Steve Hammel: Creative Captain

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Steve Hammel has worked in nearly every segment of the foodservice industry. But his latest tour of duty may be his most satisfying.

At A Glance: Steve Hammel
•Dining Services Program Manager
•MWR, Southwest Region, U.S. Navy
•B.S., hotel administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
•M.A., liberal studies, DePaul University, Chicago
•Born in St. Louis, resides in San Diego
•Enjoys traveling the world in search of new cultures and new food experiences

•Hammel’s job encompasses two branches: galley feeding for naval personnel at 12 installations in the western U.S., and food and beverage operations for a variety of profit-generating on-base activities such as clubs, recreation centers, restaurants and catering. His operations include 14 galleys and 50 retail units doing a combined $40 million in annual sales and serving 30,000 meals a day.

•During Hammel’s four-year tenure, overall sales have increased by an average of 2% year to year, even though available space has shrunk by 6%. He has overseen the renovation of 70% of facilities in three years, and has implemented several successful marketing programs.

•Last October, during southern California’s devastating widlfires, Hammel’s division supported displaced Navy families by operating five galleys around the clock for three days.

•Hammel is the first person hired for this position who has not had a career in military service.

•In Oct. 2007, during southern California’s most recent devastating wildfires, Hammel’s division supported displaced Navy families by operating five galleys around the clock for three days.


Food Service Director - Spotlight - Silver Plate - Steve Hammel - MWR, Southwest Region, U.S. NAVYIn 33 years in the foodservice industry, Steve Hammel has worked in nearly every facet of the business, from hotels and clubs to theme parks and retirement communities. His resume is a name-dropper’s dream: Hyatt, Marriott, Disneyland, Starbucks, The Playboy Club. But for Hammel, the career has been not so much about titles and money as it has been about learning. He has spent a lifetime gathering knowledge from a host of mentors and has put all that wisdom to work in his latest endeavor, which he says most closely resembles a cross between corporate dining and college foodservice

“I was intrigued about this position because it was an area of the foodservice industry that I didn’t know much about and wanted to see what it involved. As the interview process went forward, it became much more intriguing to me. I could use all of the talents I’d learned over the years in this industry and then also be able to design and create a retail environment for sailors and retirees. Basically, it’s like running a good-sized corporation. One of the other things I found was the feeling that you get every day when you come into the office. You feel like you’re doing something good for your country because you’re supporting the men and women who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The other thing that is unique is the limited turnover of our staff. Many employees have been with us 5, 10, up to 30 years or more. And that’s refreshing.

When I first came into the job, I really stepped back to see the big picture. Additionally, I participated in all our operations. I wanted to work with the managers, not just tour the buildings. I wanted all of our team members to understand my commitment. I wasn’t going to be sitting behind a desk. I was at Sunday brunches, I was at evening events and at conferences, and then additionally I went out to all our bases in the region and met every one of our Base Commanding Officers to build a rapport, so that I wasn’t just a voice on a phone or a name on an email. It has made a significant difference. I firmly believe communication is paramount. 

We were running a very good business but I wanted to look at how we could make the business better. What pieces did we need to add? Were there programs that could be run better? What programs were already at a nice level of success? Did we need better marketing, better training, more people to build our bench strength? So after doing all that—it took about 90 days—I was able to lay out a plan with our management team. We mapped out a phased approach, a year for one element, two years for the next piece, etc. We’re now almost in year four and we’re still on target. We have a great marketing program now, we have new menus throughout, we have lunch buffets that are doing very well, we have Sunday brunches that have grown in business, we have special events for the sailors like a brew master’s training class with a dinner program. All of these programs have grown from 10 or 20 people attending to 50, 60 or 100 now.

We have succeeded here over the past four years certainly through a combination of quality and consistency of product and renovations. But then I would add a third piece, the service/training element. It’s truly caring about the customer and our employees. When a customer walks in the door, they have made the decision to walk in. It’s our goal and our challenge to make sure they walk in a second time. So many times we lose sight of that.

I decided in the sixth grade that I wanted to be in the hotel business. I made the decision on a family vacation. We were visiting family friends who owned a motel in Miami, and I thought they were enjoying what they were doing and it just stuck with me. When I went to UNLV for my hotel degree, my plan was to focus on the front of the house. But I was fortunate to be hired by Marriott one summer to work at a new hotel in St. Louis. I was a banquet houseman for $2.05 an hour, but I gained great experience and insight into managers because I saw all style of managers at that hotel. The next summer I went back for $2.10 an hour. As I moved forward, I went on a different career path. I wound up being a trainee for Marriott in the catering division, and have always stayed in the food and beverage side of the business.

One of the most incredible mentors I have ever had is a gentleman by the name of Colgate Holmes. I was a restaurant manager at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, and he was the regional vice president. His office was in our hotel and I was selected to be his administrative assistant, which was used as training for future management in hotels. It was the most incredible experience. I was able to participate in executive committee meetings, I was part of the team that helped design and build an addition to that particular hotel. It’s an experience that very few people get in the industry. I remember to this day working on financials with him and discussing the “what ifs”, and I still use that training.

My current program director, Mike Greenwood, has been a very inspiring individual. He lets me create, he is a great sounding board, he offers suggestions and at the same time, he challenges—How can we make it better? Is this really the right way to go? Always asking and probing. I would not be here if it weren’t for mentors I had along my path and most importantly, I believe that we must give back to our industry. But formal mentoring programs can sometimes be daunting. I think we need to take a more personalized interest in identifying individuals who could benefit from just sitting down and having a cup of coffee with a senior manager. The industry needs to get back to more personal mentoring.

When I worked for Forum Group [of retirement communities], I got the experience of a lifetime. When you are dealing with the elder population it can be challenging, but I found it so rewarding to go into one of our retirement communities and talk with residents and hear their life experiences. These are individuals with so much depth and so much knowledge. I got so many life lessons there, not just dealing with foodservice but how I should deal with my future.

My management philosophy is that it’s important to listen, but it’s more important to hear. What that means to me is, yes, I can go around and listen to someone say, “Gee, we need new tablecloths because this event’s coming up.” That’s okay, I took that in, but now I have to hear that, and by that I mean I have to act. Everyone can listen, but if you hear something, that requires an action. It’s much like mentoring employees. We have an employee that has become our marketing coordinator. He started three years ago as a dishwasher, and has moved up through the ranks. In speaking with me, he mentioned that he went back to school and got his marketing degree. An opening came up, and he submitted a resume for that position. That’s hearing, not just listening and paying lip service. As an industry, I think we need to hear more of our customers and more of our employees.

If I were talking to a group of students, the first thing I would say is, don’t be afraid to take a step back to move forward. Sometimes we get all wrapped up in titles and positions and we lose sight of the learning. It’s not always about the money. It’s about a career. Second, I would say look at yourself and determine what your best aspects are. Then, look at those aspects of yourself that you should work on and work on those until you can move them to the best category side. Finally, I would tell them to care about each other. When you work as a team, we all need to move forward together.

To recharge your batteries, you have to extract yourself from the work environment, get away from the phone and turn off the e-mail. The only way you can do that is to trust your team. When you’re on vacation, you are on vacation. If an emergency arises, we will deal with it. If you come back refreshed, you’ll make great decisions.”