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Unidine's Second Act

Unidine's Second Act


The Atrium Cafè at Cell Signaling Technology

SIGNALING SUCCESS. The cafè at Cell Signaling Technologies, Danvers, MA, was transformed from a rainforest—complete with banana trees and a giant skylight—into the "Atrium Cafè" when CST took over the space from it's previous hotel habitants. "The cafè has such a calming atmosphere," says Tony DiFrumolo, chef manager at CST, "it's like eating outside under perfect conditions every single day."

UNIDINE'S NEXT TOP MODEL. Tufts Health Plan, Watertown, MA, serves as a model for what Unidine can bring to their B&I clients. (top to bottom) The servery showcases three station concepts—Pasta/Pizza, The Market, The Grill—in addition to an island salad bar in the center of the space. The atrium dining room at Tuft's Cafè 750 offers customers lots of sunlight. With a 60/40 female to male employee mix, Unidine offers wellness tips to health conscious female customers.

BRANDING THE BOGS. Situated on a cranberry bog in Lakeville, MA, Ocean Spray's headquarters boasts a brand new servery—appropriately dubbed the Cranberry Cafè. Passionate and highly loyal to their products and brands, Ocean Spray employees dine in a cafe that Unidine customized to showcase products and menu items created from Ocean Spray recipes.

CROSS POLLINATION. Taking a cue from their B&I accounts, Unidine has worked to "de-institutionalize" many client hospital dining operations. (Above) The cafè at Griffin Hospital in Derby, CT.

Richard Schenkel may be many things—the son of a restaurateur, a diligent taskmaster, an avid fan of pepperoni pizza—but reticent he is not. And if anything gets the founder and CEO of Newton, MA based Unidine Corporation talking, it's the business of food. When Unidine opened shop in 2001 "the goal was to provide unparalleled management and culinary expertise to our clients," says Schenkel. "Our explosive growth can be attributed to upholding those two business principals."

Schenkel has some pretty good numbers to back up that claim and they are a part of the reason for Unidine recently being named to Inc. magazine's list of America's Top 500 Fastest Growing Private Companies for 2006. Rooted in its fresh food imperative, the privately held management company is on track to reach $45 million in revenue in 2006—up from $32 million in 2005. The company's success is fueled by 70 accounts—Schenkel claims there are dozens more client prospects on the horizon—in 12 states from the Northeast to the Mid-Atlantic.

"Part of our growth over the past year can be attributed to our recent entrance into what was a new market segment for our company—business dining—as well as two acquisitions which added about 16 operations to our existing client base," explains Schenkel.

"We don't want to be everything to everyone," he adds, referencing the company's focus on senior centers, hospitals and B&I. " Unidine is a focused operation on one line of business: foodservice management."

Breaking into B&I
Schenkel began his career in operations with a series of larger management companies, where he held a variety of management roles over a 20-year career. In the 90s, Schenkel became the president and CEO of Republic Management Corporation, which he later sold to Fine Host. In '98, Schenkel was recruited by Collegiate Health Care executives to help it manage a critical transition period.

In 2001, he formed Unidine to cater to what Schenkel believes is "an underserved demographic"—mid-sized senior living centers as well as community and regional hospitals.

It looked to capitalize on the potential in these niche markets, and reached $10 million in revenue by the end of 2003.

In 2005, the company made two strategic acquisitions that expanded its geographic reach and put it into a new segment—B&I foodservice management.

Healthcare Service Solutions of Columbia, MD, acquired in May 2005, was a provider of food and dining management services to senior, adolescent and rehabilitation facilities in the Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. markets.

Before the acquisition, Unidine had an established presence in similar segments, but its presence was limited to the New England, New York and New Jersey markets. When Schenkel saw the opportunity to acquire HSS and extend Unidine's presence, he seized it.

The other acquisition was of Delmonico Management Services, Ipswich, MA. Delmonico's eight corporate accounts, including Tufts Health Plan and the biotech firm Cell Signaling Technology, secured Unidine a meaningful entry into B&I.

Overall, the company now does 8% of its foodservice business in B&I—with 31% in hospitals and 61% in eldercare.

The expansions have given the company the opportunities to cross-pollinate in terms of its operational strategies, taking lessons learned in one segment to the others. Schenkel notes that on positive impact has been a movement to 'de-institutionalize' hospital dining operations, giving them a stronger focus, one more like in the B&I accounts. "We're also enhancing patient dining to be more of a hotel-style room service experience," adds Schenkel.

How They Wow
When he unveiled his food-focused management company, Schenkel dreamed of fresh roasted turkey, spicy meatball pizza with pepperoncini cheese and homemade chowder, a personal favorite he pronounces with a classic New England accent— "chowdah."

"We're a fresh food company," he says. "We are not a convenience company. We roast turkeys for our turkey sandwiches. We make all our own pizza dough and salad dressings. We cook to order omelets, breakfast sandwiches and burgers. We make our bakery products entirely in house. Everything we do is fresh."

"Putting our Expertise on the Table"
Right now, Unidine is celebrating the first anniversary of its dining service management partnership at Tufts Health Plan, located in Watertown, MA. Since assuming responsibility in 2005 for the fullservice cafè that serves approximately 1,200 employees, the company claims participation rates have doubled, catering revenues have increased 400% and employee satisfaction has risen by 20%.

"We are successful at Tufts because we developed and executed a customized dining and catering program targeted to the specific needs—we did not introduce a generic program," explains Schenkel.

He adds that Tufts serves as a model for what Unidine will be promote as its basic approach to landing additional B&I clients.

"Outsourcing foodservice makes good sense for our organization," says Ron Reppucci, director of real estate and support services at Tufts. "The cafè is revenue neutral and Unidine's purchasing arrangements with vendors are better than what we would be able to manage on our own."

When Tufts called on Unidine to help turn its dining program around, Unidine conducted an employee preference survey (see sidebar), so it could design an individualized program that would best meet the staff needs.

"The staff asked for fresher, more healthful options that had more visual appeal and offered a wider mix of flavor profiles," Reppucci adds.

Unidine identified these preferences and partnered with Tufts' administration. Together they rolled out a new menu and moved in new equipment.

"The cafè now offers more fresh prepared products that employees want at a price they are comfortable paying," says Reppucci.

"The most important outcome of this partnership is that Tufts' employees have taken note of the positive changes to their dining program," adds David Chechik, Unidine's director of business development for business dining.

Thinking Strategically
Unidine embraces a customized approach to the market, shunning strategies like branded concepts that are designed to be used at multiple sites. "We're not interested in a cookie-cutter approach," says Schenkel.

With 750 full-time field personnel, plus 300 employees that Unidine manages but are on its client's payroll, Unidine is structured to be field-based and hands on—an appealing approach for clients looking for an outsource provider willing to customize its service programs.

About 70% of Unidine's current business is P&L based. The other 30% is based on a management fee structure.

"Obviously in an P&L environment, the major challenge is remaining profitable without compromising service, and consistently delivering a high quality dining experience for our clients." He notes that this can bring unexpected challenges, pointing to the rise in the cost of fuel and the significant impact on the price of consumables like paper and plastic that can increase food prices.

Schenkel says he has his sight on the goal of growing Unidine into a minimum of $250 million in five years—which he hopes to achieve through a combination of further acquisitions and organic growth.

"Any future acquisitions will be synergistic to our business model," he says. "We want 'like players' with similar philosophies. We've invested a lot of time and dollars into building a strong infrastructure—one that will support that round of growth."

At A Glance

MARKETS SERVED: Senior living communities, including skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living facilities, and continuing care retirement communities; regional and community hospitals including acute care, rehabilitation and behavioral; business dining facilities
2005 REVENUES: $31 million

Grow Your Own

Chef-in-training Lowell Pena (right) with Unidine Chef Manager Greg Girard (left) at Evans Park at Newton Corner.

Our role is to develop great people," says Schenkel who has sought to nurture potential future talent with the Unidine Culinary Training Program, a comprehensive internship and externship for culinary students and recent graduates.

The firm has partnered with three prestigious culinary schools, including Boston's Newbury College, the Atlantic Culinary Academy in Dover, NH—an affiliate of Le Cordon Blue, the esteemed Parisian institution—and New York's Culinary Institute of America.

Schenkel believes these partnerships, geared to preparing students and recent grads for careers as executive chefs, have elevated Unidine's profile as a young, vibrant and innovative company.

"From a culinary standpoint, Unidine's 12-week training program is an attractive opportunity for students," says Chris Nesbitt, internship director at the Atlantic Culinary Academy. "It allows them to learn about chef management in a 100% scratch cooking environment. That's becoming a rarity in the food service industry.

"From a business perspective, it is enabling our students to acquire real-world experience. For us, the program is a valuable tool we can use to attract new students. So far, our collaboration with Unidine is a win-win for everyone."

For 12 weeks, students are paired with a Unidine executive chef. During that time, they see first-hand how large-scale foodservice operations are managed at one of the firm's 70-plus accounts. They also learn about managing food and labor costs, inventory control, menu planning, procurement, training, and hiring.

The bonus for A+ achievement: students who have excelled in the program are given the opportunity to join Unidine as a full-time executive chef manager. Thus far every student who has come through the program has accepted a position with the company.

"The intense training we provide permits students to enter the workforce at a much more advanced level and positions them for faster career growth," adds Paul Mantell, Unidine's vice president of human resources.

Customization: Invensys Dining Preference Survey

At the start of a contract, Unidine conducts an employee preference survey to help it design an individualized program that best meets staff needs. The anonymous electronic survey is sent to all employees, and once completed, the results go directly to Unidine. Unidine then partners with onsite administration to develop and enhance the cafè program based on the results. Unidine offers an incentive to participate in the survey; once the new cafè is opened, employees who have participated and have printed the confirmation note may redeem it for a complimentary choice of coffee or beverage.

The survey consists of four main sections:

This section focuses on general dining behaviors, gathering information about dining in/out frequency, food and dining time preferences for both breakfast and lunch, as well as brown bag and dining out motivations.

Breakfast Preferences
This section explores the specifics of employee breakfast habits, asking questions such as "How much coffee do you drink per day?" "Do you eat a hearty, light, or beverage-only breakfast most often?" and "How much do you typically spend for breakfast?"

Lunch Food Preferences
This section focuses more specifically on employee lunch food preferences. Questions range from "What type of food do you most frequently eat for lunch during the week?" and " What ethnic foods do you prefer?" to "What types of desserts do you eat at lunch?" and "What food items would you like us to offer which are not available today?"

Cafe, Service, Price and Quality
This section asks employees to rate food presentation, beverage presentation, food quality, beverage quality, value, overall cleanliness, overall atmosphere and variety of menu choices on a scale of poor to excellent. It also asks preference questions like,"Would you recommend the cafe to your co-workers?" and "If you could change just one thing at the cafe, what would it be?"

The Unidine Way – A Company Culture

Unidine stresses a fundamental approach to business it calls The Unidine Way. The company wants this philosophy to undergird all of its business activities. The Unidine Way is made up of seven initiatives including: Our Vision, Our Mission, Our Values, Our Team Member Commitment, The 15 Basics (of customer service) and The Diamond Standards.

The 15 Basics (of Customer Service)

  1. The Team Member Commitment is the principal belief of all team members. It is known, owned and energized by all.
  2. Our motto is: "We are Exceptional People Providing Exceptional Services To Exceptional Customers."
  3. The "3 Steps of Courtesy" are the foundation of our hospitality and used in every customer contact. The "3 Steps of Courtesy" are:
    1.) Smile 2.) Make eye contact 3.) Greet and address professionally
  4. All team members will employ proper etiquette in all forms of communication including interpersonal, telephone, email and written correspondence.
  5. Objectives are communicated to all team members and everyone is responsible for supporting them.
  6. Each team member will constantly identify defects in their operation and report the situation appropriately for immediate correction.
  7. All team members are responsible for creating a work environment that fosters cooperation and teamwork, ensuring customer service levels exceed expectations.
  8. All team members are certified annually for their positions.
  9. All team members are goodwill ambassadors, in and out of the workplace.
  10. We take pride and care in our personal appearance. Everyone is responsible for conveying a professional image by adhering to the organization's clothing and grooming standards.
  11. Never lose a customer. We resolve customer complaints immediately, take ownership of the issue, satisfy the customer, and record the solution.
  12. Protecting assets is the responsibility of every team member.
  13. Think safety first. Every team member is responsible for creating a safe, secure, accident-free workplace for customers and fellow team members alike.
  14. Uncompromising standards of cleanliness are the responsibility of every team member.
  15. Every team member is empowered to address and resolve service issues, even those for which the team member is not directly responsible.
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