Wells Manufacturing quietly dishes up sales to restaurants

When Eric Evensen, national sales managers at Wells Bloomfield Manufacturing in Verdi, interviewed with the company 25 years ago he couldn't even find the tiny town west of Reno listed on a Nevada state map.

Verdi has grown over the years, but Wells remains relatively untouched near the banks of the Truckee River since moving to northern Nevada in 1964. Founder George Wells, who invented and patented the electric waffle iron, started the company in South San Francisco in 1920. Easily Verdi's largest employer at more than 200 people, Wells still manufactures waffle irons, as well as hot plates, fryers, and built-in restaurant warming equipment, its largest product line.

About 1,800 end items are made at the six-building, 160,000-square-foot facility. Workers manufacture more than 25,000 parts and use just as many purchased parts, Evensen says. Sales in 2006 netted $51.5 million.

But you won't find much activity outside the drab tan-colored buildings. Days often slip by as quietly as the river on the northeast side of the facility. "You don't see boxes sitting outside, and if you aren't involved the restaurant equipment business, you don't know Wells at all," Evensen says.

Pots and warming pans start out as thin, flat metal disks, which are fed through two massive World War-II era deep-draw presses.

In 1968 the presses, which formerly stamped out tank armor and shell casings and stand roughly 40 feet tall, with an equal amount of machinery buried beneath the floor, cost a whopping $1 million to tear down, transport and re-assemble. The behemoths keep Wells in the Verdi area. "Every time we think of moving to a new facility, we look at these machines and think, 'Are you nuts?'" Evensen says.

Ventless cooking systems, self-contained units that don't require hoods and standard fire suppression systems, are Wells' fastest-growing product line, and Waffle House has emerged as its biggest customer. Wells' main markets for its commercial cooking and warming products are independent food equipment dealers such as Resco on South Virginia Street. Jack in the Box and McDonald's restaurants are the only organizations Wells sells to directly, while other chains, such as Olive Garden, purchase equipment from kitchen equipment suppliers.

Counter and drawer areas in new restaurants typically are configured around dimensions for Wells' products such as drop-in fryers and griddles. The company also makes countertop models.

Primarily an electric equipment manufacturer, Wells does make some equipment for use with natural gas. Although most of its manufacturing lines are getting quite long in the tooth, time won't alter much at the plant, Evensen says.

"Some of this equipment has not changed in 45 years. Stamping metal is stamping metal; I don't think you are going to see much difference in the fabrication style. If we did one style of fryer all day every day you could look at it like an automotive plant. But we do so many different pieces you can never get to the automation end of it."

Rising metals prices pose the biggest challenge to Wells, which fabricates most of its products from stainless, aluminized or galvanized steel. Evensen says the rapid cost escalations are due to the lack of availability of nickel, the key to making steel stainless.

"We have had two price increases this year alone based on the prices of stainless steel," he says. "The rise in cost over last three years is roughly 200 percent."

The company has changed hands several times. Wells was first purchased by Beatrice Foods, and in 1985 it was bought by Specialty Equipment Companies. In 1993 it merged with Bloomfield, and in 2001 it became part of Carrier Commercial Refrigeration, a division of United Technologies. Earlier this year the company was acquired by Elgin, Illinois-based Middleby Corporation.


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