You can go home again. Keri Gardner grew up in Bayside, Queens, and worked at the U.S. Open as a ball girl, sold T-shirts, took tennis lessons there as a child, played in tournaments while in high school and in matches in the USTA adult leagues.
She returns this fall, not with a racket in hand, but celebrating a win of another sort. Her business, Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions, scored the U.S. Open account, and they will manage the filtration and cleaning of the cooking oil of the U.S. Open’s concessions.
The Dix Hills business is a franchisee of the national company Filta Environmental, which filters and recycles cooking oil from commercial kitchens across the country for biodiesel fuel and increases kitchen safety by taking care of the hot bins of oil. They’ll be on-site for three weeks, during qualifying matches and the two weeks of the big event.
“I did a walk-through, and I couldn’t believe I’m here again. I passed pictures of Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg, and Martina [Navratilova], it brought back memories of when I was a ball girl,” said Gardner, 55. “This is a homecoming.”
She’s sentimental and psyched. She and husband and business partner Joe Andrean will handle the oil and cleaning of some 120 fryers. They have two full-time employees for their home-based business and will bring in a Connecticut Filta franchise owner and his team and others to help. Gardner’s win is sweeter still, she says, as they had sought the account last year but pursued it too late. This year they reached out in February and had talks in April. How did they nail the account?
“They were interested in filtration. Previously they had plumbers coming in nightly to dump the oil and had someone else clean. Well, we can do it all. We will save them on the cost of goods and in a way that’s better for the environment,” said Gardner.
Andrean, 57, adds, “It’s a big deal for the chefs that we’re doing the fryers. It takes a load off their shoulders” by assuring a high quality for the oil.
The U.S. Open win is just the latest. Since November of 2020, the company has grown to a roster of 30 clients, big names like UBS Arena, Citi Field, a concession — Yummier — at Jones Beach, New York University and Hofstra University. What’s been key to their success? “We do the work ourselves. We have developed great relationships with chefs and stadium general managers. When I’m in the kitchen I make myself small, do my thing and get out the way. We get a lot of referrals,” said Gardner.
They’re also in a growing field. Market research firm IBIS World expects the cooking oil recycling industry in the U.S. to grow moderately between 2021-2026. A 2017 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that restaurants and hotels in the U.S. generated 3 billion gallons of used cooking oil per year. According to Allied Market Research, the U.S. used cooking oil market was valued at $774 million in 2018 and is projected to reach $1 billion by 2026.
“Reused cooking oil is a huge market. Biodiesel companies are scouting large fast-food franchises that they can partner with to recycle used cooking oil into fuel. Transforming oil into fuel is helping improve the global environmental crisis,” says Brian Nagele, a food and beverage industry consultant and CEO of Restaurant Clicks, a provider of restaurant industry information, based in Philadelphia.
Another thing that boosted business is advice from other franchise owners. “We weren’t afraid to ask questions and we watched how they ran their business,” said Gardner.
She has no regrets about her pivot from client relations work in finance to fryers when she was downsized from her job during the pandemic. “We’ve done better than expected,” said Gardner. Last year, Andrean said the company had $250,000 in revenue and expects to double that in 2022. They started with one van, they have three and went from one microfiltration unit to four.
Growth came faster than expected. They could be growing more but have been slowed by a skilled-worker shortage. “We have to do much of the work ourselves. We don’t have a lot of time to knock on doors. I can’t wait to get out of the van and start selling,” said Andrean.
She’s proud too of the fact that she does some of the dirty work. “Most women are doing sales. I’m on the truck and in the kitchen, doing the work. It’s my athletic background. I like to conquer, to win.”
At a glance:
Company: Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions, Dix Hills
Owners: Keri Gardner and Joe Andrean
2021 Revenue: $250,000