When Steve Melink started selling an energy-efficient ventilation system for commercial kitchens 15 years ago, no one was interested.
He knew the Intelli-Hood would help restaurants save thousands of dollars on energy bills, but in the early '90s, maintaining budget and cutting costs were the only priorities for restaurateurs. New technology represented more expense.
But his luck has changed, and his Milford-based company, Melink Corp., has grown from 20 employees in 2001 to 70 employees today. He hopes revenue will reach $10 million by year's end, up from $3 million five years ago. Clients now include Bob Evans, Chili's and Max & Erma's, among many others.
In a few years, he expects his technology to be the industry standard.
"We're making an otherwise dumb hood intelligent," Melink said. "The market is finally embracing it."
Melink founded the company in 1987. Operating out of his basement, he traveled the country as a consultant, providing HVAC testing and balancing for restaurant chains and commercial kitchens.
Customers wanted him to help lower their gas and electric bills but didn't realize that exhaust fans did not have to be running full speed all day. He created the Intelli-Hood, which uses a laser beam to monitor the amount of heat coming from a range. The speed of the fan adjusts based on the system's assessment.
During the slower, late afternoon hours at a restaurant, the Intelli-Hood signals to the ventilation system to slow down or turn off.
Don Fisher, president of Fisher-Nickel Inc. and operator of the Food Service Technology Center in California, said challenges to the technology have been cost and perception that the product wouldn't work and would require a lot of maintenance.
Now, as energy efficiency is all the rage, restaurateurs are more willing to spend the extra buck to save money in the long run and tout themselves as energy conservationists.
"You have to give hats off to someone that believes in something for so long and keeps it going. Now, they are there as the premium control package for kitchen hoods," Fisher said.
And it's a largely untapped industry. Fisher estimated just 1 percent of about a million commercial food service facilities in the United States are using a variable-control ventilation system like Intelli-Hood.
And since the laser-beam technology is patented, there are few competitors.
But Melink also has garnered market share by his corporate philosophy of "walking the talk" of energy efficiency.
In May, he unveiled his company's brand new facility, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold-certified building in Ohio.
The certification is designated by the U.S. Green Building Council and rates buildings based on energy efficiency, decreased water consumption, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and construction waste diversion.
The 30,000-square-foot facility is operating 70 percent more efficiently than the average building, costing the company 60 cents per square foot on energy bills, rather than the $2 per square foot average.
Solar panels line portions of the roof, handling 10 percent of the building's energy load, and natural light floods the south-facing, horseshoe-shaped facility.
Eighteen plaques in the foyer detail "green" features of the building.
Melink also purchased a fleet of Toyota Priuses for his sales staff and encourages personal energy conservation at home among his employees.
"Whether how we work or how we travel, we want to send the message," Melink said.
Melink's plans include maintaining 30 percent sales growth per year and becoming the recognized leader for energy efficiency in commercial food service.
He'll do that by "greening" every aspect of his business.