Joanne Diehl had worn many hats during the 15 years following her college graduation, chief among them in the home furnishings and ready-to-wear markets out of her Philadelphia base. Following a move to the West coast to serve as area manager for United Colors of Benetton, Diehl, with a life-long passion for baking, shifted gears and earned her pastry certificate, then began working in bakeries.
In 1998, she joined Bon Appétit Management Company. "My initial plan was to have my own business, but I soon realized that being the wholesaler and retailer was a huge commitment," she explains. "One of our bakery clients was Bon Appetit and, when they offered me a job, I realized it could turn out to be the perfect blend. I love food, plus it's very much a retail environment. So I brought retail and merchandising skills to their table."
Over the past seven years, Diehl has been at three accounts for the Palo Alto, Calif., based contractor. Assigned first to Cisco Systems in San Jose, she served as catering manager for two years, then opened and managed a new cafe during Cisco's period of huge expansion. Moving on to the Applied Materials account in Santa Clara, Diehl became director of operations for this multi-unit account.
Next steps: "Arriving at Yahoo! in Sunnyvale last September, I came into a very exciting environment," she recalls. "As general manager I had to figure out how to take this thriving business to the next level. My background at Cisco was a benefit and both (previous) multi-unit accounts gave me the ability to look to the future as well as handle day-to-day business."
During the past year, the population at Yahoo!, the popular Internet search engine developer, has grown about 25% to almost 4,000 employees. Each day Diehl and her staff serve about 2,900 customers overall for lunch including 1,700 in the main cafe alone. She currently oversees four operations with a fifth to open in January. The four separate venues include three cafes plus one grab-and-go satellite. Three are in close proximity, with one about five miles away.
The largest location houses the central kitchen that produces for the larger cafe, handles some production for the two smaller cafes, and fulfills grab-and-go as well as catering needs.
Since Diehl's arrival, catering business has almost tripled in volume, owing, in part, to a revamped menu and the introduction of an on-line ordering program. "We looked at the ordering patterns and updated the menu with more options," she says. "There were, and still are, lots of afternoon events with a growing number of employees staying for dinner. Our prices are competitive and we partner with the people placing the orders."
"Often we customize the menus as we did recently by collaborating with the event planners for a two-day, space-themed Lift Off event," she continues. "In planning the opening-night reception, we went on-line and ordered moon pies, moon crater candies and lollipops in the shape of space shuttles. For the second night, we created an elaborate dinner complete with an ice sculpture surrounded by 'smoke' for a moon-like atmosphere. Coming up, there's an Arabian Nights theme that we've already begun to plan."
More choices, excitement: With the growth of Yahoo!, the challenge for Diehl and her staff of 57, (plus an executive chef, two sous chefs, two cafe managers and a catering manager) is to keep the retail operations constantly fresh and new. In January, she added three new food programs in order to provide more choices and generate excitement: The Ovens station, which offers three specialty sandwiches per week, toasted to-order in an open pizza oven. Greens, the organic salad tossed-to-order station and Hot Express, which was added to the existing grab-and-go station. New selections include a baked potato bar and chicken wings to provide fun and fast hot food items.
"In the past year, retail sales have increased close to 50%," Diehl reports. "A lot of business growth has been due to the addition of the smaller cafes. Plus, we added Monday through Thursday dinner service. At the time I came on board, an initiative was started to provide service for those working late. We created a special dinner menu including a Happy Hour hors d'oeuvres concept plus a limited Comfort Food menu. The new programs have impacted sales for about a 5% increase in check average. Plus, participation, including catering, is about 90%."
Diversity-driven menu: Since the Yahoo! customer base is very diverse, menus are, too. The main cafe boasts 12 food stations including grill selections, a pizza station and a Classic station offering international as well as standard American fare. For example, a vanilla and bourbon pork loin with sour cream mashed sweet potatoes, pecan gravy and fried okra, a real Southern meal, may be served one day; and perhaps a cha cha bowl with adobo chicken breast, black beans, rice and pineapple zucchini salsa the next. Meanwhile, the taqueria serves about 250 customers each and every day.
"With the diversity, there are so many different dietary needs," Diehl points out. "We try to provide many options so that anyone could dine in the cafe. Through Bon Appetit's Circle of Responsibility (an initiative that emphasizes the use of sustainable and locally grown product) we indicate, through icons on our menu board and on our daily menu, what's organic, vegan, heart-healthy, etc."
Nurturing staff success: An avid gardener whose roses bloom year round, Diehl nurtures the blossoming of her staff's potential with similar zeal. "I aim to instill in the employees their ownership of this business," she says. "We're not successful unless they are. The gals in the deli come to the executive chef, Bob Hart who is a fabulous, energetic and creative executive chef, with their ideas for specialty sandwiches. This has made a huge difference and it's a gradual process."
"We have weekly training meetings during which we share with them our vision and also acknowledge them. Then they embrace change and change becomes the norm, it generates itself."
But Diehl takes pains to spread the praise and points out to staffers that if one group is acknowledged it still reflects on others. "It really does take the whole team," she asserts.
"My past experience in managing multi-unit accounts is serving me very well, that is, the ability to look at what's happening at each location as a separate business, how they interact with one another, how each part affects the big picture and keeping the vision of how all those separate pieces are moving toward the future while keeping an eye on daily business."
"Not only do we support all our cafes within Yahoo!, but we may need to support a Bon Appetit account somewhere else," she notes. "You have to be flexible: get the food out and satisfy the customer. One of the most rewarding things is, on a moment's notice, to collaborate, produce an event and exceed expectations. It's an adrenaline rush!"
Diehl's next focus is on opening the new cafe in January to support two buildings with a population of 1,600, currently served by a small grab-and-go area.
Although she's "cooking on all burners" these days, don't expect to find Diehl baking one of her own pastry creations in any of Yahoo!'s kitchens any time soon. "I admit I've hung up my spatula. I miss it at times since it was a creative outlet, but this job is certainly that, to be sure."