On a cool August morning, with a marine layer shrouding the sunrise over Monterey Bay, Ken Whiting laces up his running shoes. Clad in a blue warmup jacket and running shorts, the operator of more than two dozen food and beverage (F&B) outlets on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk places the park to his back and puts his best foot forward.
“I’ve told people a lot I haven’t gone very far in life,” he says with a laugh about 300 yards into the run, while passing the site of the hospital where he was born. “I was down on the boardwalk as soon as my mom went back to work. So, the boardwalk is a very special place.
The brisk pace over 6 miles, complete with elevation changes along the craggy coast of the Pacific Ocean where surfers catch a wave and the barking sea lions seemingly cheer him on, proves no challenge for Whiting. When the 2022 IAAPA Chairman of the Board sets a goal, he chases it—like running a marathon in each of the 50 states that makeup the United States of America. To date, Whiting has completed marathons (26.2 miles) in 34 different U.S. states. Eugene Naughton, president of The Dollywood Company, is credited with encouraging Whiting to run across state lines. Naughton sees a correlation between Whiting’s enthusiasm for running and the care he gives others in the global attractions industry.
“He’s given a lot of his time and energy to just being a great coach to people,” Naughton tells Funworld. “I think that’s the thing that stands out most about him.”
A true marathon man and Ironman triathlete, Whiting’s determination on foot is matched by his longevity of service with IAAPA, extending back to 1979. Whiting’s driving spirit, coupled with his refreshing optimism and passion for people, is set to move the global attractions industry forward as the recovery from the global pandemic continues.
The story of Whiting’s family providing confections to guests on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk begins 70 years ago with glass bottles of milk and a chance opportunity. Leslie Theodore Whiting Jr. provided for his growing family as a Meadow Gold Dairy milkman, delivering dairy products to the Santa Cruz community. His route included a stop on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where an ice cream concessionaire was looking to sell his business.
“My father worked out a way with my grandfather to acquire that one location, selling snow cones, popcorn, and soft serve,” Whiting recalls. Following the purchase in 1953, Ken Whiting’s father retained his delivery route, while his mother, Esther, began operating the ice cream stand. Little by little, the Whiting family started purchasing additional outlets along the boardwalk as they became available.
“My parents had their own plan for staffing, and it was having eight kids,” Whiting says with a laugh. His first job? Peeling bananas and inserting a wooden stick into each before dipping them into chocolate.
“It’s a family business story of just rolling up your sleeves and going to work and then hopefully, earning your keep and adding value,” Whiting says of the legacy.
Today, as the humble president of Whiting’s Foods Inc. (a title he uses sparingly—it’s not found on his email signature or LinkedIn profile), he and his sister, Margie Sisk, along with several other family members, operate 26 locations that serve everything from burgers and pizza, to soft serve cones dipped in half a dozen flavors and fresh, handcrafted churros.
Ken and Margie were joined by their brother Ron, who helped lead the family business for several decades. Recently, Ron transitioned his owner-ship to three of his sons. Jeff Whiting is the vice president of operations; Dan Whiting is the operations manager who leads the mobile F&B division; and Anthony Whiting serves as the operations manager overseeing purchasing.
Also supporting Ken and the family business is his wife of more than 40 years, Renee. The pair first met in kindergarten and later both worked together at the boardwalk in junior high school. They have three grown daughters, three sons-in-law, and eight grandchildren. Their youngest daughter, Jenny, recently joined Whiting’s Foods as director of marketing.
A Unique Partnership
Strolling along the famed 114-year-old boardwalk with Whiting is like sitting in the front row of a college lecture hall. His passion for the attraction comes to life through stories, recollections, and delightful tours of the famous Cocoanut Grove ballroom. At each turn, he expresses gratitude for the partnership Whiting’s Foods has with the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, the private corporation that owns the park, the neighboring Carousel Beach Inn, Sea & Sand Inn, Cocoanut Grove ballroom, and the Boardwalk Bowl bowling facility.
“I’ve been with the company for 22 years, and when I first started, I thought these types of relationships didn’t exist,” says Omid Aminifard, vice president and general manager of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. “Ken and his family bring a valid value to the park, with a lot of innovation.”
The Santa Cruz Seaside Company owns and operates several of its own F&B locations, along with all the rides, games, and merchandise locations. Meanwhile, seven other private concessionaires—like Whiting’s Foods—operate along the mile-long boardwalk.
“When you have these concessionaires that have been there for years and years and years, you’ve got other owners on the property—it’s not just us,” explains Tom Canfield, executive vice president of the Santa Cruz Seaside Company. “That’s what has made our model work.”
So why doesn’t the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk just operate all the F&B locations like a traditional amusement park and pocket the revenue?
“It’s a fair question to ask and one of the first things I started thinking to myself,” shares Karl Rice, president of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, adding “it’s more than just money that’s important.”
“We have a family connection with the people who have spent their lives, their careers, their family legacy, devoting their time and effort working toward a common cause,” Rice says. “The Whiting family shares our passion to make the boardwalk a better place.”
Challenges of COVID-19
Like all owners and operators across the global attractions industry, Whiting’s Foods found itself affected by the coronavirus. In 2020, regulations set forth by the State of California prevented the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk from operating rides and indoor attractions. While the rides sat idle that summer, the beach was open, allowing Whiting’s Foods to serve just a fraction of visitors compared to 2019.
“With COVID last year, we saw just 5% of the revenue of what we did in 2019,” Whiting shares in a reflective tone. Balancing the massive loss comes with a sense of pride for Whiting since none of the company’s 12 full-time employees ever faced a layoff. Instead, the company used the slow-down to reevaluate and make operational changes. First, Whiting’s Foods went cashless.
“Candidly, I would have never supported that in a different time,” Whiting says. “All of a sudden, we found there are tremendous operational efficiencies. There’s no one who works with us now who wants to see cash again.”
For Whiting, those efficiencies include loss prevention, faster service, and increased earnings beginning April 1, when the State of California moved Santa Cruz County into the less-restrictive “orange tier,” allowing the boardwalk to reopen its rides.
“Average transactions were up almost 40%,” Whiting shares. “People spend more with the credit card, they just do.”
Some locations also implemented a new system where employees use a megaphone to call out a diner’s name when their order is ready, creating greater social distancing and allowing the line to move faster, thus increasing the number of orders placed. By 2022, Whiting hopes to replace the use of megaphones by introducing a mobile ordering system, as he feels the megaphones are too loud.
Goals for the Year Ahead
As chairman of IAAPA, Whiting is candid with the two initiatives he has for 2022. First, elevate F&B perceptions at attractions around the globe. Next, he wants to empower young people to pursue the attractions industry as a career.
Whiting reflects on data showing F&B sales can generate 30-40% of the total revenue at an attraction. Therefore, he feels food deserves more attention.
“Our guests are willing to spend more money for a product that meets their needs and is of a greater quality level,” Whiting says.
The tighter staffing challenges of COVID-19 necessitated reduced menu sizes and the use of more prepared items. However, in a normal time, he suggests retiring frozen food products in favor of freshly made confections, like using fresh dough to craft pretzels and churros while guests look on (from safely behind a glass window). Whiting believes when guests observe the process—whether it’s dipping corndogs in fresh batter or cutting potatoes for french fries—the sense of theater can result in greater profits.
“To me, it is very fitting that Ken will be the first F&B guy to be chairman in IAAPA history,” says Bernie Campbell of Whirley-DrinkWorks! and chairman of the IAAPA Food and Beverage Committee. “It plays into his nature that he’s going to be helpful; he’s going to share.”
Whiting has served IAAPA members for more than four decades as a member of the food and beverage committee, human resources committee, investment committee, the North America advisory committee, and a member of the IAAPA Board of Directors.
“I did one of the very first webinars in 2004,” Whiting adds with glee. “It felt so foreign. I remember feeling so nervous in terms of ‘how is this thing really going to work?’”
Whiting’s second initiative is encouraging fellow leaders to mentor the next generation of employees. Through conversation, internships, and creating opportunities for young people to become leaders, Whiting feels it’s important that the global attractions industry of tomorrow be run by strong decision-makers, many of whom are on the front lines at attractions today. Like many runners who develop a mantra to get them through a long race, Whiting’s goals are rooted in service.
“I figure I’ve been put on this earth to serve rather than to be served,” he says.
Whiting’s Foods serves employees first
When 2021’s staffing shortage produced long lines at food and beverage locations on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Margie Sisk, a business leader at Whiting’s Foods (and Ken Whiting’s younger sister) saw an opportunity for whom she calls her “most important customer.” Concerned her employees would not have time to eat, Sisk installed a grocery store cooler in the lobby of Whiting’s Foods across from the time clock. As Sisk’s workforce of more than 200 employees came and went, they could grab sources of protein, fruit, and bottled beverages—for free. Providing employees with complimentary food, along with a sense of purpose, is the foundation that Whiting’s Foods is built upon.
“We have empathy for them,” says Meaghan Campbell, human resources director at Whiting’s Foods for the past 20 years. “Whether it’s things they are dealing with at school or at home, or literally just in the job.”
To empower young workers, Sisk created two social media campaigns on Instagram. The #YouMatter hashtag is used to provide encouragement to the seasonal workforce.
“Our #YouMatter campaign reminds our young employees of their value and touches upon the importance of mental health,” Sisk tells Funworld.
The “Where Are They Now” series shares with current employees the success stories of previous employees. One of those stories belongs to Hector Gallardo. Whiting hired Gallardo at age 14 and, through opportunities and mentoring, changed his life.
“The Whiting family gave me the confidence I needed to be successful,” Gallardo says. “They handed me the keys at night when they went home. I was in charge of all the concessions by 18 years old.”
After 15 years working on the boardwalk, including several to put himself through San Jose State University, Gallardo says the Whitings encouraged him to spread his wings. Today, Gallardo is a vice president at the Coca-Cola Company, overseeing relationships with major American restaurant groups like Roadhouse Grill, Firehouse Subs, BurgerFi, and White Castle.
“A couple of years ago, Ken said to me, ‘Hector, I’m no longer your mentor. You’re now my mentor,’” Gallardo says. “That’s the sign of a true friend.”
2022 IAAPA Chairman Ken Whiting answers questions as a food and beverage operator and provides insight that other facility leaders can use:
- Finding proper staffing is a concern for all attractions. What is your key to attracting employees?
This hasn’t changed: People want to work with their friends. Maybe as they age, increased responsibility tends to play into it—and we have programs established that if you work more, you’ll earn more; if you want more responsibility, you’ll earn more. We allow people to go on call with the minimal requirement that they work one day a month, so that legitimizes being on call. We really do what we can to invest in that and help to set them up for success. It serves our interests, but it’s really what can we do for them to allow them to be successful.
- Your open locations went cashless in 2020. Did you discover any drawbacks?
There was a long, healthy list of the pros of us not accepting cash over the cons. But, for the person who only has cash—mom or the grandparents say, “Here’s a $20 bill, have fun, we’ll pick you up in a couple hours,”—we knew that we had to have a solution. While we limped through 2021, we will have that solution in place soon, providing all guests with the option of utilizing a reloadable card and allowing us to deliver quick, efficient, and safe transactions.
- What new trends are making an impact?
That’s our lifeblood, right? Food has become so much more of a part of the experience as time has marched on, in terms of variety, quality, and as an attendance and length-of-stay driver. Food and craft beer festivals are becoming commonplace. Alcohol is probably the No. 1 growth trend over the last 10 years, with specialized alcoholic drinks, craft beer, frozen concoctions, and unique, reusable souvenir beverage containers leading the way. This has created significant incremental revenue opportunities. On the food side, there is a growing emphasis on culinary, providing choice, made to order, and visible preparation. Indulgent menu items that guests don’t see outside the gates of the park or attraction become sought-after. And healthy food items have found their place on the menu, delivering a necessary guest service.
- The length of stay at a family entertainment center (FEC) is traditionally shorter than a park like Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. How can food become an attraction at an FEC?
A small park or an FEC has an average length of stay of two or three hours, and their guests have access to every branded restaurant out their front door. They drove right by them on the way in. That’s tough competition. So, what do you do? Do pizza well. You have to do pizza anyway because you use it for your birthday parties. For the moms, you better have an iced coffee and a couple of other beverages for them while they watch their kids run around. Less is definitely more. Do a few things well because they’re not there long enough.
- Funworld Video: Go behind the scenes of this Funworld cover shoot. See the photos come to life in a video on the IAAPA News Hub at IAAPA.org/Ken
Contact Scott Fais, managing editor of global communications and digital content, at [email protected]