FYI Magazine

Hungry for Expansion

Alumnae give up traditional nursing roles for the entreprenurial life.

When a diabetic patient suggested that healthy meals prepared and delivered to his home would help keep his disease in check, a light bulb went on for registered nurse Seattle Sutton. Within months, Sutton, who had been working in her husband’s medical practice in Marseilles, Illinois, used $1,000 to launch Diet Carryout, a business that delivers low-fat, low-calorie meals to health- and weight-conscious consumers.

Today, Sutton’s three daughters—Elmhurst College alumnae—run the day-to-day operations of the 25-year-old business, now called Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating.

The company prepares and distributes 180,000 meals per week nationwide, offering limited-calorie versions of classics such as lasagna, chili, meatloaf and even macaroni and cheese. With 150 employees, the company generates $25 million in annual revenues, not including franchise operations in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio.

Although the 79-year-old Sutton is still president, her daughters Paula Heaton, Ruth Egofske and Sarah Borgstrom are expanding the business, moving the company into new markets such as hospitals and eldercare facilities. They also are broadening their nationwide delivery system and exploring whether to expand into Canada and even overseas.

“My sisters and I believe in what our mother has created, and are committed to continuing her mission of promoting healthier eating,” says Heaton, who graduated from Elmhurst in 1979 with a B.S. degree in nursing. Like their mother, the sisters started their professional careers as nurses before joining the family business.

As director of national home delivery, Heaton ensures that customers receive their twice-weekly delivery of meals, including in states such as Florida and New York that lack local distributors. “If you have an address, we can get them to you,” says Heaton, who left a 26-year career as a medical surgical nurse five years ago to help expand her mother’s company. Heaton also acts as the contact person for physicians, dietitians and other professionals. Egofske, who graduated in 1981 with a B.S. degree in health and hospital management, later continued her education to complete her nursing degree. She left her position as an emergency room nurse in 1995 to work directly with her mother. As distributor manager, she oversees some 100 individually owned and operated distribution store locations in the Chicago area, northwest Indiana and southern Wisconsin. She also works closely with franchisees.

“Working as a nurse, I knew there was a need for what my mom was doing,” she says. “I’d discharge patients and see them go home with no help to regulate their diets. I’m not surprised at how fast our company has grown, because people really do want to eat well in order to achieve a healthier lifestyle.” The sisters keep up their nursing licenses even though they are no longer involved in clinical practice.

Sutton’s youngest daughter, Sarah Borgstrom, started her undergraduate career at Elmhurst but transferred to Baylor University in Texas in 1982. In 1994, she left her 10-year position as a pediatric nurse in Joliet to run the company’s advertising and promotions as marketing director. She also develops new recipes for the company’s home-delivered meals. Sutton and her daughters sample every recipe before it is introduced into the program’s five-week meal rotation. “All of us actually eat the meals as part of our regular diet,” Borgstrom says. “We serve our customers only what we would cook for ourselves and our families.”

The sisters’ strong family ties date to their childhood in Marseilles, a community of 5,000 located 75 miles southwest of Chicago. Sutton herself still lives in the home where she raised her family, about 15 miles east of the company’s headquarters in Ottawa.

When it came time to choose a college, Paula, the oldest daughter, settled on Elmhurst because of its highly regarded nursing program. She encouraged her sister Ruth to join her two years later, and the two lived on the fourth floor of Stanger Hall. Ruth met her future husband, David Egofske, an Elmhurst football player and physical education major who graduated in 1980 (the two were introduced by Paula). Some of Ruth’s favorite recollections are cheering for the football team and hanging out with the football players who lived in Dinkmeyer Hall.

When it was Sarah’s turn to choose a college, she followed her sisters to Elmhurst, where she also focused on nursing and lived on Stanger Hall’s fourth floor near Ruth. Sarah met her future husband, Bob Borgstrom, who graduated from Elmhurst in 1982 with a B.A. in marketing (the two were introduced by Ruth). Sarah eventually transferred to Baylor but, as Heaton says, “We all have the fondest memories of our years there. Sisters trust sisters, and when it came to Elmhurst, that trust was more than well-founded.”

Paula and Ruth recall inorganic chemistry classes with Dr. Charles Ophardt, who had infinite patience with struggling chemistry students. “My roommate Cindy and I were always the last ones in the lab at night, and he would always shake his head at us, then help us out with whatever project we were having trouble with, probably so he could go home and eat with his family,” Heaton recalls.

All three remember hours spent relaxing at the student union, gathering around the fireplace with their friends and occasionally peeking in their mailboxes to see if any letters had arrived. “Elmhurst provided the supportive environment we needed, particularly coming from a small town,” Heaton says. “It was such a positive place for all of us.”

Sutton and her daughters have brought that positive spirit to Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, whose employee roster now includes other members of the Sutton clan. Sutton’s two sons, both engineers, are involved on a part-time basis: Peter Sutton oversees payroll, while his brother Christopher handles development of the company’s web site. A daughter-in-law works with nationwide shipping; one granddaughter runs the company’s new marketing program to hospitals and eldercare facilities.

Another granddaughter is in charge of corporate luncheons, a program recently started in Illinois but soon to launch nationwide. A third granddaughter, with a degree in dietetics, helps with food analysis, and two grandsons are regional distributors. Other grandchildren—Sutton has 14—have expressed interest in joining the team.

“There’s a place for all the kids at the company,” Egofske says. “There’s nothing better than bringing on a new generation.”

The company’s expansion plans make sense in light of the anticipated growth of the $1 billion home meal replacement market, according to Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a market research firm based in Rockville, Maryland. “Selling a weight-loss program directly to the consumer is the most successful model,” says John LaRosa, Marketdata’s research director. “Couple that with convenience-seeking moms, time-pressed working couples, the growth of the elderly population, and I don’t anticipate any slowdown in the segment.”

Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating is ready to serve that growing market. Egofske claims its large state-of-the-art production facility in Ottawa is capable of producing four times the number of meals it currently makes. Smaller, equally up-to-date kitchens that serve franchise operations also are poised to increase output. The family is exploring the Canadian market, and has received requests to launch the brand overseas. One airline is considering serving the company’s meals.

“We never close the door on an idea,” says Sutton, who says she does not plan to retire until she’s 90. When retirement day comes, she says, “I know the company will be in the best of hands—my family’s.”

Company founder Seattle Sutton and her daughters sample every recipe before it is introduced into a five-week meal delivery rotation.

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