IRAJ FERNANDO has transformed the foodservice at BOSCH LLC by:
• BRINGING creativity to menu selections, which often rival fine-dining restaurants, through fresh cooking and a No Repeats philosophy
• INCREASING daily participation to as high as 80% through impeccable customer service
• MENTORING his staff to encourage them to produce the best food
• BECOMING an ambassador for Southern Foodservice to bring in new accounts
Iraj Fernando, Southern Foodservice Management
at Bosch, LLCIraj Fernando has not allowed his 13 years of restaurant experience to be forgotten since his switch to non-commercial. As executive chef/manager for Southern Foodservice Management Inc., at Bosch LLC in Broadview, Ill., Fernando has used his restaurant mentality to dramatically improve the culinary offerings for Bosch’s 500 employees. But it isn’t just the food that has increased his café’s participation to as high as 80%. Don DeLeonardis, regional manager for Southern’s Midwest region, says Fernando’s skills with customers has also made him successful.
“I frequently stand in the serving area during lunch, and employees tell me constantly how customer-oriented the staff is toward them,” DeLeonardis says. “I recently had a woman tell me she goes home and tells her husband how wonderful the food at Bosch is. Her husband works at a large facility in the Chicago area and he [said] she needs to talk with Iraj and see if he would come work at his facility. This is typical of the comments I get from our customers all the time. All of Iraj’s staff is as focused on customer service as he is—nothing is impossible to them when it comes to the customer.”
Restaurant-minded: A native of Sri Lanka, Fernando came to Chicago when he was 18. His original aspiration was to become a recording engineer, but while attending City Colleges of Chicago a friend hooked him up with a dishwashing job. After a stint at his sister’s Po Boy restaurant in Houston, Fernando returned to Chicago where he took a job as a chef at Bigsby’s restaurant.
“I had no formal education as a chef, but I knew I could do it,” Fernando says. “So I came back to Chicago and within a few days I was working at Bigsby’s. I worked there from 1989 until 1996. Then I heard that this company called Southern Foodservice was looking for a chef. At that point I [didn’t] know about this side of the business. The rest is history.”
Fernando says Southern gave him the freedom to translate what he did in restaurants to Bosch.
“I never knew what these accounts were supposed to be like. I was an outsider,” Fernando says. “I think they liked that because I saw this place as an opportunity because you had this captive audience. I always just want to do better for the customers.”
The café at Bosch features a grill, salad bar, grab-and-go area, Global Market international station and Showplace, an action station where Fernando can be found cooking dishes from scratch. One initiative that Fernando has implemented at Showplace is called No Repeats. As the name suggests, Fernando creates a dish, which won’t be repeated, so he encourages customers to try it while it lasts.
“[No Repeats] gives me an opportunity to give [customers] items that they wouldn’t expect to get at a location like this,” Fernando says. “At first, [No Repeats] became more like a game to me, something to do on Fridays, which were slower for us. I thought we could keep them in the café on Fridays because what I was cooking was like what they’d find in restaurants. I also put up signs that say ‘No Brown Bags Allowed’ to encourage customers to show that people are eating with us and really enjoying it.”
Another initiative, which Fernando calls Food Without Borders, stems from his Far East/Sri Lankan origins. Fernando says coming from a foreign country makes him want to deliver a different feeling for customers when they escape their offices and cubicles. Items like chimichurri, telera breads from Mexico, tabbouleh, various pestos and mole blends are offered at Bosch.
Fernando also has addressed customers’ requests for healthy options by introducing programs such as Green Spoons, which is how the café indicates its healthy options. These better-for-you options are designated by green-handled serving spoons and containers.
The dedication to customer service Fernando developed while working in restaurants has also translated to Bosch. DeLeonardis says this was especially evident when Fernando realized he was losing catering events to some five-star restaurants.
“Fernando began a campaign to keep at least some of these events in house,” DeLeonardis says. “He started by convincing a couple of meeting planners to give him the opportunity to develop a menu similar to what the event planner was looking at from a particular restaurant. Iraj and his staff not only succeeded in pulling off the event, but the guests said his selections and the quality of the food rivaled any five-star restaurant they have been to in a very long time.”
DeLeonardis isn’t the only one to take notice of Fernando’s attention to high-quality food. “Typical cafeteria-type food is not acceptable [to Iraj],” says Mike Barclay, president of Southern Foodservice Management. “He goes the extra mile to make sure each meal or catering event is special and possesses his own signature touch.”
Teaching staff: Fernando must train staff to be able to provide that signature touch. Mentoring his employees to broaden their culinary horizons is something on which Fernando prides himself.
“I want [the staff] to become more than just cooks,” Fernando says. “I want them to be good people. Most of the cooks in our side of the business never get to go out to eat to see the kind of food I want them to deliver. So I put together information on different foods and countries. Those give the staff the global knowledge of where this stuff comes from so they appreciate it.”
Fernando also leads by example. He feels it’s important to show staff the dedication it takes to get the most out of the job, which means not being afraid to try new things.
“A lot of B&I contractors come into an account, put their programs in place and then forget about the location,” Fernando says. “Working with the staff is how you keep the account fresh. You have to do cool things every day to keep the audience interested.”
“His can-do work ethic is contagious,” DeLeonardis says of Fernando. “He would never expect any more from his employees than he does himself. He takes the time to properly train each employee, from cooks to dishwashers. He is demanding but fair and he pays attention to every detail and expects his employees to do the same.”
Barclay has seen the success of Fernando’s mentoring skills first hand.
“Iraj developed his assistant, Ivonne, from a person who couldn’t boil water to an extremely talented sous chef,” Barclay says. “Ivonne had no cooking skills prior to joining our team 13 years ago, and today she can help prepare all meals in Iraj’s location.”
Fernando says he sees himself as a personal chef, especially since he still prefers to be on the floor cooking at Showplace.
“A lot of times the staff were not taught well,” Fernando says. “I had to believe in what I do and to share what I want to share and say what I want to say—tell it like it is. Some people didn’t like that at the beginning, but they have to know that over the years I’ve experienced these things. I’ve failed and succeeded, so I know what is the best way to go. I like to be out there with them because if you teach them enough, people find their talents.”
Company ambassador: Fernando’s success has elevated him into a role as Southern Foodservice ambassador, someone who can present the Birmingham, Ala.-based management company in the best light to other accounts and potential clients.
“Someone a long time ago told me you write your own check. I believe that,” Fernando says. “If you make your operation all about the food, the clientele will recognize it and be surprised. If you take away [the client’s] burden of finding a new contractor every two years, they know Southern is doing their part. I always find that it’s important for the people who pay our bills to see what we do.”
Barclay says Fernando’s dedication to the company has made him an ideal ambassador to potential clients.
“He has often been out promoting our company, not by praising himself, but by doing what he does on a daily basis,” Barclay says. “His client has written letters to prospective Southern clients expressing what a great job we do and why they should select our company for their on-site dining services. Iraj is the most humble foodservice professional I have ever met. He is always giving credit to his staff and the company that employs him.”