ERWIN SCHMIT has improved foodservice at GRAINGER HEADQUARTERS by:
• INCREASING participation by more than 20% and average daily sales by nearly 15% through innovative programming
• BUILDING close relationships with his customers through one-on-one conversations to solicit feedback and responding quickly to requests
• USING his culinary background to create new takes on successful restaurant ideas
• CHALLENGING his staff to think innovatively and to remember to always keep improving
Erwin Schmit, Aramark at GraingerThe ability to translate what goes on in the back of the house to the front of the house is the key to Erwin Schmit’s success. As foodservice director for Aramark at Grainger Headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill., Schmit has used his talent of translation to make a big impact at the company’s world headquarters, as well as six satellite locations in northern Illinois.
“Erwin has a passion for great food and service, and it shows from the minute you walk into any of his operations,” says Della DeFilippo-Flynn, district manager for Aramark. “He provides inspiration and coaching to our young managers and chefs within the organization.”
Account transition: One big effort for Schmit, according to DeFilippo-Flynn, was increasing participation after Aramark took over the account in 2010—an endeavor that Schmit says hinged on finding out what the customers’ wants and needs were.
“The biggest thing we had to do was find out what the customers wanted and then find out if those wants and needs were financially possible,” Schmit says. “We had to look at items with a high margin and ask, can we sell them? And if the margins are low, can we sell a lot of them? That is basically what we did.”
Under Schmit’s leadership participation increased by more than 20% since he joined the account. Average daily sales increased by 15%.
“There was a lot of trial and error when it came to the food program and staffing, and we took a lot of risks,” Schmit adds.
Taking risks is something Schmit has been doing since his foodservice career began. As a teenager Schmit worked in restaurants when he still was planning to become a dentist.
“At that young age the owner of the restaurant where I worked was buying a Mercedes-Benz and I said, ‘wow, I have to go to dentist school for years [to get that] and [the restaurant owner] already has it,” Schmit says. “So I thought [foodservice] was a lucrative career at the beginning.”
Schmit got a culinary degree from Kendall College and worked in restaurants and country clubs before making the switch to non-commercial foodservice. Schmit’s background as a culinarian has allowed him to translate what he has done in the back of the house to the front of the house.
“In my mind I’m a very innovative and creative person,” Schmit says. “I don’t like being bored. This is my playground. I can work with my chefs in the kitchen and then go to the front of the house and market the asparagus to make it sound good. It’s just a joy to come to work. I rarely call in sick. I just love dealing with the staff and with the customers.”
Building relationships: Schmit feels his relationships with his customers are one of his greatest accomplishments at Grainger.
“The customers have trust in what I do,” Schmit says. “There is a huge trust factor that goes along with not only my customers here but also with my client as well. At the beginning, it was a little hard because [the customers] didn’t know how to approach me. The trust was really built in stages. If I say I’m going to do something I do it, and I follow up with it afterward to see if it met the customers’ standards. I ask them if there is anything that can be changed. They know that I’m responsible and accountable. I tell them all the time that I wear my heart on my sleeve. If there is an issue I’ll take care of it.”
A big part of maintaining these relationships with customers is delivering exceptional service, which in Schmit’s case means embracing changes to the menu.
“I don’t let things get stale,” Schmit says. “As soon as some of our branded concepts or the foods we put out get [routine] and it’s noticed, we change things very rapidly before we hear the feedback. I’d rather be proactive and take a risk instead of having to be told that I need to change something.”
Creative concepts: Developing and marketing new concepts is another of Schmit’s strengths, according to Jenna Sawyer, Aramark regional brand manager.
“Erwin is very creative, innovative and extremely meticulous,” Sawyer says. “In our environment, we have a pretty captive audience, therefore change is very important to keep them coming back. It is also equally important to create an atmosphere where people want to dine during their workdays or we will lose their business. [Erwin has the ability to] create station destinations in a café environment that are trendy [by creating what feels like] retail restaurants,” she adds.
Among the concepts that Schmit has developed and implemented are Bombay Bibs, fresh lettuce wraps; Prime Cuts, which offers prime rib sandwiches; and Ascalano’s Pizza, which allows guests to build their own flatbread pizzas or sandwiches. Schmit says he’s found the greatest success satisfying customers by looking at what restaurants are doing and improving on it.
“Say you are driving by a restaurant and see a sign for something they are doing,” Schmit says. “My process is, OK, they are doing that. What can I do to do the same, only make it much better?’ Then the key is to market what we’ve done to make that item better. The food and presentation make the items special. When we create a concept we also create the signage for how we’re going to market it and how we’re going to set it up. Plus, we look at the investment. You have to spend money to make things look nice. You don’t just want to throw things out there. I believe that pride of presentation comes from my chef background.”
Challenge extended: Schmit also uses his culinary background to engage with his staff.
“My enthusiasm of working with staff also comes from being a chef and working with chefs,” Schmit says. “With Aramark I was a regional chef for a period of time. I would go in and coach, train and develop staff members so that No. 1, the relationship between the two of us would grow and No. 2, they would have an understanding about how these things should be done. I think I have a higher standard than the normal person. I [manage] like it’s my name on the door and it is my name with the customers, so those are the standards that have to be met. It’s all about the details. You can do a million things right, but it’s really in the details of what [the staff] are doing. I try to really coach and train them that the details are what it is all about.
“I ask them what their favorite restaurant is and why they go there,” Schmit adds. “Nine times out of 10 they go there because of the service, food and the cleanliness. If two of those are right, you’ll go back. If all three of them aren’t there then you’ll just walk out. It’s the same standards here. I coach staff to look at things as a customer.”
DeFilippo-Flynn says Schmit’s mentoring and coaching attitude has led to his promoting four of his associates into supervisory positions within the organization. Schmit says his management philosophy is based on challenging his staff to always be thinking how to make things better.
“I’ve had some great mentors over the years and my management philosophy comes from them,” Schmit says. “I try to challenge people. I don’t think there has ever been a point where I’ve finally felt that things are done, a point where I can’t make this hamburger any better. One of my mentors said if you can’t find one thing wrong with what somebody is doing to improve them you are not doing your job. I really try to challenge my staff to think the same way.”