“It doesn’t matter which company, it’s the manager they send me that makes the difference,” is a frequent comment by corporate facilities managers and others who are responsible for their organizations’ on-site dining services that are operated by a food service management company.
And they’re right – to an extent. The manager of an on-site dining service certainly has the primary responsibility for the day-to-day operation, including the quality of meals, service and catering; hiring, training and overseeing hourly employees; financial results, and sometimes, more.
But who ensures the on-site manager is doing the job properly, provides advice and support and brings in the food service company’s specialized resources as needed? That’s the district manager (or equivalent title, such as director of operations).
Company executives usually get most of the attention and credit, but it’s their district managers who are in the field making sure everything goes right at the dozen or so operations they supervise.
The DM is the direct link between contractor and client. He or she is the direct overseer of the on-site manager, is directly responsible for client relations, utilization of the contractor’s resources to solve problems and improve services, and for the company’s success or failure at a location. How do they manage their multiple responsibilities?
How do they coach their on-site managers, resolve problems, satisfy clients, deal with personnel, budgets, sales and cost, profit or loss and other issues?
Close communication with the on-site manager and the client’s representative is the key say district managers for several companies.
“No surprises” is the way Adam Salem, a director of operations for the Flik International division of Compass Group, sums it up. “I talk to or visit my clients every week and keep in touch through e-mail.” He’s responsible for dining services at a group of corporate offices and law firms in the Washington, DC area. With his regional vice president, he also holds quarterly review meeting with his clients.
Ken McIntyre, a long-time director of operations for Guckenheimer overseeing corporate headquarters accounts, was recently promoted to regional vice president for the Middle Atlantic and Southeastern region.
He says client relationship management is structured. The director of operations has “monthly review meetings with our client and the on-site manager.” A quarterly major review is also attended by him as regional vice president. “It’s the centerpiece of the client relationship and a measuring tool [enabling us] to measure and manage the operation.”
John Gee, a Culinart Group West Coast district manager for corporate accounts, agrees. “Getting off to a good start with a new client is important to establish the relationship.” he says. He has mostly corporate and some education accounts throughout California. He meets with clients on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, “unless they have a question” in the interim.
Gee, a 20-year veteran with Culinart, has the unusual experience of having been a district manager on both coasts. After working in the company’s home region in the Northeast, he transferred in 2006 to their division in Los Angeles with accounts all along the Pacific Coast and in the Southwest.
What’s the difference in the business on the two coasts?
“New York is very traditional – shirt, tie and suit,” he says. But despite the laid-back, no necktie attitude, “California is not more relaxed when it comes to work. Don’t underestimated what happens out here. [Clients expect] greater accountability than on the East Coast: ‘We want it done, and done tomorrow.’”
A DM’s most important responsibility is ensuring his on-site managers are performing well, both operationally and financially. This is accomplished by a combination of individual coaching and formal training through periodic meetings of all the district’s or region’s managers and online training programs.
Training programs range from the basics, like culinary skills and accounting, to regulatory compliance and human resources topics, such as disciplinary procedures and the prevention and handling of harassment issues.
“I have weekly meetings with all my managers and chefs via Webex (a web-based conferencing program),” Guckenheimer’s McIntyre explains. “An HR person, our regional health and wellness manager, marketing manager and corporate Director of Culinary Operations (manager of the company’s regional executive chefs) participate. We have a very chef-driven culture.”
His managers also are enrolled in an online training program. “Managers can pick their own topics, but they’re also required to take some specific courses.”
Adam Salem of Flik says, “Our regional resources, such as regional chef and marketing specialist, provide training. Regional meetings also provide training opportunities.”
“Training is on-going” at Culinart, according to Gee. “I have a senior manager work with the less-experienced managers to set them up for success.”
Despite their best efforts, things can go wrong at a DM’s account. What do they do when an angry client calls with a complaint?
“You can’t wait. You have to anticipate trouble,” Salem says. “It’s most important to get in front of the client right away.”
“Get face-to-face as fast as possible – on the same day,” Gee echoes. “You can’t change the complaint. You have to correct whatever the problem is.”
McIntyre agrees. “The first thing is to listen and assess the situation. I have to be open-minded and, most important, be pro-active in responding.”
Like McIntyre, both Salem and Gee utilize regional or corporate specialists to get into the account and work with the manager to solve the problem and get the operation back on track.
Gee’s approach is to be positive. “I get positive feedback from the client and [talk to the manager] about the good things first, build on the good things. Positive reinforcement is the most effective way” to get a manager to see and resolve an issue.
“I meet with the on-site team and go to our resources – the regional chef and others – and create an action plan,” Salem explains. “I come back to the client with the plan and follow up.”
But what if the manager is the problem – he or she isn’t controlling the staff, has let costs run away or has a conflict with the client?
“Like a baseball team, we have to have a relief pitcher,” McIntyre says. “It’s very important to have the right person ready to step in.” He prefers managers with a culinary background. “Many talented chefs get burned out in the kitchen and go into management.”
“Recruiting is on-going,” according to Gee. “We try to promote from within before going outside” when an on-site manager needs to be changed.
“A weak [on-site management team] means I have to spend a lot of time there. It’s not good for the client,” adds Salem. “I’ve developed sources [to identify potential managers].”
Financial performance also is important, whether the operation is P&L (the operator has the financial risk) or subsidized (client has the financial risk).
"I receive weekly 'flash' [reports]," says Gee. “By Monday, I have the results and I get on the phone, accounts with bad results first.”
Other DMs do essentially the same, relying on weekly flash reports from their managers, usually on the first business day after the accounting week closes.
“I review each account’s financial reports weekly,” Salem says. “If there’s an issue, I return to the account and notify the client. It’s important that there are no surprises.”
Salem best sums up the job for all DMs: “I’m successful because of the team I’ve built. Communication is the key to the job.”
Tom MacDermott, FCSI, is President of Clarion Group , a consulting organization specializing in dining and hospitality services.