For the past 21 years, Sussex County community leaders, business people and citizens have been coming together at the Today and Tomorrow Conference to promote economics, partnership and collaboration in the county.
The conference, which was held last week at Delaware Tech in Georgetown, was a “SELLebration.”
Scott Kammerer, president and CEO for the Matt Haley Companies, the keynote speaker, spoke to attendees about how he and Haley worked together to sell themselves and their business in Sussex County and the world.
“I always feel we could not have done what we did anywhere else. Sussex County is a special place,” he said. “[Matt] was a leader of a dynamic company from Sussex County, Delaware, which is what we were most proud of…
“We learned to sell the brand, be entrepreneurs, to differentiate ourselves, to do good for others and not be selfish,” he continued. “Those are the core values of our company. Good is the enemy of great. Don’t put off something to tomorrow that you could do today — huge lesson for us.”
Kammerer became the head of the Matt Haley Companies after his friend, mentor and partner Haley, died from complications resulting from a motorcycle accident in India this past August.
“He died the way he lived,” said Kammerer. “He lived like a rock star doing what he loved. Matt was a humanitarian — he was on a mission, an adventure high in the mountains. He was helping people no one else would help, he was living the life he deserved…
“He died as close to heaven as you can get. He died with talented and creative people around him, trying to make the world a better place.”
The two came from humble beginnings, teaming up in the late 1990s to create a culinary empire.
“Things weren’t always so rosy. When I met Matt, he had been fired from his first job out of jail and I was a college dropout. I was washing dishes. We were not what you would consider a dream team at the time. We’ve become an American success story, a Sussex County success story.”
Kammerer said that he and Haley were also in recovery, he from alcoholism, and Haley from drugs.
“We were living one day at a time,” said Kammerer. “When Matt was 35 years old he was taking a bus to work making minimum wage. He was an ex-con, a junkie, a dreamer, a poet, a chef. He was a visionary and a leader. He was as low as you could get. As the story goes, he had one red shoe and one blue shoe… He said the Salvation Army didn’t have two size 13s that matched.
“We’ve come a long way. Matt started this company with $37 and a dream... By 2009, Inc. magazine had named us the fastest growing restaurant group in America. Since that day we’ve grown sales 400 percent.”
Haley had a gift, according to Kammerer, to see the potential in people, who at times couldn’t see it in themselves.
“I think my alcoholism and recovery plays such a big part in my life — the good and the bad. I feel like I’m living on borrowed time. I was worthless and helpless at a time. Matt believed in me before I could believe in myself. He was my biggest supporter.
“He took a chance on me. I often think, ‘how did he know?’ I was a dishwasher. How did he know I could be this successful? I just think he had a gift. We have a lot of people in our company that are really talented that you wouldn’t have thought it, and I wouldn’t have picked them.”
Today, the Matt Haley Companies oversee 1,000 employees, numerous restaurants, a soda line, worldwide charities, a group of orphans in Nepal, and $47 million in sales.
“There was no job interview for this. There was no focus group, there was no search committee. I was always supposed to lead, I was always supposed to be the future, I was always Matt’s protégé.”
Kammerer said that he believes the restaurant business is unique, in that it has a special responsibility to the community.
“Being on that line, just cooking the food, you forget that you’re sustaining people. The greatest thing about the restaurant business is when people are sad they come to you, when they’re happy they come to you. You get to experience so many different parts of their lives, he said. “You get engaged, you come to the restaurant. When your family member dies, you come to the restaurant. We have a big responsibility and we have to show up and deliver.”
Kammerer said that MHC chose not to participate in the recent recession, which hit their restaurant Fish On! very hard.
“Instead of backing away and giving up on Sussex County, we doubled down,” he said, noting they changed a number of things such as management, incentivized their workforce, and built a happy hour crowd. “A lot of people at the time thought we should’ve walked away from what was too big of a restaurant, and now it’s one of our most successful.”
It was recently announced that SoDel Concepts, part of the Matt Haley Companies, would take over creating meals for Meals on Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth.
Jen Blakeman, Culinary Institute of America trained chef, who is the chef for Plate Catering is overseeing those efforts at Fish On!.
“We invested, we built a new cooking line. We cook 300 meals a day for homebound seniors. It’s what I’m most proud of to be honest,” said Kammerer. Adding, “I didn’t know they were going to pay us for it. I honestly thought we were going to volunteer for it.”
Continuing Haley’s legacy through the Global Delaware Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing goods and services to children at risk in distressed situations throughout the world.
“When he was packing for India he was packing a duffle bag with three pairs of jeans, three shirts, and $50,000 in cash. He was going to buy cook stoves for villages in Nepal,” recalled Kammerer. “I will go where the money goes to make sure it’s spent properly.”
Following Haley’s death, Kammerer said the entire state of Delaware, including Gov. Jack Markell, Sen. Chris Coons, Secretary Alan Levin of the Department of Economic Development, and Michelle Freeman and Patti Grimes of the Freeman Foundation called him.
“The people of Delaware reached out to me. These people didn’t turn their back on me and I’ll never turn my back on them.”
Kammerer said that in the wake of his friend’s death he felt the need to sell himself as the sole head of the Matt Haley Companies.
“On the day I woke up and my partner was gone I was crushed, I was terrified. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I needed to sell myself again. I needed to sell myself to the employees. I needed to sell myself to the bank; I needed to sell myself to the vendors. I needed to sell myself to the charities so that they’d believe in me; that this company wouldn’t end.”
However, he realized that he didn’t need to convince anyone but himself that he could face the challenge of losing his best friend and continuing the success of their businesses.
“It all came back to me that morning when I realized the only person I needed to sell to was myself. I had built 50 restaurants; I had consulted in over $250 million in sales... The only person I had to convince was myself.
“The biggest thing I learned from Matt Haley was live the life you deserve, believe in yourself, build something great and don’t be afraid to sell.”