Maumee Valley Group not only persevered through the challenges posed by COVID-19 and its ensuing lockdowns, but found new opportunities that emerged in its wake, giving the three-generation operation extra cause for celebration as it marks 75 years in business.
Established in 1946, Maumee Valley Group, previously Maumee Valley Vending, is headquartered in Defiance, Ohio, in the state’s northwest corner. Its 175-person team services more than 700 locations and 500,000 customers throughout Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, meeting every need of locations large and small with its micro markets, vending machines, office coffee service, contract foodservice and catering.
At the helm are Todd Plassman and his sons Jordan and Jacob. Together, they carry on the legacy of Todd’s father, Donald, who worked for Maumee Valley Vending as its general manager in its early days. He ran the business for two different owners, beginning with Mark Bowles, and William Harmon, who were tobacco farmers from Kentucky. Cigarette vending laid the foundation for their early and rapid expansion into full-line vending. Shortly after starting as general manager under the Bowles and Harmon ownership, the operation was purchased by another company, who then continued to have Donald navigate the business past the 1950s.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
When the previous owners were ready to retire in 1997, Donald Plassman, who had run the business as if it were his own, was an obvious successor. He bought a controlling share in MVG, along with a fellow manager, Robert Bostleman. At this point, Donald’s sons Todd and Scott had already been on staff for some time.
Donald retired in 2000 selling his interests to Scott and Todd Plassman. Todd eventually bought out his brother Scott, and his sons joined him in the family business. Jordan came aboard in 2011, and Jacob followed close behind in 2013.
Since taking the reins, Todd has been steadfast in his commitment to continue to run the business by the principles that established MVG as a trusted name and convenience services leader in the region that has endured for decades.
“Maumee Valley Group believes in family values, developing our employees, encouraging wellness and giving back to local communities any way possible,” he said. “We separate ourselves from others in multiple distinct ways: food quality, customer service, reliable equipment and competitive pricing.”
These facets have contributed to MVG’s enduring as leading foodservice provider for over seven decades.
Todd credits his sons for bringing an energy and open mindedness to new technology that has kept the company on the cutting edge in support of its continued mission to adapt to better serve its customers. That started with MVG’s early adoption of micro markets in 2012, which immediately proved to double revenues per route and have become the breakroom concept of choice compared to vending by expanding variety to 500-plus items on average.
The mini automated convenience stores, branded “Fresh Markets,” together with its fresh-made foods, have been central to the company’s growth strategy. MVG operates more than 450 of the self-checkout stores, and counting, along with 1,000 vending machines.
AVANTI OPERATOR OF THE YEAR
The Plassmans’ model for a winning formula of micro market success is fresh-made food, promotions that reward customers for their loyalty and keep them coming back, custom area treatments that personalize the experience and grand openings with all the hoopla.
In fact, Avanti Markets, MVG’s micro market provider, named the Ohio company its 2020 Operator of the Year for its expertise, innovative spirit and outstanding performance and accomplishments, which is an especially notable accolade given it was achieved amid a global pandemic.
“The analytics of Avanti’s backend software has increased our ability to keep customers satisfied with our product choices, along with standing out from other companies with the range of items available to each set of customers,” said Jacob, who credited Avanti for providing MVG with the tools to achieve the potential of its markets by catering to each location. He also applauded micro market designer and fixture provider Genesis Décor and cooler supplier Minus Forty for contributing to a top-notch customer experience.
With many businesses shut down and others having only skeleton crews on site during the early days of the pandemic, MVG decided to take the found time to upscale and rebrand its well-established and highly regarded fresh food program, which has set it apart from its competitors for decades.
The company launched the Prime Seasons high-end grab-and-go brand, crafted with fresh-baked artisan breads like eight-grain and sourdough, premium deli-style meats and freshly sliced cheeses, along with homemade condiments like pesto mayo and aioli.
The operators also augmented Maumee Valley’s 40-person commissary staff, with the addition of culinary professionals who had run restaurants that served similar foods and tapped into their expertise.
The result, according to Todd, is that in its 40-plus years of running a food-production facility, MVG has reached the pinnacle of foodservice perfection. “I’m thrilled with how unique and high quality our food is,” he remarked. “We put out new foods in our Fresh Markets that few companies can match. It’s exciting to take it to a new level.”
Along with its newly branded wraps and sandwiches, MVG offers an abundance of healthy items in its micro markets to satisfy contemporary demand, including freshly crafted salads, yogurts, fruit plates and veggie trays.
Markets are an easy sell in most locations because they offer at least five times more selection than vending machines and deliver fresh food where it often wasn’t previously available.
MVG runs constant promotions to take advantage of special offers from manufacturers to keep customers engaged and pricing low. Customers must use their market card to take advantage of the program, which also helps lower cashless transaction fees and gives the company insight into customer preferences and purchasing patterns in each location. Commercials on the kiosk screens and shelf danglers advertise the specials.
“It’s important to Maumee Valley Group to include area treatments on each fresh market installation to really make it feel special and unique to that specific company,” Jacob said. “Each market is given its very own special touch. We take pride in making each breakroom distinct and personal. We want to make the markets a fun place to go.”
Micro market grand openings, decked out with balloons and ribbon-cutting ceremonies create a buzz around the new breakroom amenity.
The area has always been primarily rural, with pockets of manufacturers that employ vast amounts of the residents, many of which have traditionally contracted MVG to manage cafeterias to feed the masses.
Defiance is best known as home to a General Motors facility, which has employed as many as 5,000 people. MVG serves other automotive plants and food and furniture manufacturers, with office buildings, colleges and healthcare locations rounding out its roster of accounts.
“We serve a heavy manufacturing base, and they can’t work from home which was a plus for us during the pandemic,” Todd observed. “In several of these sites, we had run their cafeterias, which we’ve been able to seamlessly replicate with micro markets minus the labor, and without having to have a cafeteria open and staffed to feed seven people on a shift in some cases.”
He added that most of the locations had become accustomed to wanting the decades-old standard cafeteria menus that featured deep-fried foods and burgers on the grill. “When we developed Prime Seasons, it seemed to be the direction companies were willing to go in, healthier and fresher, and with that, the move to micro markets has been an easy one and a win for everyone,” Todd said. “It’s actually above and beyond the quality and variety of items we had on our hot food line and along with it, they can get novelties like ice cream, slushie machines and bean-to-cup coffee machines.”
Maumee Valley currently operates less than 10 full-service cafeterias at three-shift manufacturing locations, down from its heyday of 20 a few years before and it anticipates that several that closed during the pandemic will not reopen.
“When things shut down and locked up, we took a huge hit with perishables and when things began firing back up, we got a new normal going,” Todd recalled. “That meant the shift from cafeterias to micro markets, catering more boxed lunches, making cookies with face masks to remind employees to wear their masks, and we’re still adapting to the new normal as the reopening ramps up.”
THEFT GAME CHANGER
If there is one inherent concern with micro markets, it’s theft. But with the right technology it is increasingly manageable, according to the Plassmans.
The operators found the best solution yet with their recent investment in a company called Panoptyc. It has a live feed activated by human movement that allows the operators to remotely watch customers shop and check out.
Previously, MVG had to exchange DVRs and review footage to uncover theft and identify the culprits, which was a cumbersome process.
“We would look for cart cancels which made a time stamp and then review that footage to see if they walked out with the item, or they might take three items and scan two, for example,” explained Jordan. “Now with Panoptyc, we are able to nail them right away with a clear picture, versus the turnover time to swap DVRs and review and put them back.”
With the DVRs, it could be a week or two after the theft by the time MVG reviewed the footage, and oftentimes the employee who was stealing was already long gone. Now MVG can key in on any theft remotely within a couple of hours.
“If no one is in the breakroom, it doesn’t record, so we don’t have to fast forward through all the unnecessary parts,” Jacob said. “We run the reporting and watch the transaction history and cross reference with human movement. If one Mountain Dew was sold and anything else exits the breakroom, it’s a slam dunk. Panoptyc also lets us see how a market looks to be sure it’s kept orderly, like we’re right there.”
THE HEAT IS ON
Hydration stations, also known as heat-relief programs, are a boon for business for MVG especially during the hot-weather months, but also year-round since it serves a heavy manufacturing base with employees in need of constant hydration.
“I’m showing how old I am, but I remember when they gave employees salt pills in the hot weather,” Todd recalled. “Nowadays, when the temperature reaches or exceeds 80 degrees, many of the manufacturing facilities we serve supply free bottled water or Gatorade syrup, or a machine filled with Gatorade bottles on free vend. Some give free popsicles.”
Prior to COVID-19, the norm in large facilities was for Maumee Valley to place five-gallon, bottled-water coolers in different locations throughout a plant so employees would not have to leave the worksite to hydrate. The coronavirus health crisis prompted locations to replace the coolers with small refrigerators that MVG keeps stocked with their beverages or frozen novelties of choice.
HAVE MICRO MARKETS, WILL TRAVEL
In its early days, Maumee Valley Vending employed fewer than 10 individuals who focused on serving the local area. After moving to Defiance in the 1950s, Maumee Valley Vending’s staff grew to more than 50 people and serviced vending machines in locations across a few counties in northwest Ohio. When Todd joined his father at MVG in 1979, one of its largest accounts had a sister plant in Indiana about an hour’s drive away, which further expanded the operation’s geographical reach.
Today, the company’s service extends to Cincinnati, Detroit and South Bend because of how much more efficient micro markets are to service than vending machines and the growth of the segment. MVG’s drivers rack up a collective 200,000 miles a month. The company purchases 15,000-plus gallons of fuel during the same time period.
“We can cover a lot of territory because drivers take only exactly what they need,” Todd said. “Also, it used to be they had to open and fill 10 machines; now they go in and replenish one micro market and are in and out and on their way.”
He added that the company can be profitable with accounts two hours away drive time and that for some of its largest routes, drivers must travel four to five hours a day.
“Markets are a game changer,” Todd commented. “We have to be very thoughtful how we structure the routes, and we have fantastic drivers.”
He added that maintenance costs have gone down with micro markets compared to vending machines because many kiosk issues can be fixed remotely with a reboot from a cellular phone versus machine spiral jams that require in-person service.
LightSpeed Automation’s pick-to-light system automates “prepicking” in the warehouse, which, along with remote monitoring of sales and service data with Cantaloupe’s vending management system, enables just-in-time service.
With its trucks logging so many miles daily and gas prices climbing, Maumee Valley Group recently invested in Azuga’s live GPS tracking, which has helped reduce its insurance costs significantly by enhancing fleet-wide driver visibility, accountability and safety.
With a tracker plugged into each vehicle, MVG management simply logs into Azuga Fleet to capture all diagnostic data to gain instant insight into a driver’s efficiency.
“Azuga Fleet makes it easy to track drivers on the job,” explained Jacob. “It gives a scorecard for excessive idling, heavy acceleration and hard braking, as well as sharp turns, so we can catch errors and keep our fingers on the pulse of drivers and of vehicles for mechanics.”
MVG keeps its vending and micro market routes separate for the most part, with the exception of locations where it makes logistical sense to combine the route because an account has both services.
Office coffee service makes up 8% to 12% of the company’s business and is included on its vending and micro market trucks.
Despite a definite slump in OCS in white-collar locations when COVID prompted a work-from-home shift, there’s still been plenty of demand in many locations especially for portion-pack coffee, unique specialty coffee brands, and teas, and it’s ramping back up as more people continue to return to the office, according to Jordan.
With COVID restrictions easing and the rejuvenation of the warm weather following one exceptionally long and challenging winter, the Plassmans are confident that MVG is poised for a new round of growth as they celebrate 75 years. ■