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Commercial foodservice equipment manufacturer operates facilities near Byram

Unified Brands marks century of operations

It operates sprawling facilities on both sides of Interstate 55 near Byram, as well as manufacturing operations in two other states, that employ hundreds of workers making products that are shipped and sold worldwide. And, it is currently celebrating a century of continuous operations.

The company is Unified Brands, a manufacturer of commercial foodservice equipment. And, while perhaps not a household name outside the industry, those in that market know the name well. Its innovative products, built and sold under the brand names Groen, Randell, Avtec and CapKold, have won numerous “Best of” awards, and its ever-growing product line is a staple in restaurants, cafeterias and anywhere food is cooked and served commercially.

Relocation and evolution

The Unified Brands story begins with Fred Groen, an immigrant and journeyman coppersmith who, in the 1890s, began a business fabricating tanks and repairing brewery and distillery equipment. In 1907, he incorporated the company that still bears his name in Elk Grove, Ill., which then was focused on the production of high-quality copper kettles and pressure vessels designed for industrial processors.

From its inception in 1907, Groen became known for product innovation and quality. For instance, during World War II, copper became a scarce commodity. So, the company developed the stainless steel-jacketed kettle, which revolutionized the industry. In the 1960s, at the same time the company joined the Dover Corporation family of companies, Groen introduced the tilting braising pan, and followed that with the industry’s first combination oven designed and built in the U.S.

Unified Brands began to take shape after Groen was acquired by Dover in 1967. Avtec, a manufacturer of ventilation and air handling systems, was founded in 1971, and Randell and its line of foodservice refrigeration and custom fabrication, was established four years later. (CapKold, producer of cook chill production systems, is a component of Groen.)

In 1986, Randell was acquired by Dover, and two years later, Randell purchased Avtec.

In the mean time, Groen made its shift from the Midwest to Mississippi, establishing its headquarters near Jackson in 1984. Its presence has grown since then, including the completion of a 5,000-square-foot training facility in the 1990s.

In 2000, Unified Brands expanded its research and development efforts. The Jackson facilities include a full-size commercial kitchen where the company’s products are put through their paces.

With the addition of Randell, Avtec and CapKold, the name of the company was changed to DI Foodservice Companies in 2003. In January 2006, the company became Unified Brands, reflecting the company’s renewed commitment to its product lines.

President Bill Strenglis, a former successful entrepreneur and 32-year veteran of the foodservice industry, said, “Unified Brands represents the tradition of quality, dependability and time-tested designs of our product lines and brands.”

“We have structured our company into an operating platform that highlights the brand equity and unique features of our current product lines, while also capturing the synergies necessary to compete in today’s environment,” said E.J. Morrow, Unified Brands’ vice president-business development. “The new operating system also provides for expansion with new products and product lines as we move forward. Unified Brands is more descriptive of our company and this new direction.”

Bigger and better

Today, Unified Brands, whose headquarters are located on Mendell Davis Drive, has plants in Jackson, Weidman, Mich., and Tucson, Ariz., and its equipment is being utilized worldwide by independent, casual-dining, chain and quick-service restaurants as well as institutional customers such as schools, colleges and universities, correctional facilities and hospitals.

While it has grown in size, quality remains the benchmark at Unified Brands, and this has not gone unnoticed. In 2006, Groen won the 2006 Best in Class award for steam-jacketed kettles in FE&S (Foodservice Equipment & Supplies) magazine’s annual survey, which asked more than 1,000 operators, consultants, dealers and broadliners who they thought was the finest manufacturer of such products. The company obviously was proud of this accomplishment, but, then again, they have had plenty of experience in winning this award. The 2006 award marked the fifth consecutive year that Unified Brands has brought home this honor.

Along with this award, Groen received first-place Best in Class in the braising pan/tilting skillet category for its Eclipse braising pan. It received first-place recognition from all four of the groups surveyed, and Groen has now won Best in Class in this category for three straight years.

In addition to the steam-jacketed kettles and Eclipse braising pan, Groen’s Vortex medium-duty connectionless steamer, SmartSteam heavy-duty boilerless steamer and HyperSteam convection steamer also received awards. The criteria includes quality products, operator satisfaction, service, support and responsiveness.

FE&S, which has more than 22,000 subscribers, began the Best in Class recognition in 2001. Since then, Groen has won 13 Best in Class awards in three product categories.

As part of its 100th anniversary, Groen introduced the Vortex 100 Connectionless Steamer. Upgrades include the addition of user-friendly electronic controls and a water management system with enhanced components similar to those used in the SmartSteam units. According to Unified Brands, the Vortex 100 has the largest water reservoir of any connectionless steamer on the market.

On his feelings as the company celebrates its 100-year anniversary, Strenglis said, “Pride, and a huge sense of responsibility to help add to the value of the heritage for the next generation of management. Being the approximate fourth generation of management responsible for this great brand, it is important that we build on the basic principles that have been the foundation of this product line’s longevity.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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