Julie Sajda: The ‘Jul’ in the Crown

It’s been a stellar decade for New York City-based Restaurant Associates (RA), a division of Compass Group, and so, too, for Julie Sajda. In 1997, as a senior in the four-year hotel, restaurant, travel administration program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Sajda took a summer class during which a guest speaker, Victoria Vega (then with Aramark, now a vice president at RA) served up enticing details of careers in contract management.

Sajda, who had until then been focusing on public restaurants, sat up and took notice. Upon graduation, she was hired by RA as café manager at its Bertlesmann account in Manhattan.

Sajda progressed steadily from one new challenge to the next within the contractor’s constellation of prestigious New York accounts. Currently, she serves as foodservice director at the Hearst Tower, the most recent—and spectacular—jewel in RA’s crown. The position is one she’d coveted ever since attending the project presentation and then learning that RA had won the account. She was on site while construction was still underway and brought all her previous experience to the process of gearing up for the opening last May, as well as to continually improving the operation throughout the past year.

When Hearst Tower opened last May under a rolling migration plan, about 200 employees moved in each week. In October, the Phase II opening was held as the executives came on board. At that point, the 44th floor executive dining room and conference center were officially inaugurated with appropriate fanfare.

Plating up ‘philosophy’: Today, participation at the 350-seat Cafe57 stands at approximately 55%, with about 600 covers at breakfast and over 1,000 at lunch. Catering business is substantial, thanks in part to an on-line ordering system that Sajda helped develop. It allows her department to quickly update menus and track orders.

“The thing that really sets Hearst apart from other cafes is that we’re really incorporating the Hearst philosophy—green, organic, wellness—into the menu,” Sajda points out. “We have B•Well days once a month when our in-house nutritionist, fitness center manager, Wellness Center nurse and café marketing manager come to the café to talk fitness, food, nutrition and wellness. A recent topic was Spring Into Healthful Eating. B•Well items are tagged with a B•Well logo, but every station offers some healthy alternatives. And we try to have at least 10 organic items each day at our salad bar.”

In an effort to keep things interesting, the Hearst location has its own on-site marketing manager, an RA employee who reports to Sajda.

“I basically spearhead initiatives that she helps to execute,” Sajda explains. “She lines up guest chefs and sets up monthly food specials. We offer at least one daily recipe item on the menu from a Hearst magazine. Guests love to see CosmoGirl Cupcakes and Country Living Mac & Cheese. We’re also introducing an interactive Culinary Series for Hearst employees.”

Much that she’s experienced in various positions and locations since joining RA has shaped the self-assured, can-do woman Sajda is today.

“When I started as café manager at Bertlesmann, I knew I loved catering,” she says. “Following eight months as café manager, I held the position of catering manager for the next 10 months. Since the beginning, Charles LaMonica, senior vice president of operations, has been my mentor. He sent me on to serve as catering director at the New York University Torch Club, the on-campus faculty venue, a brand new facility at the time. After a year, the director left and Charles approached me and asked: ‘How about being director here?’ It was a little jewel of a unit, serving professors and handling NYU events. So I was there for a year and a half as director.”

With the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics looming, LaMonica again sought Sajda out. In charge of all the foodservice for the Olympic curling events, she spent the entire month in an auxiliary venue in Ogden, Utah, about 40 miles from Salt Lake City. “We fed the athletes plus hundreds of guests and staff,” Sajda recalls. “Curling is the only sport where you have three indoor competitions each day. For us, it was 30 days of intense events, from start-up, events and breakdown, although the actual Olympics is two weeks in duration. We had no kitchen, only one concession stand where we had to set up ovens. It was a team environment; we needed to pull together.”

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