Comforts of home offered for offshore workers

John Sontheimer began his career as a buyer of catered goods in the offshore oil industry. Over time, he recognized a need for improving how basic supplies were delivered and used during extended time periods and miles away from land.

In 1972, the opportunity arose. So, John, along with his wife, Diane, began filling that need by delivering the comforts of home to workers offshore and away from their homes on land.

Forty years later, SONOCO is one of the largest full-service offshore catering companies in the Gulf of Mexico. This operation’s key to success is rooted in its philosophy of remaining true to being a family business and delivering a touch of home to hundreds of oilfield workers.

Diane now heads the business as president, while sons Kent and Eric share in leadership roles.

Working directly with suppliers, SONOCO fills orders specific to client needs. By having its own warehouse and land transport system, this company is able to provide grocery boxes designed specifically for marine transport.

On board, a trained SONOCO crew provides and maintains equipment necessary to the jobs. This includes not only meals made fresh by skilled cooks, but also linen, bedding, blankets, pillows, towels and washcloths.

By being a self-contained operation, SONOCO is able to meet special requests from filling dietary requirements to providing favorite breakfast cereals or treats for birthdays.

“Sometimes, the president of the company will show up and [crews] want to provide a good feast for them,” Diane said. “So we do that. We’ve had crawfish boils on rigs that are 100 miles offshore.”

Groceries and laundry are transported to and from destinations weekly and bi-weekly depending on client specifications. Either schedule offers a consistent system, but does not limit this company to being a large-scale delivery service.

SONOCO warehouses combine 65,000 square feet of dry storage and 30,000 cubic feet of frozen storage. Purchasing manager Eric Sontheimer monitors an inventory of more than 1,000 stock-keeping units and is personally involved in shopping for the best products at the best price.

Kent Sontheimer is in charge of a fleet of refrigerated tractor-trailers available to deliver, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

SONOCO assists clients in facility design to make the most of their planning and catering needs. The company works with engineers, architects, logistics and materials managers and craft specialists to ensure maximum efficiency from every square foot of a food service facility, while making the most of every dollar budgeted.

Specialists review galley designs for storage and equipment needs, ergonomics, efficiency and safety. They help clients determine appropriate equipment for a facility and inventory control. They plan initial load-outs, ongoing replenishments and provide containers for marine transport.

SONOCO even performs pre-commissioning tests, working the equipment and preparing meals for staff while a facility is under construction.

“Our customers appreciate that we offer them a real-world look and approach, instead of being just industrial,” Diane said.

Working with deepwater operations has delivered for this caterer an opportunity to be involved with several first-time events in the Gulf of Mexico.

This company provided supplies to the crew of Shell Cognac, the deepest structure ever in its day. Other notable clients include Mahogany, Phillips Petroleum’s first deepwater project, the Kerr-McGee Oryx Neptune, the world’s first Spar Galley redesign and the Conoco RB Falcon Pathfinder.

Diane noted that the important thing to understand as an offshore caterer is that she, her sons and crew are dealing not with products, but with people. “It’s about a group of people,” she said. “These are hard-working people. They are away from their families. Some work 14 days out there and 14 days off. Some work 21 days. They appreciate the comforts of home.”

Consistency and dependability make both customers and employees happy to be working with SONOCO. The result is longevity as a service provider. “We’ve had people working with us for more than 30 years. It’s like one big family and everyone does his part.”

This catering company contends that although its work might be, for the most part, behind the scenes, it is a critical operation that helps keep the economy going.

“We’re kind of in the offshore hotel business,” Diane said. “That’s what we do. We bring home offshore to work.”

SONOCO Offshore President Diane Sontheimer knows clients appreciate a taste of home that the largest full-service catering company in the region has to offer.