Liz Simmonds, has transformed foodservice for Bon Appétit at SAS by:
• SPEARHEADING the successful opening of the foodservice component at the Executive Briefing Center (EBC), the face of SAS
• FOSTERING a supportive relationship with the client, an important task because Bon Appétit is the first contractor SAS has allowed on campus
• DEVELOPING training programs that allow her staff to provide exceptional service and equip them with the tools they need to move up in the company
• TRANSLATING the success of the EBC into the acquisition of new business for Bon Appétit, including a café at Building R and an under-construction café
•2,535 Meals served daily
•$2.8 million Annual sales volume
Liz Simmonds sees herself as the guardian of a great toolbox. As resident district manager for Bon Appétit at SAS headquarters in Cary, N.C., Simmonds’ leadership and supportive nature have made what could have been a rocky transition—Bon Appétit is the first contractor SAS has allowed on campus—into a professional and fruitful client/contractor relationship. From new cafés to comprehensive training programs, Simmonds has been able to give her employees the tools to make Bon Appétit’s presence on campus a positive one.
“Liz is an incredibly supportive manager, but she is also very much a teacher,” says Elizabeth Way, catering director for Bon Appétit at SAS. “She gives you the tools to answer your own questions and make your own decisions but is willing to help with anything at any time.”
Executive Briefing Center
When Simmonds came to SAS three years ago, her major directive was to facilitate the opening of SAS’ Platinum LEED-certified Executive Briefing Center. This building is the face of SAS to all potential and current customers, so the company wanted to create a high-end experience for its café. Because of this, Simmonds says, SAS brought in Bon Appétit. The café features eight stations, including sushi, a chef’s table, grill, pizza/pasta, a large salad bar and a grab-and-go area, plus a full-service coffee shop. All catering is also produced at the EBC.
“The goal of the entire EBC space was to provide an experience for the customer,” Simmonds says. “That had to translate to the café and dining facility. There was a lot of thought put into where SAS and their customers would meet, so it’s a place where people want to gather. It was a huge undertaking. We had a very successful opening and have exceeded the client’s expectations. We do probably five times more catering than they thought we were going to do.”
Because the building was a new construction, there were delays in getting into the space, which Simmonds says was one of the biggest challenges. There was also the added difficulty with the fact that Simmonds and her team weren’t part of the initial planning of the space, so there were some decisions that were made that the team had to learn how to handle, such as the introduction to induction cooking.
“[The construction delay] actually worked to our benefit because [the space had] a lot of new things that no one had ever seen before,” Simmonds says. “The product looks fantastic but there are some challenges such as temperature, etc.” The delay gave the team the chance to learn the new technology, which has made the staff grow, she says.
Simmonds says being the first contractor on what was a completely self-op campus was one of her biggest challenges at SAS. There are still two self-op buildings on campus, so she had to form relationships with the team at SAS to ensure a smooth transition.
“It was more like a training,” Simmonds says. “I had to figure out how to first get SAS to work with me and then figure out how we could work with each other. That was one of my other main directives when I got here—form those relationships. I think I’ve done remarkably well with that.”
How was she able to do it? Simmonds says it was about removing the fear factor. “I think everyone was a little nervous to have me come in and command their high-profile new café,” Simmonds says. “I tried to provide a very relaxed environment. I’m also not the type of person who gets excited. I’m proactive instead of reactive. I stay calm. I can recall so many people saying to me when we were opening, ‘I can’t believe how calm you are.’ If I made it look easy, then they were satisfied.”
Simmonds says she thinks a big part of her success at SAS can be attributed to her love of training.
“Training is kind of my baby,” she says. “Not only training my staff but also training the people I work with in relation to my client at SAS,” which goes back to that relationship building that was so important in her transition into her role.
Simmonds says her team had to take employees who didn’t have a lot of foodservice experience and train them to be the caliber of employees that Bon Appétit demands. One way she was able to do that was exploiting the construction delays of the space.
“We had a lot of time for training with our staff in the classroom, which was very beneficial,” Simmonds says. “Then, in terms of on-the-job training, we were able to get in the space without actually having to serve anyone, which was important to get everyone up to speed on what Bon Appétit stands for and to learn our mission. Once we were open, training [became] ongoing. I always want to make sure that I am giving my employees the tools necessary for them to grow. I have formal, scheduled training for my managers, and new employees go through an orientation. Then we do weekly training for safety and daily training for food. We offer quarterly training for everything else.”
Training is at the root of what Simmonds says is her management philosophy, which is based on creating a learning atmosphere.
“I’m a very direct and honest manager, which sometimes people don’t like,” Simmonds says. “I like to provide people with the tools so they can fend for themselves. I don’t like to babysit, micromanage or look over their shoulders. Once they have the tools, it’s up to them to do what they will. I’m here if there are questions or [if someone] needs guidance. Training gives me such pleasure and satisfaction, especially when I can see an employee master something they weren’t able to do before.”
Catering Director Way says this style of management has served her well in her quest to grow as an employee. “[Simmonds] is always thinking ahead and talking with us about how we can make things better, who we can inspire to do better and how we can make our customer happier,” Way says. “Every day she pushes us to do better. I have never had a manager push me to succeed, and believe that I can succeed, the way she has done.”
Simmonds’ passion for training can be traced back to her roots in foodservice. Though she says she grew up in a real “meat and potato” household, she ended up working in foodservice jobs in high school, most significantly at a country club during the summers.
“Originally foodservice was just a job to me,” Simmonds recalls. “I didn’t really enjoy it at that early stage. It was a way to have money during school. However, I had some mentors at the country club where I worked who I really wanted to [emulate]. I thought they were very good at what they did and I thought I could be good at it.”
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, Simmonds got her first job at Fuddruckers. After returning to school for a master’s degree in accounting, Simmonds worked as assistant comptroller for the restaurants and bars at the Mall of America. It was there she decided foodservice operations were where she belonged, and she joined Bon Appétit in 1993.
Acquiring new business
Simmonds’ knack for operations has paid off for Bon Appétit at SAS since the opening of the EBC. SAS was so happy with the opening and continued success that the company asked Bon Appétit to take over another cafeteria on campus, Building R, which is the research and development building.
“There is a great diverse group of people over there,” Simmonds says. “It’s been exciting and challenging to try to please everyone. We offer a lot of curries, vegetarian/vegan and health-conscious cuisine in that location. It’s set up in a similar way to the EBC except we do not have sushi over there. We serve about 1,000 people on average at both locations. SAS also came to us and said they were going to be opening a new building in the fall of 2014 and they wanted us to take over the foodservice at that one as well. So we are ready to move in as soon as they get it built.”