While dining programs routinely talk about the importance of the people who create, prepare and serve their food, these individuals generally don’t get highlighted unless they work serving stations—or the dining room—and engage with customers. While that can be a valuable one-on-one experience, it is also somewhat scattershot.
Restaurant Associates (RA), a management company that is part of the Compass Group, has a particularly strong emphasis on culinary excellence with roots in New York City’s high-end dining scene. RA has taken this focus on culinary talent one step further with its Cook’s Corner program, which highlights individual staff members not only through their culinary creations but also their stories.
Cook’s Corner is not just a food station but a marketing and employee recognition initiative and as such has been recognized with the 2020 FM Best Concept Award in the Best Station Concept category.
While food has always been a core part of RA’s Heritage Month celebrations, the company had also been seeking a way to showcase the people behind the food and as a result rolled out the Cook’s Corner program in early 2019 at the Capital One Tysons campus in Virginia, with the intention of telling a better story of its cooks and the inspiration behind their dishes. The program also aligned with the client’s culture to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace, and upon a successful release in the Tysons Campus, the program was subsequently launched in Capital One’s Wilmington location as well.
The Cook’s Corner setup uses a grass paneled wall for backdrop, a custom-designed logo and signage displays—a simple, inexpensive investment—while existing rolling kitchen tables are used to allow flexibility and to position the Cooks Corner in a high-traffic area in the cafe.
To prepare the presentation, the marketing team gets together with the site cooks and chefs to learn about the inspiration behind the featured dish, along with any important figures in their lives that inspired their culinary journeys. The team also elicits any stories that the cook wishes to tell, in many cases finding out new and interesting facts about the individuals that wouldn’t otherwise have been known. For example, one of the cooks at Capital One was a biology teacher in Korea before pursuing a culinary career in the United States.
Of course, Cook’s Corner is also a dining outlet, so food is a critical component, and is offered as part of the individual culinarian’s profile by having guests enjoy recipes that have been passed down from generations with the featured chef’s or cook’s own spin.
All this is highlighted with a poster incorporating the featured culinarian’s portrait that is displayed on the backdrop, and the individuals are also encouraged to bring any pictures they wish to share to connect guests with their stories.
The diverse workforce at Restaurant Associates-Capital One especially lent itself to this opportunity to share individuals’ stories and their culture through food, but the program has also been a hit as a business initiative for RA, as it has boosted covers at the station where it was featured by 101%. Held once a week during a heritage/history month celebration that has staff identifying with the celebrated heritage, Cook’s Corner also posts an average sales price increase of 85.7%, and the initiative has elicited numerous positive comments from customers such as the following: “I just wanted to say that I think it's really cool that you are featuring foods from the cultural backgrounds of the employees in the cafeteria. I had a scrumptious coconut cassava cake today from chef Julia—besides being delicious, it makes me feel more connected to the cafeteria employees and like I belong in a diverse, inclusive workplace that celebrates those differences.”
“Beyond the positive financial results, we find that the program is most successful when our people are celebrated,” offered RA Marketing Manager Joyce Chan in nominating Cook’s Corner for a Best Concept Award. “By telling their stories, our cooks are able to connect with guests on a deeper level. It may be a taste of something they can relate to, or a gateway to a new culinary experience.”