Happy 30th Birthday, Bon Appétit: No Shortcuts

Twenty-one years ago I joined a very special small company called Bon Appétit Management Company.

I was recruited away from a chef career in large hotels and casinos on the promise of a better quality of life and the freedom to be able to write my own recipes and menus. I was told that I could have holidays off and quality time for family vacations in the summer months — something very sacred for folks that live in the state of Minnesota. I was even told that this will be the closest thing to running your own restaurant without having to invest any of your own money to get in on the action.

Regional Vice President Mark Lachance, then and now

It all sounded too good to be true, so I signed up and began my career as an executive chef at a medium-size liberal arts college in Northfield, MN, called St. Olaf College. Bon Appétit had just been awarded the contract and the school was already in the middle of the transition from a 120-year-old self-operated program to this new contract-management company when I started.

My first impression of the company was very special: the district manager showed up and spent the entire day with me doing my orientation, while the regional vice president even stopped in to impart some words of wisdom on me at one point. It was all quite simple back then: Buy great ingredients, as much from local farmers and artisan producers as you can, because they taste better. Cook everything from scratch, don’t take any shortcuts with the food. Take great care of your people, as “you are going to need them to make this happen,” I was told.

I remember leaving for home that evening feeling pretty special that these important people would take that much time out of their busy schedules to tell me all about the company and its beliefs and philosophies. This was not something I was used to, coming from large hotels and casinos.

“Do good food, do it right, don’t take shortcuts, take good care of your people, and everything else will work.”

The next day, I met several more people who’d been with the company for varying amounts of time. Some were local to Minnesota and some had traveled from other parts of the country to help open the account, but all of them had similar stories to tell about the company. They all had a great deal of admiration for Bon Appétit, and the pride and passion for what they were doing was obvious. It didn’t seem to bother them that they were away from their own units, employees, and families to be here in Minnesota helping me get my account off the ground. They all worked tirelessly well into the late evenings, for weeks on end, alongside me and my new team, until everything was running as it should. Little by little, they began to fade away. Pleasantries were exchanged as they left, and I remember saying to them, “I hope I will be able to return the favor someday.”

It didn’t take long for me to get that opportunity. Within the first six months of working for the company, I was tapped to go out and help some of the very same people who’d helped me and who’d since been promoted into new roles get their new accounts off the ground. I became the person with the stories, welcoming new people into the company, and helping them get their footings. Fast-forward 21 years, and I can recount hundreds of account openings and thousands of new employees welcomed into the company in the very same fashion as I was back in 1996.

Looking back on it now, I realize what is the most special part of this company is the people who work for us. We are a passionate group of storytellers who have embraced a very simple message, handed down from previous generations of storytellers. The thing I am most proud of working for Bon Appétit is that even as we have grown tremendously as an organization, we have been able to maintain a very simple philosophy that hasn’t changed since the beginning.

“Do good food, do it right, don’t take shortcuts, take good care of your people, and everything else will work.”


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