The year was 1995. The O.J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing and Princess Diana’s BBC interview dominated the news.
What almost certainly wasn’t turning heads at the time was a three-person lunch at the Hi-Ball in Des Plaines, Ill. But it was at that lunch that Cahners Publishing veterans Robin Ashton, Jennifer Hicks and Brian Ward cooked up something big: the idea of a better foodservice equipment magazine.
“We all knew the equipment market was changing rapidly at that point,” Ward recalls. “Manufacturers were consolidating. Restaurant chains were booming, and they were not inclined to depend on dealers for equipment specification and recommendations. … Chains had nowhere to go for objective third-party information about equipment.”
In October 1996, Foodservice Equipment Reports answered that call.
“It was simple: Provide as much information to help sophisticated buyers and specifiers at multiunit operators and others with a hand on brand spec understand the differences between brands that our advertisers would [allow] us to get away with,” Ashton says. “FER was and still is like Car and Driver for those who buy and spec ovens, etc. … It’s still a great value proposition.”
The group of founding members was rounded out by industry entrepreneur Ken Gill and Richard Chrampanis (who remains with FER today as vice president of sales).
“We felt a deep connection to dealers, consultants and operators, and this connection helped guide everything we did,” Hicks explains. “ … It’s not far off to say that our strong relationships with our industry friends were the core of why we were successful in the early years.”
THE EVOLUTION OF FER
Today, FER carries on, true to its Day One mission: to help buyers and specifiers of commercial foodservice equipment do their jobs well.
Some aspects have changed, though.
In January 2016, Wolters-Althoff Investments acquired FER parent company Gill Ashton Publishing. WAI, explains CEO Bob Wolters, “was, and is, building a portfolio of companies that facilitate foodservice equipment specification activity.” Complimentary ventures include Specifi, a global foodservice equipment specification company that recently announced its expansion to North America.
“Our mission is to connect everyone in the equipment specification process and
help manufacturers communicate and sell innovative solutions for operators.”
—Bob Wolters, Wolters-Althoff Investments
“Our mission is to connect everyone in the equipment specification process and help manufacturers communicate and sell innovative solutions for operators,” Wolters says, of WAI. “And FER is the most important, most informed voice to communicate that to our operators and readers. They have had the most in-depth coverage of equipment in the industry for the last 25 years.”
In 2018, Randy Hano took over as publisher. A fresh focus on brand growth followed. “A significant effort was undertaken to be a strong multimedia brand rather than simply a magazine company,” Hano recalls.
Beyond its beloved print product, FER’s team produces e-newsletters, records a monthly Service Calls podcast (check out the latest episode on disaster preparation here), runs a robust Digital Solutions Group (complete with a virtual trade show platform), and hosts the biennial Multiunit Foodservice Equipment Symposium (coming up again in 2022).
MUFES, a FER tradition since 2002, is fondly recalled by Beth Lorenzini, former editor-in-chief. “The presentations were on the 201 and 301 levels to fit a sophisticated audience,” Lorenzini recalls. “In one room, you’d find the lead equipment buyers from the largest chains in the world talking away with younger pros from up-and-coming concepts, just starting out in the business. The information sharing was invaluable.”
FER is fortunate to have retained some of its earliest members. Among them are Chrampanis; Production Manager Christine Palmer, who was hired in 1996 as FER’s production editor; Editor-in-Chief Allison Rezendes, who got her start as an intern in 2001; Julie Wilhm, art director since 1996; and Senior Contributing Editors Janice Cha (since 2002) and Michael Sherer (since the early 2000s).
“My passion for FER Media has always been twofold— the first is bringing my customers opportunities to showcase their companies to our 31,000 readers, the other, working with people at FER that I feel are my other family,” Chrampanis says. “Even though the faces over the years have changed, the friendships remain solid.”
Palmer adds, “I think the magazine is still the best thing that we do. It’s well-written, well-designed and useful. You will always learn something, and not just who was promoted recently.”
In 2020, FER, like all businesses, combatted COVID-19’s multifaceted disruption. Paper shortages and cost hikes along with the swift relocation of many readers were just a few obstacles, Hano mentions, but staff remained resilient and, better yet, “truly awe-inspiring.”
“Like everyone, our staff faced so much yet gave everything they had to FER and our industry,” Hano says. “ … Within 10 weeks of the pandemic hitting the U.S., we held our first virtual trade show on a platform our development team built from scratch. And now, close to two years into this, we not only have a strong and healthy media company but have also run some of the most effective virtual meetings ever seen for five of the largest dealer groups as well as a number of large medical associations. That’s what I call a pivot.”
Where Are They Now?
Note the trajectory of some of FER’s earliest members.
• Robin Ashton, publisher of FER from 1996- 2018, serves as principal at Ashton Foodservice Consulting and as publisher/editor of The Ashton Report and The Ashton Report Insider.
• Jennifer Hicks, managing editor from 1996- 2004 and executive editor from 2004-2012, is the director of editorial development for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, based in Washington, D.C.
• Brian Ward, chief editor from 1996-2012, founded Target Market & Media Services—a self-described “one-person consulting-services company catering mainly but not entirely to the foodservice equipment market.”
• Beth Lorenzini, manager of custom publishing from 1998-2012 and editor-in-chief from 2012- 2019, works at the National Restaurant Association as its managing editor, enterprise marketing.
Where We’re Going
FER leadership shares business predictions and goals.
WAI CEO BOB WOLTERS: “We have to imagine that technology, and how people deliver value to their customers in the foodservice equipment world, will be radically different again in just a decade.We need to predict today where that puck will be and begin skating there now—or it will be too late. Our goal will be to deliver content to whatever platform people find the most convenient and ubiquitous. It could be mobile, it could be a podcast, it could be content served up by their digital personal assistant. One thing we think will never change: great content. No matter the delivery method, content will remain king. As long as FER continues to have the best content, we will retain our reputation as the go-to source for equipment selection for operators.”
FER PUBLISHER RANDY HANO: “We remain focused on more innovation; more strong, unbiased editorial spread out over a multitude of platforms; and more listening to our readers to know what they want and how they want it. We see virtual events continuing to play an important role in our future and feel that our Digital Solutions Group will continue to help us lead the way.”
Here, five things that have happened in the last five years at FER.
1. IN JANUARY 2016
Wolters-Althoff Investments acquires FER parent company Gill Ashton Publishing. WAI, based in Chicago, is the private equity and venture capital arm of the Wolters Family Office headed by former owner and founder of CookTek, Bob Wolters.
2. IN APRIL 2018
Randy Hano, who held senior management roles at Boston and Chicago magazines, Time Out Chicago and Modern Luxury publications, joins as senior vice president of media. By August, he becomes president of FER Media and publisher of FER.
3. IN JULY 2019
FER launches its Digital Solutions Group, offering services such as content and email marketing, web optimization, social media and more.
4. IN JANUARY 2020
FER debuts a redesign of the magazine, featuring a new logo, new sections and an overall more modern feel.
5. IN APRIL 2020
FER’s Digital Solutions Group unveils its proprietary virtual event and exhibition platform. Amid the pandemic, the platform fills the void as companies axe preeminent industry events.
The new partnership allows the dealership to expand its support of top country clubs.
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