Lawyers know better than anyone that it’s often the details that count the most. Carlos Rivera, director of dining services for CulinArt at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a New York City law firm, uses the same dedication to the little things to serve the firm’s 750 employees.
“He’s dedicated with the details,” says Victor Parise, executive chef. “He’s constantly on top of problems and he’s proactive. More than anything he’s great with the customers. He knows every person by name.”
Retail-minded: One of the biggest changes Rivera brought to Cadwalader was a retail mindset. Before joining CulinArt, Rivera worked at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Epicure, a 3,000 square-foot gourmet market, so he was well-versed in the retail side of the business.
“When I joined CulinArt in 2002, it was my first experience with corporate dining,” Rivera says. “To some extent, I never knew this side of the business even existed. I brought a retail approach to the operation and everything started growing. Seven years ago there was this mentality in a corporate environment that the food was never as good as outside. We started offering more restaurant-style foods and more exhibition cooking, as well as working to get the customers more involved. Everything just grew from there.”
Rivera says he learned quickly that corporate foodservice depended on how well he knew his customers, so he made it a priority to be as involved with his customers and clients as possible. That includes lunching with partners and developing an intranet menu.
“If there is one way that you can always beat your competitors, it’s in service,” Rivera says. “We’re pretty much marketing the same products, but when you can really go the extra mile and understand what your customers’ needs are, then you can be successful. Corporate was pretty much identifying what the culture is, and saying, ‘OK, this is a law firm. How does a law firm work?’ There are 90 partners and I lunch with them pretty often. I pretty much know them on a personal level. I know their area of practice. It’s almost like how their secretaries know how they work, but from my end its always, ‘what can I do to make your life easier?’”
His efforts have resulted in an 80% participation rate, up from 60% when he first came to the account.
“Our participation rate has stayed at about 80% since I came here and I think that’s a good indicator that our clients and customers are not going out to eat,” Rivera says. “That was a very big thing for the firm: How can we keep everybody here? Before I came here, I believe there was not much communication between the dining room and the clients. We’ve worked very hard to establish a relationship where we really get our customers involved in our menus.”
Rivera says he values customer input on events such as the themes for cocktail mixers his department puts on, as well as for the annual holiday party that they recently took over.
“We do about 50 cocktail events per year,” Rivera says. “We actually get our customers to give a theme. For instance, if we have a customer who went to Italy and saw something there, then we get all the information from them and we try to create from that. We’ve also had the opportunity to do the in-house holiday party, which they used to take outside. We’re talking 900 people [employees from the firm’s Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, N.C. offices attend too]. It’s an extravaganza like you cannot believe. Even in this environment, I’d be lying to you if I said we were thriving, but we’re definitely holding our own. I believe the efforts we put into this approach from the beginning when everything was economically sound has really paid off. Now our customers know they have a good deal and they feel good about eating with us.”
New concepts: Growing up in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Rivera learned by observing the growing “gourmet” industry. He says he remembers the first Fairway market—a grocery chain that deals in specialty foods—as a place where he developed his passion for food.
“I worked at Fairway for about a year, just as a young guy,” Rivera says. “Then I did a cheese externship with the owner of the Ideal Cheese shop on the East Side because I always had a passion for cheese. Doing that and working at Fairway, it was an experience that I just never forgot. I never went to culinary school. I just always worked around great chefs.”
Rivera’s passion for food has fed his creation of several new concepts. Every week, a different concept is featured near the salad bar. One of the most popular concepts is a tapas bar.
“We’ll do little skewers of ceviche or a chorizo with manchego cheese,” Rivera says. “The reception has been amazing. It’s $3.25 for that and $3.25 for this and people buy them like crazy. I had to increase the output because it went over so well.”
Rivera uses the same space to offer a fresh noodle bar, with choices of broth and vegetables and a baked potato bar that, he says, takes it up a notch by using sweet potatoes or Yukon Gold potatoes and stuffing them with fresh vegetables. Another successful program Rivera implemented was a Friday Flavors of the World station, designed to keep Friday just as exciting as the rest of the week.
“On Fridays, it’s very normal for your sales to go down,” Rivera says. “So I wanted to do something different. I eliminated the salad bar on Fridays. I put chafers into the salad bar and I created Flavors of the World. We’ve done things such as Indian and Japanese cuisine, all sold by the pound. My sales have gone up 15% on Fridays as a result. I think what normally happens is that when managers menu, they have a “thank God it’s Friday” mentality and the menu reflects that. I wanted to make the menu just as exciting on Fridays as it is on Mondays, and it paid off.”
This switch and others like it are the kinds of things that make Rivera stand out, according to Ed Jakubiak, district manager for CulinArt.
“I think Carlos has a genuine passion for the industry and the people he works with,” Jakubiak says. “ He really knows how to develop great relationships with his clients and staff. He always takes the CulinArt programs and implements them successfully and takes them above and beyond.”
Another successful program Rivera implemented was designed to address the recession. Rivera says they introduced breakfast punch cards to encourage customers to buy breakfast.
“About 500 cards get punched and honored during a two-week period,” Rivera says. “The program just started six months ago. They come in, get a punch for spending at least $1.50 and after 10 punches they get a free breakfast, up to $3. But the thing is, they’re not just spending the $1.50, they’re buying more items. We can feature a spinach and feta cheese omelet with home fries for $2.75 and they will buy it—when maybe this was a customer who would just buy a piece of fruit.”
Choosing china: Rivera has also been heavily involved in implementing the cafeteria’s green initiatives, including a switch to all china.
“My push right now is to use only china,” Rivera says. “The only concern from the customer’s point of view is how they get from point A to their office with china, but we’ll get that solved. China is always the best solution when going green. We have 26 pantries on 17 floors, so we’re reworking them so they have bussing tubs where people can deposit their trays and china. That’s saved us about $30,000 because we haven’t had to buy as many disposables.”
Rivera says his department is about 75% of the way done with implementing the green initiatives the department wants to put in place. They’ve made the switch to environmentally friendly disposable cups. He says they have about 25% left to complete, such as switching their clamshells to environmentally friendly containers and increasing their local purchases.
“We’re always going to make an effort to offer products that our customers are looking for,” Rivera says. “We are very big with sustainability right now. We use local products from Long Island and New Jersey. We put signs on our food any time we make something using local products. There is no relation to cost; if it’s local and good we will use it. About 25% of our purchases come from local items, and about 30% of our salad bar is purchased locally, season permitting.”
Open door policy: Not only does Rivera want to be available to his customers, he wants his employees to feel comfortable coming to him. The last seven years, his employee retention rate has been more than 70%.
“I try to create a work environment where our employees have ownership for what they do,” Rivera says. “I tell them, ‘I would never have you do something I would never be willing to do myself.’ Education is key. If you don’t prepare your people, they’re going to fail. If they fail, you’re going to fail. Give me anybody with a good attitude and I’ll train them. I’d rather have that than someone who thinks they know it all and has a