Zernco Inc. grows, thanks to work with Darden Restaurants

Zernco Inc. is running out of room at its headquarters near Augusta, and for CEO Ashley Thill, that’s a good problem to have.

She says the construction company, which specializes in remodeling and new construction for restaurants and convenience stores, has hired seven new employees in the first quarter of this year and has nine more that are working under a “temp-to-hire” status, meaning they are considered temporary workers now but will eventually classified as full-time employees.

Zernco, Thill says, is remodeling its offices at 11225 S.W. Highway 54 to make room for all of the new hires.

All told, Zernco has 43 employees.

Thill, whom I spoke with on Thursday, says Zernco started working with Florida-based Darden Restaurants Inc. (NYSE: DRI) in the past year, and that is helping to spur the company’s growth. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Yard House all operate under the Darden Umbrella.

Thill says most of Zernco’s work on Darden restaurants has been in Kansas, Missouri and Texas. Future jobs are planned in Iowa.

Zernco, Thill says, tends to shy away from competitive bidding and has instead found a niche by working with companies that have locations across the United States. And much of the company’s book of business comes from repeat customers.

“We find clients who are in this area and we follow them and their brands throughout the county,” Thill says.

Sasnak Management Corp., which owns Carlos O’Kelly’s restaurants and the Applebee’s franchises in the region, and Wendy’s franchisee LDF Cos. are among Zernco’s repeat customers. Casey’s General Store is another.

In 2011, Thill took over the company her stepfather, David Zerngast, founded in 1993.

In October, she became a majority owner of Zernco, which helped the company become certified as a Woman-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE) and a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) through the Kansas Commerce and Transportation departments.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated Zernco was doing work for Darden in Florida. Darden is based in Florida but Zernco has been working on stores in Kansas, Missouri and Texas. A previous version also included an incorrect number of new hires. This version has been corrected.