“Big plans,” is how the new CEO of Berk Enterprises describes the near-term future of one of the leading concession suppliers nationwide. These plans range from new distribution center locations to exciting product introductions, such as the Tub O' Fun, a 64oz bucket with easy to carry handles for extra-large servings of fries, nachos, or donuts, which was one of the most buzzworthy new product introductions at the 2023 Gibtown Trade Show.
This year's IISA showcase was the first public appearance as company head for Reilly Berk, 25 years old and now one the highest-profile management millennials in the industry. The new “Berk” is another sign of the generational shift transforming not just our nation's midways, but the entire U.S. economy. Gen-Z aged out of entry-level work pre-pandemic, and the ongoing global crisis was the crucible by which their skill set, professionalism and perseverance was forged.
Back to Berk
Reilly is a third generation Berk and while few expected it to happen so young, even fewer are surprised by the promotion. At age 15, she attended her first trade show – IAAPA – and was immediately smitten by the energy, business-savvy and creativity of the outdoor event industry. She worked part-time during high school alongside her father, Robert Berk, who encouraged his daughter's – the eldest of five – interest, but had two conditions – to attend college and to get work experience at another company.
Reilly attended Kent State University, majoring in Business Management and minoring in Marketing and International Business. She also obtained a Professional Sales Certificate. After graduating from college, she moved to Cleveland, worked for a $10 Billion Logistics company, and in 2020 was completing her MBA at Cleveland State University when COVID hit. All long term and short plans were cancelled as companies and individuals went into immediate problem-solving mode. Her father – and President of Berk – informed her of the company's dire straits and implored her help. “He said you really need to get back to Berk.”
Thus, the trial by fire was in session. The various incarnations of the pandemic crisis caused drastic disruptions on both the supply and demand sides of the concession supply industry. China, ground-zero for the outbreak – and the manufacturing source for the vast majority of concession supplies – was plagued by factory and port closures, unfettering the global supply chain. State-side, outdoor events, amusement parks and other places serviced by the customers of Berk Enterprises were being cancelled or scaled back and the furloughs, layoffs and attrition hit concessionaires particularly hard.
Chaos & Crisis
She returned to Berk in the Spring of 2021 and started at the front line of the crisis – Sales. Then she was moved into operations – soon becoming Director of Operations – which to put it mildly – was “intense” – overseeing purchasing, shipping, warehousing and distribution. “It was a very interesting experience, I learned a whole other side of the business, which was great. The downside was that it was during the peak of supply chain disruption. We couldn't get all the products we needed. Factories were closing, ports were closing and there was lots of congestion at the ports. It was a crazy time, but I wouldn't have changed a thing. It was a great opportunity to navigate through some challenges the company was facing and with the help of my team, we were able to preserver and keep moving forward.”
The most sobering was the hyper-inflation besieging the global shipping industry, when at its worst container costs soared ten-fold, to a high of almost $30,000 – in 2019 the cost was $3,500, she said. “It was a very hard time.”
The pandemic paradigm shifted yet again in 2022, as global shipping costs settled down, a welcomed drop to near pre-pandemic levels, which also offset the effects of other global problems of inflation and labor shortages. This stabilization came just in time to serve a recovered outdoor event industry. “A lot of our customers had record sales, there was record attendance at a lot of the fairs.”
During the height of the product-scarcity panics of 2021, concessionaires scrambled to find products, speedier deliveries and fill-in orders became more rule than exception. Supply disruptions were industry-wide – one result of this fragmentation is that the vendors were forced to expand their supplier list – if one supplier is on backorder, the choice was either another supplier or Sam's Club.
This new level of competition put a premium on faster delivery, and Berk Enterprises has expanded and accelerated its distribution by opening a second location in Jackson, Mississippi. The company plans to open a third distribution center on the west coast in a few years. It has also continued to increase order-sizes post-lockdown. “In 2021, we bought 25 percent above forecasted sales and blew through that; in 2022 we bought 30 percent more and we blew through that...” For, 2023 the above forecast purchase will be about the same as last year.”
Berkley Enterprises has three divisions:
Berk Concession Supply, whose customers includes state and local fairs, waterparks, zoos, and other outdoor entertainment centers and venues, manufactures stock and custom designed souvenir cups and a wide array of novelty drinkware and food service products. Berkley Square, founded in 1987, provides plastic cutlery, straws, foil, film, napkins, food trays and more. Environ, is the company's biodegradable and compostable division, offering “greener” alternatives to the traditional plastic and Styrofoam items. The products range from cups, cutlery and to go containers and are made from a range of paper, corn starch and sugar-cane.
Robert Berk – son of Harold, the company founder – started the souvenir cup business in the ‘80s when according to Reilly, he saw that everybody was using a generic cup for lemonade and thought it would be a good idea to create a custom printed lemonade cup. He sold this idea to concessionaires with the idea of “Flash is Cash”. Soon after, the lemonade cup business took off. This innovation has changed the event beverage industry and Reilly is following in that entrepreneurial spirit with new innovations, such as the Tub O' Fun.
“What I love the most is that we can take people's ideas for products, and we can bring their vision to life. We have an in-house art department, who has developed and created our most popular products. Recently, I have seen more interest in concessionaires wanting more custom printed cups specialized with their logo and artwork which is fun”.
Beyond the immediate season, Reilly sees the Environ line becoming more popular as time goes on. The environmental movement has been embraced by many states and other organizations and many municipalities have enacted anti-plastic straw measures, encouraging either reusable or biodegradable straws, utensils, and other items.
At the utensil level, the price of this change is more than double that of disposable plastic and that has been the major impediment to more accelerated growth in this sector. In addition, COVID pushed Green issues to the side. But it's this product segment that's poised for more growth, as states and local governments, as well as fair boards adopt stronger environmental policies. “We're noticing that there's a growing demand for more biodegradable and compostable products. It's very important for the planet. I think with fresh blood in the industry, and new perspectives from my generation, we will see the fairs and concessionaires finding a solution. Fair boards and states are recognizing the need for more earth friendly products instead of Styrofoam or plastic.”
Berk is looking forward to celebrating 77 years in business this year and is excited to continue to grow for many generations to come.