In 1921, the capital city looked a lot different. The population of 58,821 was poised to grow alongside a city – and a province – that was experiencing a construction boom. Visionary and entrepreneur R. J. Talbot knew that as Edmonton and the surrounding towns grew, so would the hotels and restaurants that supported the population. Rather than open a restaurant as did many forward-thinking businesspeople of the times, Talbot opened a business to supply the restaurant industry with stoves, floor wax, cooking utensils, table linens and everything else needed for a successful eatery.
Fast forward to 2006 and HESCO is thriving, still supplying Edmonton and area with an increasing array of food service necessities. It was in 2006 that Larry and Adam Ungarian, father and son, bought the business, ushering in the next evolution of the company – the expansion to building commercial kitchens. In 2017 Cory Wagner joined as president. Along with a team of designers, trades, and salespeople, HESCO continues to define everything food service supply is, and what it can become.
“My father ran what was, at the time, a competitor’s food service brand,” says Ungarian. “We thought, why are we doing this for others when we can do it for ourselves? So, when the opportunity came along to purchase HESCO, we did.”
Wagner adds, “For the longest time it was formally known as the Hotel Equipment and Supply Company, but everyone was calling it HESCO for short. We rebranded with that name in 2020.”
Ungarian and Wagner had been friends for more than a decade, and both had experience in running high profile businesses. Ungarian asked Wagner to join HESCO, and kept asking for three years.
“There was finally a ‘beer that broke the camel’s back,’” laughs Wagner. “But looking back, I did feel it would be a unique challenge to take a family-owned business and grow it into a larger enterprise.” He couldn’t be happier about his decision to join and loves the daily aspects of his role as president.
“My father, who is still a partner, is slowly retiring,” informs Ungarian. “While he’s still here he isn’t involved in the day-to-day operations as much. As a businessperson I know I can’t do it alone. Having Wagner on board means I can do what I do best, which is sell, create, design teams, and focus on building business relationships.”
Over the last century, food service has changed, and so has HESCO. This constant evolution is something the partners welcome. Remaining agile with an eye to the future has enabled the company to thrive, even during the pandemic when many restaurants are struggling.
Wagner explains, “We are a young, energetic company in what is often thought of as an old-school line of business. HESCO’s focus is increasingly becoming technology driven, which makes us even more efficient. Additionally, over the last few years we have really driven the business to collaborate more with architects and project managers so we can offer products and services outside of the restaurant business. Now we build kitchens and provide supplies for laboratory facilities, daycares, hotels, corporate offices, oil and gas camps, and so much more. We are growing beyond the borders of operating within one industry, and geographically we are growing beyond the borders of Alberta and Western Canada.”
Ungarian agrees, saying, “We now have seven designers on staff, which is quite a few more than our nearest competitor in Edmonton. We’ve pivoted to work with various chains such as Chopped Leaf, Canadian Brewhouse and Craft Beer Market. We work with senior care facilities, hospital programs and more.”
Being agile and entering new markets has always been the driver of HESCO’s growth, even during times of economic downturn in Alberta.
“We have grown in the double digits over the last two years, getting into more capital intensive projects,” says Wagner, “but the things I’m most proud of is taking a company that was paper-driven and leveraging a lot of technology to make us more efficient. This allows us to grow our sales with the team we already have in place. We are now far more efficient with our revamp of processes and our inclusion of technology.”
Wagner does admit, however, that making the switch came with some challenges.
“When I came in there was fear that there would be changes, which is understandable. But now the team can look back and see how those changes were worthwhile.”
They both credit the team as a large part of the company’s success, saying, “We hire people that work hard, but more importantly, work smart. It’s important to do the hard work, but also to have fun. HESCO seeks out entrepreneurial minded individuals that help us grow the brand. We are open to suggestions and ideas and enjoy it when our team helps make decisions on behalf of the company.”
Relying on the team has become increasingly important to Ungarian.
“As the company is growing, my role is changing,” he says. “I’m more involved with the daily operations, not just with the customers, and I have been enjoying that. We have really good people on the team that have taken over the contracting side. At first I wanted to do everything on my own, but I’ve learned to let go of the reins and delegate.”
“The pandemic has really allowed us to reflect on the value of the people who are here,” adds Wagner. “We have seen the results many times over of valuing our team and putting them first.”
The duo are not only intent on growing the company; they both are focused on personal and professional development to ensure they can be at their best as family men and as business leaders.
“I grow my skillset by reading and gathering as much information as possible,” admits Wagner. “Adam probably cringes when I send him links at 11 pm at night saying, ‘look at what they are doing in this company! Look what they are doing in Europe to make kitchens more efficient!’ I love gathering information and seeing how it can help what we are doing at HESCO.”
Ungarian raises an eyebrow. “I grow my skill set by reading what he sends me,” he replies dryly.
Whether they are reading about food service innovation overseas or pivoting to serve a wider variety of industries, one thing is certain: Edmonton will remain, as Wagner calls it, HESCO’s nucleus.
“I was born and raised in Edmonton. It’s a city that I have always loved,” Wagner confirms. Although we have had an office in Calgary since 2015 and are looking at opportunities throughout western Canada, we have no desire to move our headquarters or leave this city. Ever. I love the people. I love the benefit that you get to celebrate more seasons. Winters make us appreciate our trips down south (when we could safely travel). I have four kids, and this is a great place to raise a family.”
Ungarian agrees, “I have two girls; my family and I love the framework of the city. A lot of businesses like to support other local businesses here, and we have been blessed with that. There is a true sense of community. The Oilers, the river valley… in the summer Edmonton is one of the nicest places around. There is always plenty to do and the city continues to grow.”
In support of the city they love, Wagner and Ungarian give back to the community personally as well as professional through HESCO. The food service company has been a big supporter of The Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation for more than a decade. Patrons of HESCO can receive a discount on products by bringing food hamper items to the showroom. Bottles are collected at the offices for charity, and ongoing innovation is undertaken to ensure HESCO’s products are as environmentally friendly as possible. The management team and staff are routinely found volunteering at a variety of events around the city.
Although HESCO has won supplier awards and has been recognized throughout the industry for its innovations and contributions, the management team says, “we like to keep under the radar.” Instead, they let the impact of their work speak for itself.
HESCO started a century ago to supply Edmonton and area’s rapidly growing food service sector, and that visionary spirit has seen the company through countless economic, political, population, and industrial changes. Now, with the pandemic upending the food industry on a global scale, HESCO is poised to evolve again.
“As we change and diversify, it’s fine to keep up with the best technology in pots and pans, but now we are becoming experts in eco-friendly disposables and chemicals as well,” says Ungarian, speaking to the need to supply restaurants with takeout containers, and designing appliances like dishwashers with more environmentally friendly chemical solutions.
“There is also the need to rethink the very design of kitchens to accommodate things like SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats. Important aspects to consider are separate places where the drivers pick up food. Does the establishment want them walking through the whole restaurant? Things to consider instead are heated take out lockers and take out windows. Even in the world of fine dining there are new aspects to accommodate where the world is going,” Wagner adds.
For more than a century HESCO has been ahead of the curve by anticipating where the industry would go and arriving a step or two ahead. With Edmonton, Alberta, and indeed the world changing rapidly, HESCO not only keeps pace, it leads the charge.
“I thank my father, Cory, our customers and the staff for helping us to continue to grow,” concludes Ungarian.
“I thank Adam and Larry for the opportunity to help take HESCO into the future,” counters Wagner.
They both look forward to continuing to attract entrepreneurial-minded talent to the team, growing into new markets and new lines of business, new acquisitions, and creating efficient, eco-friendly, clean and innovative ways for everyone in every industry to enjoy the meals of their choice.