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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Erik Magner runs Meister Cook out of his southwest Fort Wayne home with his wife, Betsy. Meister Cook was named by Inc. Magazine as the 41st fatest growing entrepreneurial company in the country.

  • B. Magner

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 6:54 pm

Food industry's idea man

Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

You won’t find a large sign in front of the headquarters for Meister Cook, a nine-year-old company based in Fort Wayne.

There is no company parking lot or personnel director.

Erik Magner gestures toward an office not far from the front door of his home in southwest Fort Wayne. This is where the company is based, he said with a smile on his face.

At the Northeast Indiana Small Business Development Center, marketing coordinator Mary Popovich had never heard of Magner or Meister Cook. In fact, the way he handles his business is unlike anything they’ve heard of, she said.

Still, Magner’s business, which has two employees – Magner is president and his wife, Betsy, is the marketing manager – was named the 41st fastest-growing privately held business in America, according to Inc. magazine. It has grown 5,905 percent in the last three years and had $12.4 million in revenue in 2014. It was also listed by the magazine as No. 2 among manufacturing companies in the country.

Being ranked 41st on this year’s list is an improvement from last year when the company was the 87th fastest-growing business.

Magner has a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace/aircraft engineering and material science. He also has an MBA and a Ph.D. in global leadership and organizational management and has worked in various industries, including the food equipment industry.

But the drawback to working for large corporations, he said, is that management spends 80 percent of its time dealing with personnel issues.

So Magner, who gained a reputation in the commercial kitchen equipment business, decided in 2006 to start his own business, Meister Cook, which deals only with major national and international restaurant chains.

The plan was to design specialty food service equipment not available anywhere else that solved specific problems for the chains. The catch was that he would hire hand-picked manufacturers to produce the equipment he needed.

"We started our own company and teamed with the best companies in supply and support and the best engineers," Magner said. "I’m on the forefront when a problem needs to be solved."

He also deals only with American companies to manufacture the products he develops.

An example of a problem he tackled was designing a faster toaster for a large Canadian company. The company’s toaster took 35 seconds to toast a bagel, and cars were backing up in the drive-thru. The company wanted a faster toaster, one that could toast bagels in 15 seconds.

It took time, a long time, but Magner, just pondering how toasters work, said he came up with a solution, and with the new equipment, the company’s drive-thru sales improved.

For another chain, he designed a food holding system that kept breaded fried chicken crispy on the outside but hot and moist on the inside longer than the system they had. It took time, but he developed one.

Magner is currently working on a new design for a teabag with a disposable steeping timer, which has the possibility to be a huge product.

The only drawback to Magner’s way of doing business is that developing new equipment to solve problems is a very slow process.

"He never gives up," Betsy said.

Magner said the companies he has worked with didn’t want to talk to reporters. The equipment he has developed is regarded as proprietary, and Magner suspects that some chains don’t want people to know they are working with him because they don’t want competitors to start consulting him as well.

The real payoff will come when exclusivity agreements with some of his clients expire. Chains have heard about his toaster and are dying to get their hands on them, along with some of his other equipment.

That’s why next year, Magner probably won’t submit a nomination to be listed on Inc.’s list of fastest-growing companies.

He first submitted his company’s information at the urging of a friend, Steve Bermes, whose company has made the list for 10 years, but Magner isn’t sure he wants to keep revealing total revenue.

Bermes, who runs a company called Novae, which makes utility trailers to carry anything from lawnmowers to bulldozers, said he thought that getting Meister Cook on the Inc. magazine list would be a great way for Magner to promote his company, because the list is widely read.

"It speaks volumes about what he’s been able to do," Bermes said.

Bermes also knows, however, that Magner is well known in the food equipment business and that clients come to him.

They don’t necessarily agree on everything, Bermes suggested.

"He’s told me his views. He outsources everything, but the things he keeps in house are the solutions."

Meanwhile, a neighbor of Magner, Chris Rouse, credits Magner with encouraging him to get into his own business after a conversation they had when they bumped into each other at a resort in Mexico.

"He’s second to none" as an engineer, Rouse said. "One thing: Beyond his intellect and how he works with customers and develops products for customers, he has a huge heart. He finds a way to bring people along. Without my conversation with Erik, I wouldn’t have had the courage to open my own business."

"He’s the kind of guy who helps identify what you’re best at," Rouse said. "He looks at your strengths and weaknesses and how to maximize and minimize them."

Rouse’s company is called Scourgify, a commercial and residential cleaning company that specializes in cleaning large facilities for grand openings, move-outs and so on.

Magner wants to encourage young people to start their own businesses. The time to start is right now, he said, when they’re young and have no spouses and children.

Meanwhile, next month, the Indiana Inventors Association has invited Magner to speak to its members "because he’s successful and we can really glean information from him," said the group’s president, Dave Zedonis.

"Erik came along and is innovating in a field that is ripe for innovation. We’ll get some of his secret sauce."

fgray@jg.net