TFS sat down with Brad Hill of Evelyn Hill Inc. to talk about The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island operations and its remarkable sustainable energy track record.
Okay so first question is tell me how your grandfather started his business?
Aaron Hill was a soldier stationed on Liberty Island then Bedloe’s Island right after WWI when the Army ran the island. The PX used to sell to the visitors, and then the time came when PX could no longer sell to visitors so he retired from the Army and started up a stand.
That’s great. And what did they sell when they first opened?
They sold gifts and souvenirs. Within a couple of years my grandfather opened a food stand. He ran it until he passed away in the 1940’s. My grandmother, Evelyn, a Polish immigrant, then took over for many years until my father was old enough to take over.
And what impact did your dad have in the business?
He ran it for decades and built up the business. He had to bid on the contract several times during his tenure and offered more to the public each time. He retired in 1996.
And what did you take away from him?
He taught me well. I worked for him for 16 years directly – full time but I also came here as a kid and worked. He taught me how to train and treat our employees. He taught me if we take care of the visitors, the visitors will take care of us. It’s been great and I still keep my father informed on how the operations are going.
And was your dad a sales type guy? Tell me a little bit about him, was he a food oriented guy? Or was he more of a trinket guy?
I’m not sure I could say one over the other. He is a great businessman and able to work very successfully with the National Park Service and the public. During his life he operated some other concessions as well. We also operate the concession at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, We have been there over 75 years.
When you look at what you do when you wake up in the morning are you in the food business or are you in the retail business?
As far as sales are concerned, we’re about 65% retail and about 35% souvenir and the main reason for that is, for most of the year we don’t open until 9 a.m. and we close at 5 or 6 p.m. so we don’t really serve breakfast by the time people get here and we don’t serve dinner. So, we’re basically a lunch operation, lunch and snacks.
What was your vision when you took over the business in 2006?
I started in 1981 but I took over for him in 1996. For many years we were on one-year extensions with the NPS and finally in 2009 we were awarded a new contract which included Ellis Island. It was bid on fiercely – we had probably over $30 billion dollars worth of companies going against us. We have typical companies, Aramark, Delaware North, Xantera amongst others, all bidding for our contract and we were fortunate enough to win that contract for another 10 years. We also do catering at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
What do you think enabled you to win that bid?
The National Park Service issues a prospectus. There is a series of questions and they asked for your ideas and concepts. A number of those concepts revolved around the impact of the park and the environment. Our company is a leader in reducing waste and reducing our footprint. This prospectus allowed us to demonstrate our ability in new and creative concepts to achieve those ends.
You just made a very important point which is this bidding process is what it was really about, and kudos to the park services, which had a vision for the operation as much as it was for the bottom line dollars above the operation and you don’t see that all the time.
Right, the Park Service world is different than most other concerns. The financial element is weighed a little bit less. It’s not the highest bidder. Money is important, no question about it. Our proposal had concepts that invested over $12 million into our Park operations.
In our proposal we offered to renovate The Ellis Island Cafe and Crown Café. The Ellis Cafe is finished. The Crown Cafe will be this winter. Both gift shops were renovated in 2010. The new retail pavilion on Liberty Island earned us a LEED platinum status with all of our environmental objectives.
As you look at your food operations, you have two distinct pieces, you’ve got a concession business that you operated out of your cafes and then you have your catering business. What is the object of the game – to consolidate through buying properly and through kitchen and through the type of kitchens or commissaries that you built. Walk me through your approach to food service.
Our primary focus is taking care of the visitors that come every day. We can get up to 16-17,000 visitors a day in the summer season and so that is our focus and that is how all our kitchen equipment and layout is designed. In addition the park allows us catered events in the evening on both islands and we do have areas set aside for catering and preparing foods. We also allow outside caterers to come in and service those people as well. We provide the facilities to do that and the management to execute their event. It’s not just food. It’s also tenting, lighting, sound etc. Even barging for events at Liberty Island. When it comes to a venue like that it’s the whole package we help manage.
You mentioned the rebuilding or the opening of a new cafe.
Yes. The Ellis Café. We transformed it from what was called the food court which looked like a typical food operation in the mall, to a more old world charm that would make you feel it may have belonged there although it didn’t exist In Ellis Island.
Any changes in the menu?
The menu is generally typical American fare. Burgers, pork barbecue, pizza, chicken, but also offer ethnic specials. We have two elements that are very important to us. One is our providing a healthier menu. This year we completely revamped our menu and removed over 150 million calories off of our menu. We take every day foods and make them healthier. For example, we took a cheeseburger and by changing the roll, we took off 170 calories alone. We look at each item to see how we could build that food item differently to make it healthier for the visitor.
Is there an executive chef that executes that for you?
We work in part with healthydining.com for designing a healthier menu. We’re also a member of the Green Restaurant Association. We are actually a 3-star certified green restaurant-one of the few!
That’s really interesting. You don’t see this a lot – a commitment in both what I would call front of the house and back of the house to agree on a sustainable strategy.
Last year we were able to divert 94% over waste! Though selecting items that could be washed and eliminating disposables as much as possible. We compost all of our food scraps. Because of our success, the National Restaurant Association awarded us both a Sustainability award and Innovator of the Year!
What went into that? Was that part of being a member of a community? What made you think about that?
This is a personal issue. We’ve been environmentally conscious for decades. We were the first concession in the Park Service to install waterless urinals, and we did that back in 2000. But we’ve always tried to reduce our paper and disposable usage and anything that would go in the garbage. We have plastic tumblers for drinking. Platters and plates for eating. We installed new Energy Star® dishwashers. The new dishwasher also reduced our water use by 40% compared to the prior dishwasher. At the retail pavilion we collect the storm water off the roof which reduced our water bill for the restrooms by about 60%. So there’s a lot of positive things that can be looked at. Over the past few years especially with the new contract, we were able to make that capital investment to do many things.
So personally, where did this come from? Whether you’re running a restaurant, whether you’re running a concession, whatever you’re running there’s a lot of ways you could have done these things cheaper, cut corners. What is it about you that drives you to do this? Is it about your grandfather and your father before you?
The environment has always been something I’ve been concerned with going back to high school days when Earth Day first started. It’s just been something that has been important to me and I’m able to take my concept and ideas and execute it on the business. I don’t really boast about it. I don’t usually see my name on these things, I just enjoy doing these things.
Right, it’s just who you are. So, you were way ahead of your time before it was fashionable.
So, does this keep you as a company from growing into other contracts because it’s diametrically opposed to maximizing.
I believe this is exactly what the public today wants and demands. It doesn’t keep us from anything.
What about in terms of how you go to market and buy product on the food side? Do you go out to bid on a regular basis? And does that enable you to be vendor loyalty or is the idea to find a good set of vendors and to keep them honest by going out to bid. Tell me a little bit about how you look at that.
We go out to bid, but yes royalty is very important. Price is very important but delivery is extremely important. We use great vendors! Some of our distributors are Maximum Quality Foods, Ace Endico, Driscoll and Baldor for our organics. This year we also added AFI.
Terrific. And what do you look for from these folks? Do you look for timeliness of service? Do you look for quality of food? Do you look for new ideas from them? Tell me a little bit about the relationship.
Our menu design basically comes from what our philosophy is and what the public generally would like to eat going out for a simple nice dinner, nice lunch and so on. We have a simple fashion to restaurants that middle America enjoys like a TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s type of foods, but kept on a simpler basis. Because we only serve lunch and the typical tourist coming to visit the Statue of Liberty, didn’t come here to eat specifically, they came to see the Statue and then they’re going to another tourist attraction. We want the foods for them to be familiar so it’s easy for them to choose. That’s our point of reference and then we do special foods on a monthly basis, like highlight a different ethnic group like Polish immigrants and we’ll have some Polish entrees for one month. We highlight about a dozen ethnic groups.
Five million visitors almost no waste, how’s that possible?
Reusable plastic tumblers that you know are typical in the food industry like in Friday’s or such. Our platters are reusable and then all of our food is composted along with our straws and forks that are compostable. And so it becomes less and less waste. We recycle plastic both PET, HDPE and also LDPE. Food is composted. Our straws, forks and even our paper cups, are compostable.
Tell me a little bit about the type of people who work for you and with you and how you go about building your team?
Our staff stays with our company. Bob Uffer our General Manager has only been with me eight years so he’s sort of a new employee. Our Director of Food Service at Liberty has been with us over 25 years. Our oldest employee Hilton Bonilla, will be celebrating his 50th anniversary with us this fall.
That’s the question. Maybe your grandfather or dad are awesomely nice guys and you have contenured what it is that makes this obviously part of the family at this point? How does does that evolve?
Yes, they are awesome. There’s that golden rule but of course I think we’re a good company to work for. We offer good benefits and we do try and make it a family. We probably have over 20 other employees with over 20 years with our company.