Supplying the Food Chain
Ron Cegnar has made a career out of the food supply chain and it all started in Idaho with French fries.
Growing up on a farm and cattle ranch in Homedale, Cegnar decided to attend the University of Idaho because of the affordability and agricultural programs.
“I needed to go to a state school, and U of I was the only one that had what I considered a really good agriculture program,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and ranch and wanted to figure out how to make money at it.”
Cegnar earned a bachelor’s (’67) and master’s (’69) degree in agricultural economics from U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. While finishing his dissertation he was drafted into the Vietnam war where he served for three years. After completing his service, Cegnar connected with U of I classmate Bill Atchley where he learned about a new process being developed by McDonald’s for their French fries.
A New French Fry Process
In 1972 Cegnar was offered a job as quality assurance supervisor for McDonald’s, based in Caldwell. In this role he oversaw the new frozen French fry program at potato processing plants, including Lamb Weston, Simplot and Carnation in Idaho, Oregon and Canada.
Up to that point, McDonald’s French fries were prepared from fresh potatoes at the restaurant with varying degrees of quality due to availability of potatoes and differing preparation methods. The fast food chain sought a way to standardize the process to ensure a more uniform product. A new process was developed, which involved blanching the potatoes at a steam table, several rounds of drying, followed by freezing, to give all McDonald’s fries a more consistent look, taste and texture.
“What it did was make a better interior texture on the French fry,” Cegnar said. “Now, instead of frying the moisture out you could actually dry it out in different stages.”
Cegnar was responsible for overseeing the implementation of the new process at the plants and helping train McDonald’s employees at restaurants on the process for cooking the new product.
“Our role was to make sure that the product was right in the plants,” Cegnar said. “Another role was to help the markets roll it out because it was a whole new operational process. There was still a lot to do in the restaurant to finish the product because now it came in frozen instead of fresh, so you had to train all the restaurants.”
Improving Supply Systems
Cegnar eventually relocated to Oak Brook, Illinois to oversee purchasing for McDonald’s North American operations. From there, he saw career stops with Popeyes Fried Chicken in New Orleans, Louisiana as vice president and Jerrico Inc., which owned Long John Silvers, in Lexington, Kentucky as senior vice president. In 1992, he was recruited by Burger King to create a cooperative to bring more than 6,000 restaurants into one system. Cegnar created Restaurant Services, Inc. which today still serves as the supply chain management and distribution cooperative for the Burger King system.
In 1996, Cegnar and two partners created CEO Partners Inc., a consulting business that focuses on implementing best practices in food service supply chain systems and related industries. He has served as president for the past 24 years.
“We help restaurants with everything from organization to distribution, processes, suppliers. Everything you’d think about in the supply chain system, back to the raw material into the restaurant,” he said. “It’s about, how do you set that up in a way that is most effective and efficient for the restaurant chain? Because if you can’t get it to the backdoor right there’s not much you can do with the product.”
In his nearly 50 years in the food service supply industry, Cegnar has found the most satisfaction in helping others.
“Helping people to do things better is the thing I enjoy,” he said. “Working with franchisees and brands helping them put program systems together to be more effective.”
Cegnar is now drawing on his vast experience to author a supply chain textbook with a professor at the University of Central Florida. The book will be completed in September 2020 for use in classrooms in early 2021.
“Supply chain is a great field to be in,” he said. “You get exposed to so many different things in supply chain. You might be travelling internationally. One day you’re dealing with problems with seafood then the next day distribution then the day after that you can’t get beef. The food world is a big world and it’s a great place to learn and understand agriculture.”
While Cegnar appreciated the education he received at U of I, the one thing that he has taken with him throughout his career are the relationships he built while on campus.
“It’s probably not so much what I learned because most of that is outdated today, but it exposes you to so many people,” he said. “Some of the friends I met in graduate school, we still talk to each other and a couple of them we’ve continued to work together over the years.”
Cegnar also keeps connected to U of I by serving on the advisory board for the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. His connection to Idaho agriculture also continues through his family farm in Homedale.
“My first love is always the University of Idaho. I enjoyed going to school there,” he said. “Because of my interest in agriculture, it keeps me associated with agriculture in Idaho. I still have a farm in Idaho so I’m still part of Idaho. I like the challenge of learning what’s new and how agriculture is evolving in Idaho.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in July 2020