Sal Torre – Bon Chef
When coffee sits out too long at a buffet, it’s either cold from being in an uninsulated pot or burnt from being on constant heat for hours.
It’s an issue many hotels faced for years, so in 1985, Marriot Hotels decided to do something about I, turning to Bon Chef for a solution.
Sal Torre, the founder and president of Bon Chef, had been supplying the hotel company with serving and chafing dishes for years. While he hadn’t dealt much with beverages, he wanted to help and quickly drew on a memory from childhood. Every morning, his mom would pack him a thermos of meatballs or frankfurters that would still be fresh and warm at lunchtime.
“So, what I did was I developed coffee urns with the thermos bottle principle, sent it back to Marriott and they flipped over it,” Torre says. “We’ve since become the standard for coffee urns throughout the industry.”
Using the double-walled insulation of a thermos, Bon Chef was able to keep coffee hot and tasting fresh for four or five hours, he says. Over time, the company began using vacuum insulation and now uses a heat wrap, which Torre says can keep liquid hot all day.
“I enjoy the creative process of developing new innovations, but the true reward is when customers like it,” he says.
Built to last
This desire to solve problems has driven Torre and his business over the past 51 years. He founded Bon Chef in 1972 after working in the restaurant industry and noticing that buffet pans and serving dishes weren’t very durable.
So, using an aluminum substrate and developing a sandstone coating, he made “unbreakable” serving dishes and c hafing dishes (which use water to keep food hot) that are now used by restaurants, hotels, casinos, colleges, cruise ships and more. Over the years, Bon Chef’s product line has expanded to include buffet serving vessels, dinnerware, such as plates and bowls, utensils, flatware and more.
Using unbreakable aluminum sandstone is crucial, Torre says, because it protects companies from liability. For example, if a buffet or supermarket deli used glass or ceramic trays in its salad bar and a piece chipped off, it could be ingested by a customer. Even if the person didn’t swallow it, the store could still be sued. Torre says the same is true in places where hundreds of people are scraping spoons, forks and tongs against the trays, such as cruise ships and college dining halls.
Much of Bon Chef’s business comes from contract feeders, which are food suppliers for large corporations. According to Torre, many large technology companies, investment firms and banks have on-site dining options for employees. While durability is important to these companies, so is presentation, he says.
“We’re all about creating products that are functional yet beautiful,” Torre says. “You eat with your eyes. If the food looks good and is presented well, it’s more desirable.”
Many of Bon Chef’s aluminum products have a shiny finish called Pewter-Glo, but the sandstone coating Torre created makes the dishes look ceramic and high-end while still being made of durable aluminum.
Torre developed the sandstone coating 45 years ago and has kept its formula—including how the raw materials are produced—a secret from everyone in the company. He says he’s never gotten a patent on it.
“Competitors have tried to replicate it, but they don’t look anywhere near as good and fail pretty easily,” he says. “Customers seem to like buying from the original.”
Torre says Bon Chef has been able to stay ahead of others by being aware of issues and finding ways to resolve them. For example, he created the first soft-close mechanisms on chafing dishes because he says regular lids loudly slam shut. And he created the first non-drip chafing pans, which prevent condensation and leaking onto buffet tables.
When speaking with Terra Firma in February, he said Bon Chef had a dozen products in development. As with the coffee dispensers, Torre says most of his ideas come from listening to customers.
“They tell you their needs, which allows you to provide a solution and sometimes create new innovation,” he says.
Finding a way
While Torre says Bon Chef’s products tend to speak for themselves, he knows that good customer service can’t be understated. For example, he says a long-time customer recently called the company saying she needed her order to arrive by the next day.
“We understand how important it is to move fast and provide high quality in the food service industry,” Torre says. “We don’t say no to customers. We find a way.”
He tries to show this same level of care to employees by giving them opportunities to grow with the company. He employs over 100 people in Bon Chef’s office and factory in Lafayette, New Jersey, and says many employees have been with the company for decades.
Torre says he encourages employees to share their ideas for products, which he says makes them feel more ownership over their work. He says he’s particularly proud that his son, Christopher, a vice president within the company, has been developing more ideas of his own. For example, he came up with the idea to use Suprastone, a firm but low porous quartz, as the countertop on the company’s invisible induction tables. The tables hide the buffet’s heating mechanisms for aesthetic purposes.
“To come up with ideas, you have to stay open to noticing things and you can’t be afraid to try things that haven’t been done before,” Torre says. “That’s how great innovation happens.”
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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