David Lincoln: Small Cafe, Big Results

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Making the effort: Lincoln cuts a striking figure as he walks through the learning center: several inches over six feet in height, topped with a shaved head and possessed of a booming voice and a hearty laugh. But he is sensitive to the fact that his ability to stand out in a crowd can be intimidating to some.

“There was one person on my staff who wasn’t comfortable around me,” he explains. “He has amazing culinary ability, and I have tremendous respect for him. But I stood tall and sometimes crossed my arms when I spoke with him, and I discovered that he felt I intimidated him. From that point on, whenever I talked with him I would make an effort to get to a lower level, maybe sit down, so he would feel comfortable.”

He will do whatever it takes to win over employees and customers, whether it is visiting with Asian chefs to ask where they buy certain hard-to-find ingredients or driving across the state to Detroit to get those items. Raised a Catholic, he nonetheless is sensitive enough to other cultures and religions to celebrate their holidays as well.

“We have some natives of India who are on staff locally, and they just celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights that is the start of their new year,” Lincoln says. “I engaged them in conversation, asking them what is important to them about this holiday, and then I educate my staff so we can do something better for them next year.”

Recently, Lincoln purchased Purim cookies to help Jewish employees celebrate that holiday. He says he received several thank-you e-mails as a result.

“Now, these people may not even celebrate the holiday,” he notes. “They may not be observant. But that somebody took the time made a difference to them. They’ve become very strong customers and advocates of our program to the company.”

Restaurant training: Lincoln is a fairly typical example of the successful foodservice operator; that is, he didn’t set out for a foodservice career but embraced it once the possibility was offered. Originally a philosophy major, he worked in a local bar and then a restaurant in a small hotel to fund his college education. Of the restaurant, he says, “I worked the absolute worst shift possible, breakfast. I was a college kid and, even today, I can’t imagine eating breakfast before noon. But that was what was paying the bills at the time.”

From this humble and sleepy beginning, Lincoln moved to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, a four-star property in Grand Rapids. There he met Food and Beverage Director Frank Clair, the man who would be his mentor.

“Frank had a trait of bringing people in and bringing them along,” Lincoln recalled. “Giving people the skills they needed to succeed was really Frank’s management style.”

After two years working at the hotel, Lincoln was asked by Clair if he were interested in taking on a management role.

“I was 24 at the time, and I said, ‘Sure, let’s try it,’” Lincoln says. “I was willing to learn.” He began as an assistant manager for the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, where Lincoln recalls “great views of the city, a lot of tableside cooking and avant-garde, cutting-edge food.”

After two years, the man who had never traveled much outside of western Michigan asked his boss for a change of venue.

“I shipped out to Key Largo, Fla., to manage the Ocean Reef Club’s Dolphin Room,” Lincoln says. “I was back to waking up at 5 a.m. and working breakfast again. I thought, what is going on here? But when I wasn’t exhausted and could think about it, I realized it was a wonderful experience and I was loving every minute of it. I learned a ton. The people were fascinating and the food was amazing. There were really amazing Latin American pastries and baked goods you wouldn’t see in the upper Midwest. Fish like I had not seen before. It was a mind-blowing experience.”

When his father became ill, Lincoln returned to Grand Rapids, where he worked for a food brokerage firm and a bakery until 2001, when Oberstadt recruited him for his present role.

In his seven-year tenure, Lincoln’s role has changed, he says. For example, he has gone on business trips with company executives to act as the set-up man for all food-related events, working with catering people at whatever hotel to make sure that Steelcase executives are well taken care of. And he says that this attending to details, whether it is making sure that an executive who doesn’t like chardonnay isn’t served the white wine at a business function to finding a quiet space for a nursing mother to pump her breasts, has become the most satisfying part of his job.

“That’s what I enjoy most about the job,” he notes. “The relationship I have with my client means I can respond quickly to the company’s needs. The next level for me is seeing my staff do that for someone. Playing that ‘mother’ role, asking people, ‘What do you need? How may I help you?’ That’s been very gratifying.”

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