Diana Gutierrez: In Pursuit of Perfection

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Customer service may be the saving grace for operators in the current economy. Few people realize that more than Diana Gutierrez, general manager for Whitsons Culinary Group at 2,700-employee Telcordia in Piscataway, N.J. Gutierrez’s customer-oriented approach to management has served her well in her relatively short time as general manager. However, her success started before her title became official, according to Kelly Friend, vice president of operations for Whitsons Corporate Dining.

“When Whitsons began managing the dining service program four years ago, we instantly recognized Diana as a talented, focused and hard working employee,” Friend says. “With on-site training and development, she soon became the assistant manager, and eventually, just over a year ago, the general manager. Because of Diana’s unique insight into the employees at Telcordia, she is able to bring their ideas to life every day. Her creative ability is evident throughout the servery and dining room. She knows exactly how to target this audience with fresh ideas on new snacks, impulse items, dessert and healthy selections.”

Eager to please: With an annual revenue of $1.3 million, Telcordia’s foodservice is a lot to manage, but Gutierrez’s commitment to satisfying customers makes her stand out.

“I never want anyone to leave unsatisfied,” Gutierrez says. “If a line is too long, all they have to do is come to me and I’ll have their food sent up to them. I’m always willing to go out of my way to make them happy by being flexible to their needs. I know foodservice is a difficult industry. It’s hard to please everybody, but I don’t think it’s not possible. I just don’t think that way. I believe that one day I’ll be able to satisfy all my customers because we really don’t get that many complaints.”

Pleasing customers has become especially important because Telcordia has experienced a campus population decline of about 7%. However, Gutierrez’s eager-to-please attitude has kept sales consistent and even increased participation by improving menu options.

“The population has decreased, so although our sales haven’t increased, they’ve stayed consistent,” Gutierrez says. “The check average and participation has increased. The check average has increased 1.5% and participation has increased by 2%—the average daily participation is 56%. Whatever promo Whitsons is running, I will run it 100% the way it’s supposed to be to make sure it’s successful. Also, getting ideas from customers about what they want to see and integrating those into the menu cycle is important.”

Gutierrez is so beloved by her staff and customers that she was awarded Telcordia’s Corporate Real Estate Mid-Year Award. Because of Gutierrez’s popularity with the Telcordia team, Anne Kneller, director of site services for Telcordia, says she was a natural choice.

“She received a semi-annual departmental award from my department, which is given primarily based on customer feedback,” Kneller says. “In Diana’s case, we received many messages from customers citing the high quality of the café and catering operations. She has this strong customer service attitude, which she also demands from all her staff. She is also a very outgoing and pleasant person to interact with. She has greatly improved back-of-the house operations in terms of cleanliness and food safety, as well as bringing innovative menu offerings, servery layout and food presentation—she’s not afraid to try new things.”

On-the-job training: Gutierrez immigrated to the United States from Cartagena, Colombia, with her family when she was 19. Her mom, who still works in the café with her daughter, quickly recommended her for a job as a cashier at Telcordia. There was only one problem—she didn’t speak a word of English.

“On my birthday I got a job at Telcordia,” Gutierrez says. “After my first day, I went home crying. When I started working I was one of the only Spanish-speaking people in the company so I was forced to learn the hard way. But I kept at it and I slowly learned English on the job.”

Gutierrez attended Gibbs College in Livingston, N.J., where she earned her associate degree in business, all while still working in the café at Telcordia. During her 15 years at Telcordia, she has worked her way through several positions including head cashier, catering assistant, catering manager, vending manager, assistant manager and finally general manager.

“When I started, I didn’t know anything about the foodservice business,” Gutierrez says. “Once I got into it, I learned that I loved to help others. I enjoyed that it gave me the opportunity to multitask.”

Friend says her ability to handle more than one task at once has served Gutierrez well with her staff.

“Diana is so in tune with her own staff who have watched her grow and develop,” Friend says. “They admire her tremendously, and she knows more employees in the building than most of the company’s fellow employees. It has given her a unique ability to grow the program.”

In addition to the main café, Gutierrez manages a company store that sells Telcordia merchandise, gifts and convenience items, as well as a Starbucks mini-café that also serves sweet treats and after-hours snacks.

Clamoring for choices: Since Gutierrez became general manager, she has worked tirelessly to improve the quality and variety of the menu for the more than 1,000 meals she serves per day. The servery’s stations include La Cucina, an Italian-style station that serves paninis and pizza; World Market, an international station with rotating daily ethnic cuisines; The Veggie Table, a vegetarian station that serves colorful pasta salads and couscous mixes; Great American Sandwich Co., which is a made-to-order sandwich station; Chef Productions, a comfort food station; Fresh From the Garden, the salad bar that serves some locally grown produce; and the newest station, called Coyote Grill, which serves Mexican specialties such as burritos and quesadillas. Her knowledge of each station is unparalleled, mostly because she has worked at most of them. She is also trying to encourage healthier options by participating in Whitsons’ Smart Choices program.

“About once a week we offer one of the Smart Choices items at a different station,” Gutierrez says. “The nutritional breakdown of the items is available at the station, and we also have a display at the entrance of the café with nutrition and wellness information. We also have multigrain breads and lean proteins and we switched to all-natural salad dressings on the salad bar so customers can stay healthy.”

One of the things Gutierrez loves about Telcordia is the diversity of the employees. This is also a challenge as she tries to satisfy everyone. To do just that, she created self-serve “culture” bars that serve different items each day from a different country such as a Puerto Rican bar with tostones (fried plantains) and empanadillas.

“It’s a challenge because our customers all come from different cultures and it’s hard to accommodate everybody’s taste, but I was able to manage that,” Gutierrez says. “I’ve learned from them too because they’ll give their thoughts on the things we try.”

Gutierrez is also trying to keep things affordable for her customers during these tough economic times. The café has been running specials on Fridays to help budget conscious customers. Usually the salad bar is priced by weight, but on Fridays the café switches to a set price for a small and large salad, as well a set price for a pre-made sandwich.

“We also have been running a daily Target 5 promo, which is a special item at a different station each day that will always cost $5,” Gutierrez says. “It’s a hot menu item that comes with a 32-ounce soda and a 12-ounce soup, and the customers always know they can get a meal for $5. We’re trying to see what we can do for customers who want to know exactly how much they’re spending.”

Another place Gutierrez has increased variety is in catering. Since she worked as both catering assistant and catering manager, it’s an area where she has spent a lot of energy improving. Since last year, catering has increased by $50,000.

“Changing menu items seasonally is really important for me,” Gutierrez says. “With Whitsons’ Cater Trax program, I am able to change the items often and call attention to the fact that it’s new. People can go online, see our catering menu and order whatever they’d like from wherever they are and we will deliver it to their meeting.”