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Looking to Become a Big Wheel

Looking to Become a Big Wheel

Principals of the Dos Cocinas partnership include (l. to r.) RK Group CEO Greg Kowalski, Michael and Pete Cortez of Mi Tierra Group and RK Group Culinary Operations VP Ken Holtzinger, standing before the striking mural in the Mi Tierra Cafe that pictures prominent people who have figured in San Antonio's history.

The day's menu selections on display in the Filling Station Cafe at Toyota's San Antonio plant.

Mi Tierra Group manages three San Antonio restaurants, including the venerable Mi Tierra Mexican bakery/cafe

General Manager Tony Pena (l.) and Executive Chef Richard Mallard of Dos Cocinas at Toyota.

Pizza and a variety of traditional American and authentic Mexican dishes are the core of the Dos Cocinas menu at Toyota.

Green balloons signal the day's healthy entree selection in The Filling Station.

Toyota Motor Co.'s February 2003 announcement that it would build its new Tundra full-sized pickup truck in San Antonio was logical. Texas, after all, is the world's largest market for pickups.

A bit more surprising was a subsequent announcement that the plant's foodservice would be managed by a local entity—Dos Cocinas ("two kitchens" in Spanish). Dos Cocinas is a joint venture partnership of two family-owned foodservice companies with deep roots in the San Antonio community: Mi Tierra Group and RK Group.

Mi Tierra operates three highly successful restaurants serving authentic Mexican cuisine in San Antonio while RK Group is an established catering, concessions and onsite café management firm (see sidebar on p. 56).

Dos Cocinas, which has since added a second major B&I client in San Antonio, has shown how a little ingenuity, combined with a good sales story backed by demonstrated achievement, can successfully compete for major contracts.

Here's their story...

Texas As Toyota Country
Naturally, the announcement of the $800 million (later expanded to $1.28 billion) Tundra complex set off an intense competition for the foodservice contract. The big national firms, which already operated foodservice in Toyota's other American sites, were obviously the frontrunners.

However, in San Antonio, Toyota wanted to emphasize local firms in order to build community relations. That encouraged companies like Mi Tierra and RK Group to consider bidding also.

"I didn't think we could afford to sit still and not bid," says RK Group CEO Greg Kowalski. "We already had experience in successfully dealing with thousands of diners in short time periods at the Capitol Grill in Austin, so volume feeding is something we already have done. And this was something right in our backyard."

"I knew it was something the Kowalskis were going to pursue also," says Mi Tierra's Pete Cortez, "so I thought that if we joined together, we would be able to put together a stronger bid."

Kowalski was thinking the same thing, so the two quickly agreed to join forces.

The first hurdle was the qualification form, which was designed to identify serious bidders and was due in less than a week. In this document, Dos Cocinas emphasized RK's volume feeding experience in Austin, as well as Mi Tierra's strong local reputation for its food, along with both companies' deep roots in the local community.

A few weeks later, the partners were called to a bid conference where they learned that they had been qualified to bid on the contract, with their bid due in about 14 days.

Among its stipulations, each bid had to include a complete kitchen design, including all equipment specs, since Toyota left only an empty "shell" space for the cafeteria in its plant design. It would be up to each bidder to propose how to fill it in (Toyota would then purchase the equipment and retain ownership).

Dos Cocinas worked with foodservice consultant David Frausto of Frausto Design and equipment dealer Mission Restaurant Supply to design the kitchen and servery, knowing that they were up against companies with vast design resources at their disposal.

The bid was submitted on July 1 and everyone figured the bid award announcement wouldn't happen for a number of weeks.

But a little over a week later, Cortez says he got a message to call Toyota Texas President T.J. Tajima.

"We had been shopping for things we were going to need to take on vacation," he says, "so here I am in the middle of Friday 5:30 traffic with my kids in the back, and I'm calling his cell phone number."

Tajima politely proceeded to congratulate Cortez and Dos Cocinas for earning the entire contract—there was no split with any of the other companies. Everyone was ecstatic.

Moving In
Dos Cocinas began operating at Toyota about three weeks later, on August 8, 2005. The plant was still in the preliminary stages of construction, and the cafeteria of course was not yet built, so the partners served meals out of the payroll room in the temporary offices onsite. This would be the servery for the next year, with diners eating at tables set up under a big tent nearby. The number of daily customers grew steadily, from about 150 to almost 2,000 by the following August, as the workforce was hired.

The menu included Mi Tierra's famous breakfast tacos each morning, and a rotating, if limited, selection of items for lunch shipped in fully cooked from Mi Tierra's and RK Group's kitchens. Each day featured several different hot choices—American standards like pot roast and burgers from RK on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Mexican specialties from Mi Tierra on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There were also grab-and-go sandwiches and salads from RK each day, while beverages were delivered direct from a beverage distributor. Other than the increasingly cramped makeshift serving area, the operation was not much of a stretch for two companies used to catering large offsite events.

It was the next step, when the foodservice operation would move inside to its permanent home, that everyone was looking forward to. While Toyota really liked Dos Cocinas's design plan for the new café, the team still wanted to make sure they were prepared for what they would face, so some of the design team members took a trip to see Toyota's plant in Evansville, IN, to get a feel for how such an operation works.

"We wanted to see a functioning plant and see what happens when the bell rings and in come 2,000 workers," laughs Dos Cocinas COO Ken Holtzinger, who is also vp-culinary operations for RK Group. "Once we saw what it was like, we felt more secure."

Both companies were confident they could handle the rush. RK Group, of course, had experience with lunch rushes at its Capitol Grill in the Texas Statehouse, which generates over 2,000 transactions a day when the legislature is in session. A typical Saturday or Sunday at Mi Tierra sees up to 10,000 customers, although that is over a more extended period.

The big difference at Toyota from these experiences would be the "mass break" system dictated by the assembly line, which can't have any single link offline for any length of time. So rather than taking meal breaks in shifts, the workers all take them at the same time.

The Dos Cocinas team went back and "tweaked" their servery design, putting more emphasis on putting food out and displaying it in a way that makes serving lines move. The main café, called The Filling Station, has three serving stations: the Full Service Café & Grill, the Texas Truck Tail G8 Deli and Mi Tierra, augmented by grab-and-go coolers with pre-made salads and sandwiches and bottled beverages, a dessert station, a beverage station ("Fill ‘er Up") and candy and snack racks.

All dishes are made from scratch. Burgers and salads are available every day, though Executive Chef Richard Mallard will mix in various meat and pasta salads to keep things fresh. The Mi Tierra station always features an enchilada offering, varying daily.

"The original plan called for one entrée on each station, but we've expanded that to two to give people more choices," Mallard says. Each day features at least one "healthful" item that is highlighted on the menu board at the café entrance, complete with its nutritional profile. Because it is served from different stations each day, the dining team came up with the idea to float a green balloon at the station where it is featured, something that is easily visible above the hubbub when the place is packed.

To meet its financial goals, the café (which runs on a straight P&L) has set a 65 percent participation target, says General Manager Tony Pena. This was difficult to achieve early on because the crush caused by the limited servery space and seating (less than 400 initially, later expanded to 420) tended to discourage some employees from even coming in.

The Filling Station footprint is about a third smaller than the Evansville plant that the team toured (Cortez quips that their dishroom alone is the size of the entire San Antonio cafe's kitchen), even though the number of employees is about the same. Toyota also brought its "Kaizen" ("continuous improvement") principles to the cafeteria design, seeking to minimize costs by reducing what it saw as redundancies. That meant cutbacks from Dos Cocinas's original design, such as reducing the checkouts from five to three and eliminating one of the pizza ovens.

But fortunately, Toyota is also flexible. If something is shown not to work, the company is quick to fix it. That happened the very first day when Tajima came down to get his lunch. The nine minutes it took him to get his pizza from walk-in through the checkout (he had Human Resources Specialist Veronica Uriegas time him) quickly led to the restoration of the extra registers and oven.

Meanwhile, Dos Cocinas worked to reduce the crunch in other ways, such as adding more grab-and-go options workers can take back to their stations instead of waiting for seats. However, this option had to be reconciled with Toyota's stated "zero landfill" policy at the plant. Hence, all disposables are sorted into recycling bins.

Also helping ease the lunchtime crush is a satellite serving/dining area set up in a small storage space located away from the main café. The area, to which food prepared in the main kitchen is transported, gives those working near there a more convenient place to eat.

Dos Cocinas is also exploring an electronic payment option (currently, transactions are all cash) that would use a replenishable debit card system, says Pena.

Shifting Shifts
Perhaps the biggest positive change in reducing the lunch crush came last month when Toyota finally finished its startup schedule. The company had reached full staffing toward the end of 2006, at which point the café was facing potentially more than 2,000 hungry employees for the 10:30 lunch break because both the day and night shifts were on the day shift for training purposes.

"At 10:30, literally, all our servers' heads are down and busy, and there is about a 10-minute period when the café is literally all bodies" is how Pena describes it. "It took about a month for us to get customers to know how and where to line up, get their food and check out. We warned our people before the first day that it would be nothing like they've ever seen before, even though many had worked at Mi Tierra where it can get pretty busy, but not like this. We said, ‘don't get nervous, just focus on the customer in front of you and then next person. Don't look at the crowd behind them because you'll just get overwhelmed.'"

In January, the schedule became even more hectic because Toyota initiated a four-month period in which both shifts began flipping en masse from day to night and back every two weeks, continuing their group training. The cafeteria staff had to flip with them.

"Originally we were just on mornings, which was basically 5:30 to one," says Mallard. "In January we started the rotation, so we did the first two weeks in the morning as before, and then the second two weeks everyone rotated to the night shift except for the administrative staff, so we had a skeleton crew running one station for them for breakfast and lunch from seven to noon, and a full staff at night from five to midnight. Then they went to an overlapping schedule where one shift would get here at 6:30 in the morning and the second shift would start at 11:15. For that time, we had a lunch at 10:30 and a second one at 3:15."


Fortunately, all that ended in mid-April when the cafeteria finally settled into its permanent schedule: 5:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. for the day and 5 p.m. - 11 p.m. for the night. This meant that the 2,000-plus workers were now broken into two separate, more manageable rush periods. The 250-300 administrative and support staff, along with outside contractors onsite, generally get their lunch following the day shift's 10:30 break.

The Other Guys
Dos Cocinas also has responsibility for feeding the more than 2,000 employees of Toyota's suppliers, who have manufacturing operations in a ring around the main factory but are still located onsite. These are not Toyota employees and are located too far from the Filling Station in any case to make that a practical lunch destination. Hence, Dos Cocinas has worked out a process in which these sites are supplied from a central kitchen. Two delivery vans stop at 10 separate sites at designated times for 10-15 minutes apiece for each shift. There is generally one pre-plated hot entree choice each day, as well as cheese- and hamburgers, grab-and-go sandwiches, three salad options (usually garden, chicken and Cobb) and snacks and beverages.

The drops are timed to when employees get their lunch breaks. The van makes the stop, sets out the food and runs a mobile cash register. It typically feeds about 500 people daily.

All the cold items are made in the Filling Station kitchen, then transported to a secondary kitchen Dos Cocinas runs on the premises of the largest supplier, Avanzar Interior Technologies. There, everything is consolidated, the plates assembled, short order cooking (burgers, etc.) is done and everything is loaded onto the delivery vans for transport to the sites.

The supplier meal service only does lunch. They briefly tried to serve breakfast as well, but there was too little participation to make it viable, says Mallard.

In addition to managing onsite dining at the Filling Station and the satellite sites, Dos Cocinas manages onsite catering and vending at the plant (the latter in tandem with Accent Vending). The assembly plant has 72 vending machines while another 30 dot the various supplier sites. They offer everything from snacks and beverages to sandwiches and salads made onsite.

Currently, the catering load is fewer than a dozen sizeable events a month, says Holtzinger. Small meetings are catered directly from the Filling Station kitchen while big events are handled by RK Group's Catering by Rosemary division.

This unit handled the plant opening, the "first truck ceremony" (where it distributed some 2,700 box lunches) and Toyota's National Dealers Meeting, for which some 6,000 dealers enjoyed a menu ranging from barbecue and mashed potato bars to trail bites and a pasta bar, all served by 460 staffers in a six-acre air-conditioned tent done up with fireplaces, longhorn wall mounts and cowboy paintings.

Fast Facts
Name: Dos Cocinas/Toyota
No. onsite customers: over 4,000
Staff: 25
Avg. Daily Meals Served: 2,500
Hours (main cafe): 5:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Entree stations (main cafe): 3
Seats (main café): 420
Onsite Management: Tony Pena (general manager), Richard Mallard (executive chef)

RK's Wide-Ranging empire

The Texas Expresso Cafe at the U. of Texas Ex-Students Association is one of a number of onsite cafes managed by RK Group.

When Henry and Rosemary Kowalski bought the little barbecue restaurant on san Antonio's Woodlawn Ave. back in 1946, they couldn't have imagined that their enterprise would, 60 years later, grow to a $40 million business whose operations range from feeding state legislators and catering the elite functions of san Antonio's upper crust to providing dining services for a major Japanese car company.

Today, Rosemary Kowalski (the RK of the company's name) remains active in the business, but it is her son Greg who has led the company as president/CEO for almost 26 years. Under Greg Kowalski, RK Group has evolved into a diversified foodservice company that today operates in three markets: san Antonio and Austin, Texas, and Arizona.

In san Antonio RK Group has managed concessions and catering at the city's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for over 35 years. Meanwhile, its long-time Catering by Rosemary division offers comprehensive social and corporate catering services. It also provides the foodservice for the san Antonio Botanical society and for a number of municipal golf courses. RK Group will open an upgraded restaurant, complete with new kitchen, at the society's historic Carriage House Restaurant venue in June. More recently, it initiated a relationship with san Antonio's La Quinta Inn & suites Conference Center, its first conference center client, where it will run the catering and onsite dining.

In Austin, RK Group manages the conference center and operates the Texas Expresso Cafe for the University of Texas-Austin Ex-students (Alumni) Association. Opened in 2004, the Texas Expresso brand was developed specifically for the site and serves about 300 customers during its peak hour despite being located in a somewhat out-of-the-way area.

At the conference center, RK Group is responsible for venue management, booking and catering for a facility that serves more than 500,000 people annually, including up to 12,000 who show up for the open-house concession service that accompanies each UT football game in the fall.

RK Group also runs the story of Texas Cafe at Austin's Bob Bullock Texas state History Museum, serving up to 1,200 customers a day during the peak season. It is also exclusive caterer for the museum's special events and recently secured an agreement from the state to use the premises for other catered events.

RK Group's largest operation in Austin is the Capitol Grill in the state capitol complex, a food court style cafeteria that can serve up to 2,200 customers a day during the busy periods when the legislature is in session.

Arizona is RK Group's newest market. Earlier this year it had won the onsite catering contract for the new Tempe Center for the Arts, scheduled to open in september. It bolstered that with a recent deal for a local catering firm, Continental Catering, whose major client is the Glendale Civic Center. RK Group CEO Greg Kowalski says the company plans to add B&I business in the market in the future to expand its presence. "Arizona is booming, and we see it as a good opportunity for us," he says.

A State-of-the-Art Manufacturing Complex

Twenty-one independent parts suppliers operate inside the complex.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing's $1.28 billion production plant in san Antonio is designed to produce 200,000 Tundra full-size pickup trucks and employ more than 2,000 workers. That's impressive but hardly unprecedented in the world of auto manufacturing. What Is impressive is Toyota's conception of the san Antonio plant.

Rather than working with its parts suppliers through the company's established continuous replenishment process, "TMMTX will be the first automotive assembly plant to integrate numerous supplier parts-production facilities on the same grounds and, in some cases, under the same roof, as the main assembly plant," says Don Jackson, vice president of production and quality for Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Texas (TMMTX). When it opened earlier this year, a network of 21 separate parts and components suppliers employing more than 2,000 workers were operating onsite at the 2,000-acre complex.

The largest is seat-supplier Avanzar Interior Technologies. The company's facility on the TMMTX grounds builds steel seat frames that provide the skeleton for front and rear seating systems that are then assembled to order, as needed, on the TMMTX assembly line. Once an order is received from the factory for a bucket seat set of specific color and fabric design for a specific truck (each vehicle has a katashiki, a specific recipe, detailing every variable from trim level to color to seat configuration), the seats are built, then mounted onto an elevated track system that connects the Avanzar production facility with the main assembly plant. Less than an hour after receiving the order, the seats arrive at the assembly point, less than five minutes prior to the arrival of the truck in which it will be installed.

"Because Avanzar is on site, it eliminates the need to transport the seats from a remote factory," says Jackson. "There is no need for component packaging and no freight costs. This eliminates land fill waste and reduces the environmental impact of fuel consumption associated with freight movement. More importantly, with the production facility virtually in house, we have a close connection with the supplier, should component quality issues be detected."

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