David Lincoln: Small Cafe, Big Results

Call them clichés if you want, but there is more than a grain of truth in such adages as, “it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” An excellent example can be found at Steelcase Corp., the office furniture manufacturer based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

There, the café at the company’s Steelcase University Learning Center may serve as few as 75 customers in a day. And yet, the café may have as much to do with the mental health and well-being of employees as any other Steelcase service.

That is in no small measure due to the efforts of David Lincoln, the food and beverage director from Creative Dining Services at this location. Part manager, part concierge, Lincoln and his staff of two full-time cooks and one part-time “coffee person” have worked very hard to make an impact on virtually everyone who comes through the Learning Center’s doors.

“Volume-wise, we’re really low,” says Lincoln, who notes that customer counts vary from 75 to 225 depending on the number of classes and/or meetings scheduled. “We have a pretty humble servery, less than 1,000 square feet. But at a company level we have a really big impact.”

Lincoln’s not being immodest. His boss, Janine Oberstadt, regional director for Creative Dining, says he has quite a fan club at Steelcase.

“David generates, by far, more ‘love letters’ from our clients and his customers than any other employee at Creative,” she explains. “We receive glowing written feedback about him and his team at least weekly. I stopped collecting or printing all of the e-mails and letters. I don’t have enough space—seriously.” According to Oberstadt, Lincoln has achieved this by becoming “completely ingrained in the fabric of the guest experience at Steelcase. He’s the total package: work ethic, unwavering dedication to quality, extremely creative and resourceful.”

Global learning: Steelcase University Learning Center was established in 2000 in an idle factory the company owned. The 60,000-square-foot space includes nine classrooms, two installation labs, eight breakout rooms, a coffee bar and the café.

“Steelcase really was trying to look at things from a global perspective,” Lincoln says. “This was a change in culture for a company that used to be very Midwestern-centered.” Creative Dining Services came in at the outset on a consulting basis. Oberstadt, who had been doing some similar work for Whirlpool, came in and recommended that foodservice take on more of a college feel, rather than a typical employee cafeteria.

“It seemed odd to me,” Lincoln says, “but they realized through the consulting work that if we offered that style of service their labor costs could go down tremendously. Traditional corporate foodservice can be very expensive, and they didn’t want this to be but they wanted it to have high value. So we have self-service, but upscale food: items like a roasted chicken breast with brie and a raspberry sauce. The employees are very happy serving themselves from a hot well, as long as they get quick but really good food.”

The heart: And Lincoln believes that the café plays second fiddle to the coffee bar located just off the building’s reception area. He calls it “the heart of the building.” The bar gets busiest around 9 a.m. each day, when the early attendees take their morning break.

“We put out bagels and pastries and people come out right away to get them fresh,” he says. “The area has that Starbucks kind of feel, where employees can get that ‘perchance’ kind of meeting with someone in the company that they wanted to send an e-mail to, wanted to get together with, but haven’t been able to do so yet. They grab a coffee together and say, ‘We need to meet. What’s your schedule look like next week?’ From the CEO to various mid-level managers, it’s the crossroads of the entire company.”

While other directors might lament not having a large operation to manage, Lincoln actually revels in the small size of his facility.

“Our size allows us to become more intimate with our customers,” he explains. “It means we can take service to a deeper level. We have a steady base of about 35 people who work in this building, and we get to know them and things about them, like food allergies. If we’re serving a fish item, and there is something in the recipe that a customer is allergic to, and we see that person, we know to pull a piece of fish back and prepare it differently for her when she’s ready.

“Knowing what our customers want, and how they like it, allows us to vary things tremendously for their benefit.”

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