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Carbon waffles South Bend Small Business of the Year

Published 10:38am Tuesday, February 16, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Niles Daily Star

It’s been 17 years since Rick McKeel of Niles sold newspaper advertising for the Daily Star for publisher Tom Rattenbury to such customers as J.C. Penney and Bookout’s.
Now he’s president and chief executive officer of New Carbon Co., honored Thursday before more than 500 business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, Ind.’s, annual “Salute to Business” luncheon at the Century Center in South Bend as Small Business of the Year.

Small, as in 75 employees, such as Jodie Lollar, who said Friday, “We have a small company that has actually grown in a time that companies are closing. I know as an employee this is inspiring. We have a unique make-up of people who run this awesome business.”

This is the second recognition in the past 12 months for the achievements of Carbon, which reported $10 million annual revenue in 1999 compared to $30 million by last year, when it grew 7 percent over the previous year.

New Carbon Co. also was picked one of Indiana’s Top 50 companies to watch from 500 applications.

“We’re not going to participate in the recession,” said McKeel, a 1984 Niles High School graduate who built a house in the City of Four Flags, married a Niles girl and still calls it home, although his customers can be found over a much wider area – Canada, Mexico, Austria, France, Israel, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus – “anywhere where there are American hotels” and lodgers comforted by American food.

The Chamber recognized two individuals, Christopher M. Murphy III, chairman, and chief executive of 1st Source Bank; and mentoring advocate Christine Pochert Ringle, who has been with Indiana University South Bend and the South Bend Community School Corp.; and two businesses for their community leadership, service and achievement, New Carbon Co. and St. Joseph Regional Medical Center for its economic impact on Feb. 11.

McKeel’s company started in 1937 in Buchanan. Up until about 10 years ago it operated out of Buchanan and also had a frozen foods plant on M-62 outside Dowagiac.

They sell waffles all over the world. OK, there’s a little more to it than that, but that is the backbone of its business.

Carbon’s Golden Malted Pancake and Waffle Flour, patented in 1937, is used by more than 13,000 customers at hotels, restaurants, universities, even theme parks and casinos.

Fred S. Carbon developed the original recipe for the pancake and waffle flour. He sold the company to his son, Don, in 1986, who sold it to a group of distributors in 1998, when it became New Carbon Co.

Fred Carbon made enough to fill his truck, then drove to Chicago and sold the load.
Today, from major hotel chains such as Hyatt, Quality Inn, Marriot and others to restaurant chains, such as Denny’s and Perkin’s, Carbon’s waffles are served everywhere.
If you are at Walt Disney World and order ice cream cones and waffles, they’re Carbon’s mix and machines.

Carbon waffles have also been served at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.
Carbon’s made a special waffle iron for the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas for small waffles on which caviar is served.

Another growth area came through Dairy Queen, for which its Innovation Products division produced a panini machine known as “The Iron Grill.”

In figuring out a way to penetrate bigger markets, McKeel said, “We got into the limited service hotel business, where you make your own waffles and the brand is plastered everywhere versus stuck in the back of the kitchen.”

When Carbon appeared on the cover of Impact, Leader Publications’ business magazine, in 2008, it employed 66 people – 43 in South Bend – and was entering the retail sector with online sales.

“When we left Buchanan, people thought we closed,” McKeel said. “Waffles are still the majority of what we do.”

The breakthrough with continental breakfasts came in 2001.

Batter in a cup, pour it in a machine and instantly enjoy a hot breakfast.

“That took off,” he said, adding that “food is not a bad place to be” for business, since people tend to eat more when they are stressed by the economy.

McKeel got out of college in 1989. Before his eight months selling newspaper advertising, he worked with a bank in manager training in Coloma.

“Banking’s too dry for me. I t did not fit my personality,” he said.

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