August 15, 1998, Woodside California—I am looking down at a photo of Otis Tucker, a face I haven’t seen in more than 25 years.
Otis was my boss once, a Saga unit manager at the John Carroll University cafeteria. In my mind’s eye I see him standing with his hands on his hips by the timeclock, watching me and other kitchen help check in ... behind the servery counter, policing the “one student—one dessert” policy ... watching with arms folded, frustrated but stoic, during an end-of-semester food fight.
I am standing in an area called “The Saga Way,” perusing one of several tables stacked high with clippings, scrapbooks, procedure manuals and promotional items that are on display with other memorabilia at the Saga 50th Anniversary Reunion. Looking around,
I marvel at the size of the crowd—more than 650 people have shown up, of all ages and backgrounds, all here to celebrate the founding of a foodservice company that hasn’t even existed since 1986, when it was bought by Marriott Corporation.
Two kids dash by, a third chasing them with one of the souvenir squirt guns handed out at the registration table, and my reverie ends. But around me there are dozens of other people caught up in their own recollections.
The reunion is the brainchild of Bill Laughlin, one of Saga’s three original founders, and it’s being held at The Pond House, his private retreat here in Woodside. Laughlin and co-founder Harry Anderson are somewhere in the crowd, and I see the third partner, Bill Scandling, nearby, having pictures taken with old friends in the pungent shade of the eucalyptus trees here.
In reality, I am an interloper. My time with Saga lasted only a few months, curtailed when I got a job with more weekend hours from a local caterer. But many of the contractor’s best managers started in just that way, washing dishes or bussing tables at their college cafeteria. It was the same environment in which Laughlin, Anderson and Scandling first founded Saga Dining Halls in 1948, as roomates at Hobart College in Geneva, New York.
The reunion is really for the hundreds of Saga managers the company hired and trained over the years, the ones who made Saga’s reputation and built the organization over its almost 40 years of existence. Many went on to distinguished careers elsewhere. I see Bon Appetit CEO and CFO Fedele Bauccio and Ernie Collins in conversation by the soft drink stand. Jeff Henley, now CFO of Oracle, is laughing with friends by a display of old photographs. Bill Hammond, president of Sodexho Marriott’s education division, is here. So is George Maciag, president of Guckenheimer; and John Cutter, of Boston Market fame. Debi Benedetti, Bon Appetit’s vice president of administration, stops by to introduce Ken Shida, CEO of Shidax. There are others too numerous to mention.
Again I marvel at the talent and the thousands of lasting foodservice relationships that were spawned by this single company. And I wonder if there is a lesson here.
With all the talk in recent years about the importance of establishing a meaningful corporate culture, of cultivating human resources and of mentoring company talent, you’d think these were new ideas. But it’s clear they aren’t.
When a company that hasn’t existed for over a decade can still bring together this many people, with so much to share, still accomplishing this much, it’s proof they come from a work environment that did all these things and more.
As our our country's quality improvement programs seek to develop benchmarks against which to measure our corporate results and progress, the Saga Way is still one that can be held up, admired and imitated. And I wonder how many of those foodservice companies that operate today will have this kind of lasting influence on the industry a few decades from now.
It’s definitely food for thought.