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.”
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.”