Over the past 23 years, Edward Sirhal has aimed to help the foodservice management company where he began his career, elevate the perception of corporate dining, one client at a time. Early on, Restaurant Associates hitched its wagon to those business-and-industry clients that thought of the food offerings in their buildings not just as a necessity, but as an employee benefit, he says, and a potential draw. “We targeted companies that said, ‘We want to be different.’ We want to offer great food in a great environment,’” says Sirhal, who now serves as president of Restaurant Associates.
With Sirhal’s help, what started with 15 clients in New York City has grown to 160 clients nationwide. Today, the roster reads like a diverse Who’s Who of businesses and organizations, from Conde Nast to the U.S. Senate to the Georgia Aquarium—many widely celebrated outside the industry for having foodservice operations that rival the best restaurant operations.
It’s that competition that fuels Sirhal’s passion and drive to “beat the street,” as he says. “I was the youngest of four boys. That has driven me my entire life and now in my career,” he says. “I love to compete. I’m always trying to figure out the winning formula.” A few of the ways he’s winning:
1. Inspiring innovation
Inspired, Sirhal says, by the live events Apple hosts to roll out its new iPhone and other products, he launched Restaurant Associates’ Innovation Summit in 2013. Sirhal and team rents out a large venue in New York City and sets up mini “pop-up restaurants” and equipment showcases. Then he invites clients, foodservice managers and chefs to sample menu items, learn about the latest food and equipment trends and see firsthand what they might like to implement at their own locations. Last year, 122 out of 160 clients attended the event. “Clients are coming from all over the country to see what is coming in,” he says. “They’re interested in what we’re bringing to the table.”
2. Making wellness personal
“Health and wellness is something near and dear to my heart,” says Sirhal. To deliver on that commitment, he created a corporate director of wellness position within Restaurant Associates, which he describes as “a top-level chef who understands that we will never be able to move the needle in food without the food being fresh and tasting very good.” That director, Billy Strynkowski, a former executive chef for Cooking Light magazine, is behind the year-old initiative to roll out consumer-friendly dishes, branded as “Billy’s Picks,” systemwide. “Phase two is going to teach our customers [via live cooking demos] how to take what we’re doing home to their families,” Sirhal says.
3. One-of-a-kind partnerships
In 2014, Sirhal secured a deal with Culinary Institute of America to administer the foodservice program at its new student center, opening in July. Traditionally, CIA’s students eat what they prepare in the classroom |he says, and this partnership marks the first foray into providing an on-site foodservice program. “I would never describe our relationship as an outsourced relationship,” Sirhal says. “That’s not what this is about. It’s a collaboration.” While the menu planning is still in progress, Sirhal’s team, which includes CIA graduates, plans to focus on preparing fresh, sustainable ingredients at a variety of stations. “I think it’s going to be fun, we’re going to be able to do a lot more experimentation and push the envelope a little bit,” he says.