number of 12-hour shifts.
Most of them were spent in hard, physical work—washing dishes, scrubbing pots and unloading cases of product —work he remembers today as being "fun."
Delve a bit deeper and you see early signs of the competitive spirit that has been one of Ehrhardt's life-long traits. That "fun" was achieved when Ehrhardt organized coworkers into teams that competed to see which could load the dish racks first and which could unload the heavy food deliveries fastest.
Ehrhardt left New Jersey to attend college in Florida, but continued working parttime at a nearby Marriott Hotel. After graduating, he returned home to work for Marriott Hot Shoppes, then watched his career progress quickly in the 1980s. He became a dietary director at a private nursing home, moved on to his first role in corporate dining with Servomation, finally becoming a foodservice liaison at Bellcore, a high-tech research company with nine locations in the New Jersey area, in 1989.
Ehrhardt assumed his current role at Prudential-Financial in 1997. In the subsequent years he has overseen the dining department's growth and evolution along with that of the parent corporation.
The department operates as a separate business within Prudential. As its leader, Ehrhardt manages contracts for foodservice and facilities, pays the bills, spearheads renovations, supervises equipment maintenance and oversees operations that are managed by the company's outsource provider, Eurest Dining Services, and its staff of 120.
On the financial side, he has guided his department through a major transition over the past three years as the account was transformed from subsidized to non-subsidized status, all the while achieving participation rates that are higher than industry averages.
"Our customers are not comparing us to another business dining center but to retail restaurants," Ehrhardt observes. In looking to excel in such comparisons, Ehrhardt has worked with Eurest parent Compass Group to be one of the first to test several new, retail-based concepts such as "Wild Greens," a station where salads are customized, tossed and dressed to order, and "Profile 3," a concept that emphasizes emerging ethnic trends.
A key responsibility that comes with the liaison's position is to champion foodservices within one's company, Ehrhardt believes.
"It is a critical part of the liaison's role to help ensure that one's chosen management company succeed," he says. "On the one hand, you represent the corporate client's wants and needs to the outsource provider. On the other, you must represent the provider's needs and views to the corporation."
He also believes strongly that associations like SFM play an important role in helping enhance operators' professional abilities in these and other areas. It is through professional association that "operators can network with peers and vendors, increase their knowledge via continuing education and participate in and benefit from benchmarking activities," Ehrhardt says. As a past SFM president, he takes pride in his efforts to elevate the image of onsite foodservice throughout the industry.
In spite of his increasingly high profile both within Prudential and the foodservice industry, Ehrhardt has never forgotten his roots or the needs of others in this country who are struggling.
"It would be a sin for people in our business not to reach out to help those who are hungry," he says. He is a longtime volunteer for the Jersey-based "Re-building Together" charity that repairs existing homes for those who are on the fringes of society and at risk.
What new challenges will Ehrhardt set for himself now that he has won an IFMA Silver Plate Award? If the past is any guide, he'll be involved in plenty of "heavy lifting" for his company, the industry and his community in the years ahead. And it would surprise no one if there's another foodservice fund-raising event coming where he'll bench-press more than 480 pounds—up to now his personal best. That's just the kind of guy he is.
Building Industry Partnerships
Ehrhardt has long had a reputation for maintaining productive relationships with suppliers, and many food and equipment manufacturers point to his willingness to work closely with them as partners. He attributes this knack partly to his years of hands-on operational experience and suggests that operators looking to improve their industry relationships look for opportunities to visit other onsite accounts . Ask questions of everyone," he says. "Be a sponge."
Here are a few of his other tips for improving industry partnerships:
Conduct food cuttings together (with your contract management vendor) and selected food manufacturers.
Educate yourself about the variables that go into purchasing decisions.
Investigate opportunities to participate in new promotions. Let suppliers know that you are willing to work with them to find strategies that let you both grow your businesses together.