• Americas

Food Facility Design

  • No

Management Advisory Services

  • No

Membership Grade

  • Corporate Designate (TAD)


  • Alto-Shaam, Inc.

Profile Title

  • Executive Vice President



W164 N9991 Water Street, Menomenee Falls, Wisconsin, 53052-0450, United States

Titans of industry: Steve Maahs

As a boy growing up in Wisconsin, Steve Maahs dreamt of many things, including what he would be when he grew up. He was influenced by whatever childhood activities he was involved in, and the movies and TV shows he watched. But as he matured, and entered college, he began to be inspired by his father, Jerry Maahs, and his dedication to inventing and building a global company from nothing which had the family name on it

That company, Alto-Shaam (Shaam is Maahs spelled backwards) is located in Menomonee Falls near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jerry Maahs founded it in 1955, and today Steve Maahs is president of the company, now a major foodservice brand.

Over the years, Maahs has concentrated on the domestic side of the business while his father has focused on the international.
“That’s his passion,” Maahs says.

Maahs Jnr’s personal Alto-Shaam story began when he was 16 and started working in the factory. “I couldn’t work prior to that because of the power tools and fabrication equipment,” he recalls. “But once I turned 16, I was working summers in the plant. I did everything, with the exception of working fabrication machinery and welding – areas that involved the skilled trades. I worked shipping and assembly. I even worked in the R&D lab.”

He is certain this experience gave him a thorough understanding of all aspects of the business. “Today, that is a strength I have because I’ve built it; I’ve done it. I can relate to the workforce,” he says.

A memory that stands out is when he was involved one summer in the testing on the smoking boxes for the company’s cook-and-hold smoker line. “Today this is one of our staple products,” he says. “Through this experience, I know its history.”

He worked during summers and while attending the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. In 1986, he moved to Florida to work for a full service Alto-Shaam retail distributor. During that year, he was involved in the field side of the business: deliveries, trade shows, and after-sale training. “My dad facilitated getting me the job,” he recalls.

By then the cook-and-hold smoker line was firmly established. “This was a period where we had the full Halo Heat system of products and were very successful with our system-selling approach,” Maahs says. He considers those years to have been core to his understanding all aspects of the business. He also learned the Alto-Shaam mission: to manufacture a superior quality product and provide value added services.

Family affair

In 1988, Maahs moved back to Wisconsin to work for Alto-Shaam in inside sales. “I started in outside sales, customer service, and worked at trade shows selling the entire line,” he explains.

It was at this time he started to work his way up the corporate ladder to national sales manager, vice president of sales, executive vice president of Alto-Shaam, and eventually president and chief operating officer in 2000.

His sister – and only sibling – Karen Hansen has also held key roles at Alto-Shaam. Today she serves as chairman of the board and CEO. “We are 50-50 owners,” he says.

While the business is obviously a family affair, Maahs insists that what makes the company strong is the role that all employees play. “The company is about everyone, every employee,” he emphasises. “We are all family.”

It is a corporate culture that Maahs promotes. “It’s embraced strongly by the entire workforce, and is a huge differentiator from companies with which we compete,” he says. “We have an environment where employees make a difference.”

Making that workforce strong is Alto-Shaam’s world-class talent development programme, which operates with a policy to reward and promote workers from within. As a result, Maahs maintains that Alto-Shaam employees are proud workers, evidenced by the company’s exceptionally low worker turnover – many have worked there for 20, 30, even 40 years.

“Locally, we are one of the benchmark companies and have won Manufacturer of the Year for workforce development in the State of Wisconsin,” Maahs says. “We also provide above average wage and benefit packages that are very comprehensive and, I believe, encourage the loyalty that we have.”

Expeditious growth

Alto-Shaam manufactures all its products at its Menomonee Falls facility. Despite the recession, Maahs reveals the company has doubled its business in the last five years. “Previous to that we doubled in 10 years [2001-2010],” he says. In recent years Alto-Shaam has grown to 440 employees. “We recruited over 90 in 2015 alone,” he says.

Maahs attributes Alto-Shaam’s growth to its robust strategic plan. Not to be underestimated is the company’s high level of customer service with both internal and external customers and the fact that it sells solutions rather than individual products.

In 2013, its facility was expanded 25,000 sq ft. Today, the factory employs automation, robotic welding, laser cutting equipment, and a central fabrication unit. The company continues to pioneer innovative cooking solutions through its R&D processes.

Roadmap to success

Maahs never loses sight of the company’s roots. He tells the story of how Alto-Shaam came about as a result of his father’s inventing the Halo Heat system. Working as an operator of one of the first Chicken Delight chain franchise units, Jerry Maahs sought to find a solution to keeping food hot since delivery equipment back then did not keep the product warm, especially in cold Wisconsin winters.

“All that was available was sterno and Styrofoam,” says Maahs. “Let’s say there were a couple of sterno accidents in the VW used for deliveries.”

Maahs describes how his father experimented with thermal heat cables by wrapping them around insulated containers. He refined the concept, tested it extensively in the restaurants where he was the franchisee owner, and patented the technology. Hence, Halo Heat holding cabinets were born.

But his father could not sell Halo Heat to the Chicken Delight chain. His boss gave him an ultimatum. He had to stop his work on Halo Heat to continue working for Chicken Delight, or he had to leave the company. “He chose to leave the restaurant and franchise and focus on his start-up company,” Maahs says.

Now blacklisted from Chicken Delight, Jerry Maahs put all his energy into growing his own company. Within three years, he took it from $0 to $500,000 in sales by targeting other chains. In 1968, Halo Heat debuted at the National Restaurant Association trade show. “Then in the 1970s, someone asked him, ‘Can I hold something overnight and can I thaw?’” Maahs says. “My father began experimenting with low-temperature overnight cooking and holding of prime rib.” The result was Alto-Shaam’s cook-and-hold category of products. At that time, Alto-Shaam’s workforce was five people.

Cook-and-hold was not an immediate success. It took demonstrations and samplings at national and international trade shows to catch on. While the young Maahs was working domestic sales, his father built up sales overseas by attending trade shows, establishing distributorships and participating in trade missions. As a result, by the 1980s, Alto Shaam had become a globally recognised brand.

“At the same time we experienced a proliferation of the technology in all categories, and selling systems, such as packaging deli cases with cook-and-hold units,” Maahs recalls. “We were one of the first to really focus on a system-selling approach.”

In the late 1980s, his father became intrigued with a new product concept while travelling in Europe: the combi oven.

“We had exhausted what we could apply Halo Heat to,” Maahs remarks. “While the use of combi ovens was established in Europe, very few players were offering the technology in the US.”

But when Jerry Maahs introduced combi ovens to Alto-Shaam executives, it was met with resistance. “Half of the executives comprised of my dad’s brothers and the others, long-time execs who had been working alongside him long before I came along,” Maahs says. “From their perspective, the company was based on low-temperature, gentle cooking and holding – not high-
temp cooking.”

Eventually, Alto-Shaam licensed the technology from the German manufacturer and marketed the combi oven in North America. Immediately, a restaurant chain took the technology and gave Alto-Shaam a base of business. Initially Alto-Shaam imported the equipment but it ended up as a manufacturer itself and that soon became a central part of Alto-Shaam as the company sought ways to build more elements for the system.

“That led us to creating retail-oriented products such as display cases, rotating merchandisers, hot food point-of-purchase displays, buffet servers and a rotisserie,” Maahs explains.

Today’s success

Today, the combi is Alto-Shaam’s leading product category, with the impetus behind Alto-Shaam becoming much more than solely a low temp, cooking and holding/holding only company – particularly when considering the wide product category range it now offers.

“It was the impetus for us to expand beyond the original ‘invented’ product concept of Halo Heat,” Maahs says.

The international brand (owned by his father) and domestic sales continue to grow at parallel rates. These days, domestic sales encompass two-thirds of the business, and international the remaining one-third, plus or minus 5%.

In addition to its headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Alto-Shaam has locations in Mexico, Ontario, Florida, Russia, Germany, France, China and Dubai that serve its international partners and customers. In order to continue meeting customer needs, Alto-Shaam invests a minimum 5% of sales into R&D. It operates on a five-year product life-cycle plan in which it looks to introduce a new variation within the product category.

“We are constantly striving to innovate and provide a high level of customer service,” Maahs says. He is determined that the company will maintain its private and independent ownership. The long-term plan is to pass the company onto a third generation.

“Important to the business is the culture of family,” he explains. “We never lose sight of what got us here. And I cannot overstate our global brand recognition and our system- selling concept. These assets are what make us who we are versus many of our competitors.”

Karen Thuermer

Food Facility Design

  • No

Management Advisory Services

  • No