Jason Giagrande knows what’s sexy. As Flik’s director of foodservice operations and events at NBC Universal in New York, his main goal has been to create a trendy and sexy atmosphere for both the many catering events NBC demands each year and the famed 30 Rock commissary.
“I wanted to transform the whole image of corporate foodservice,” Giagrande says.
“Before, the clients here would never even think to ask the in-house foodservice to do an event where they were trying to impress someone. Fortunately now if cable or any big department here wants to impress somebody, they’ll call me. To be able to put that sexy and trendy event together as a corporate foodservice provider is a big deal to me.”
Catering expo: When Giagrande came to NBC Universal in February of 2009, the commissary was not known for its catering.
“Before I came here the catering group was just an extension of the commissary so customers thought the most catering could do was your basic sandwiches or breakfast,” Giagrande says. “Now we are the premier caterer for the business. I’ll work with them from start to finish, even on the look and design of the event. For me, that’s the biggest success I’ve had here so far.”
Giagrande says he’ll set up an event in the “Saturday Night Live” studio or other studios and spaces in the building and completely transform them into whatever kind of space the client wants. One recent event Giagrande did with the NBCU TOPS team was a carnival where they brought in dunk tanks and other carnival games to make the event extra special. A big piece in building the event business came from setting up a catering expo last July.
“I saw all these events going outside,” Giagrande says. “I thought an expo was a way for me not only to show the clients what I could do but also show my own staff what we could do together. A big piece was to say, ‘I know you haven’t done high-end events in the past, but we can do it.’ I can tell people all day, ‘we can do this type of event,’ but to show them what we can do is what makes it a reality.”
For the expo, Giagrande’s team set up 30 Rock’s mezzanine into three separate areas. One area was turned into a New York City nightclub with lit bars and couches, where high-end hors d'oeuvres were served. The second room was a set up in two pieces. The first was an artisanal cheese table. The second piece was three tables set up restaurant style—one for salads, one for appetizers and one for entrées. The last room showed options for conference lunches, high-end continental breakfasts, different types of breaks during the day and high-end desserts.
“That showed we can do a nightclub setup, a high-end cheese setup and then have a sit-down dinner where you’re seeing meticulously plated foods, which you don’t think of as coming from the commissary,” Giagrande says. “We really went to the extreme to show them what we could do. We had more than 200 people show up.”
The expo helped to increase Giagrande’s catering sales by about 17% last year. The department projects another 22% increase this year. Deenise Rebeiro, manager of special events and programs for NBCU Cable Entertainment, says that Giagrande brought a fresh perspective.
“Until Jason came along you couldn’t be trusting of in-house catering,” Rebeiro says.
“Jason put this sense of style back in everything. He asks all the right questions pertaining to an event. He makes me look amazing.”
Courting celebrity: One way Giagrande keeps on the forefront of trends is his relationship with celebrity chef Joey Campanaro. Campanaro also acts as a consulting chef for NBCU and his relationship with Giagrande is one that Giagrande is very proud of.
“Joey was a chef at Universal Studios in L.A.,” Giagrande says. “When Joey left Universal he came to New York and opened some restaurants. Before I got here they brought Joey in to be the foodservice liaison. When I came here Joey and I got along very well and we worked together to bring this foodservice to another level. It was stuff I would normally do, but it was enhanced by Joey’s culinary skills and by having a celebrity name behind it.”
Campanaro occasionally does chef’s tables for catering events or consults on different menu items.
“We just bounce ideas off each other,” Giagrande says. “Culinary-wise he brings something to the table that’s hard to compare. His burger was rated one of the best foods to eat in the world [according to the The Guardian] so he gave us his burger mix and now we serve that in the commissary.”
Creating atmosphere: When Giagrande was growing up in the Bronx and Westchester, N.Y., he says he first gained his passion for food from his grandmother.
“My grandmother was your typical Italian woman and to this day is the best chef I’ve ever seen,” Giagrande says. “When I was 13 I got a job at a local restaurant, where I worked in every position possible. If I’m going to run an operation, I need to know how everyone’s job works.”
Giagrande worked in several restaurants, even owning his own until a meeting with Rick Postiglione, of Compass Group introduced him to corporate foodservice.
“At the time I didn’t want to be involved,” Giagrande says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do food anymore and even more so I never saw myself in a corporate environment. I toured Restaurant Associates and Flik and wound up taking a position with Flik. I worked in a few law firms before coming to NBC. Once I saw everything that was going on, I wanted to get in here and revamp everything.”
A big part of what he wanted to change was the 30 Rock commissary.
“We really did as much as possible without spending a lot of money,” Giagrande says.“We put in new displays, added a chef’s table, a salad bar and a candy store. I have a very high level of what I expect aesthetically for my events so I don’t know if I’ll ever have the commissary be what I want it to be. It’s almost good that you’ll never be happy because you’ll constantly be improving.”
The seating area was also redone with new seating options and TVs to make an escape for employees.
“Corporations realize there is a big value to keeping their employees happy,” Giagrande says. “My main objective in the commissary is to create a place where people are going have a great meal and a great overall experience. After redoing the commissary, sales increased about 15%.”
Leading by example: Another passion for Giagrande is health and wellness. He is big into fitness and personal training, so when NBC Universal came to him with the company’s Healthy Week he was eager to help.
“The relationship with most of my customers is such that they know I’m not just telling them to eat healthy, they know it’s how I live,” Giagrande says. “I practice what I preach.”
Giagrande was part of the team who implemented the Healthy at NBCU program, which involves labeling all items with a “Healthy at NBCU” label and nutrition information. The commissary even has a grab-and-go case that is filled only with healthy options.
“The Healthy at NBCU program is similar to Flik’s “FIT” program, but it is its own creation,” he adds. “I used a lot of the Flik materials and information for meal planning and nutritional information to assist us in our creations. Dr. Tanya Benenson, who is the medical director for NBCU, along with our whole Healthy at NBCU team were a very big part in all this because it is a countrywide program for NBCU facilities.”
For Healthy Week, Giagrande hosted several events including two healthy chef’s tables, one with Campanaro, a Fit for Five promotion where customers could get a composed meal for $5 and a farmers’ market.
“We want to emphasize that there’s no such thing as bad food, just bad portions,” Giagrande says. “The best part of Healthy Week is that we didn’t stop, we still have the labels and promotions on a day-to-day basis.”
Giagrande’s client, Brian Dorfler, vice president of human resources for NBCU, was also impressed by Giagrande’s Healthy Week efforts.
“We've been making efforts around encouraging healthier lifestyles, and Jason has played a big role in it,” Dorfler says. “What's great about these ideas was that they were Jason's. We didn't tell him what to do; he knew what we were going for and came up with a plan to help us realize it. He's tough on himself. If Jason's planning an event, he labors over every detail to make sure it is absolutely perfect. When it's over, and it's a success—which it inevitably is—I tell him he did great. Jason, on the other hand, points out the two or three things that he feels he should have done better.”