In this podcast with Feed the Beast, hosts Chris Paul and Leigh-Anne Charles-Paul speak with Bon Appétit Regional Manager Paul Bulau. Starting with a discussion on current food news, Paul quickly opens up about his passion for food, how he started in the business, and the fascinating journey that led him to Bon Appétit. He talks about our sustainability commitments (such as Farm to Fork), our support of local vendors, and the many opportunities we offer as a company. You can listen to the podcast here, or read the transcript below.
Leigh-Anne: Welcome back to Feed the Beast on the Grit Live. I’m Leigh-Anne Charles-Paul.
Chris: I’m Chris Paul.
Leigh-Anne: And today, our guest is Paul Bulau, the regional manager of Bon Appétit. And can you just give us a little tidbit on what that is?
Paul: Bon Appétit is an on-site restaurant company. We service corporate accounts and private universities and special league venues across the country. We’re headquartered and based in Palo Alto, California. We service companies like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, some of the university businesses would be the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, MIT. Then, we have special league venues as part of our business as well where we offer catering and restaurant services to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty museum.
Chris: Very cream of the crop.
Paul: Absolutely. We partner with organizations where food is truly an amenity and the values and ideals are in alignment with our sustainability initiatives and quality of the services that we provide.
Leigh-Anne: Very nice. So, it’s spelled different from Bon Appétit the magazine?
Paul: Nope, spelled the same.
Leigh-Anne: So, before we get started on this interview, I have some food news here, some interesting stuff. Or, I think it’s pretty interesting since we’re talking about food and going into bigger establishments. Lemonade stands. There is a big issue with that. Apparently, kids are being fined in late May in Denver, Colorado. Some vendors at a close by festival called the cops on some kids and reported them for not having the correct permits and licenses for a business. These kids were three boys between two and six and they had to shut down. It’s pretty interesting. So, now actually Country Time Lemonade is going to cover up the 60 thousand dollars and kids fines. Their parents have to submit a report basically saying why the kid started the stand, what their business motto is, and go from there. But it’s interesting how everything is becoming very regulated, even for children, right?
Chris: Well, I think from a food safety standpoint it is very important because when your lemonade is not pasteurized, if you’re actually juicing lemons at home, a six-year-old, God-forbid wherever their hand’s been and then you’re just using water, you’re just on the corner pitching it out. I think parents on their end should definitely maybe take the steps necessary to help their kids become entrepreneurs because if that’s the route they’re going to take there are all those steps for businesses in the real world. Not to say that the kid needs to sit there and fill out all the paperwork but maybe understand the regulations and wrap their heads around it. On the opposite end, let’s say it wasn’t lemonade, maybe it was packaged goods, maybe that would have been something they would have delved into easier, like Girl Scout cookies, you’re not really baking at home. All it takes is one dirty lemon juice and everyone who ran through it could be sick. I think it’s a weird thing for people to understand but I think it is necessary.
Leigh-Anne: We’re preparing them for the world very quickly.
Paul: I do think that might be part of right now the system is broken and I think that intent and effect are two very different things in the circumstance, and I think that there is an education process that this could be serious as you were saying, Chris, there is potential for a food-borne illness and that is the worst case scenario. Probably the penalty for the act here is a little excessive and I think there’s an education process. But, it’s great to hear that an organization like Country Time Lemonade will step up and I think there is that awareness factor to bridge along. So, it’s opened the question for discussion and offered an opportunity for financial opportunities.
Chris: Maybe a warning, I think the fee is excessive and then all it takes is a food safety class.
Leigh Anne: So, speaking of food safety, let’s get back into restaurant and commercial settings. Paul, how did you get into Bon Appétit, how did you get into this business?
Paul: I grew up in Western New York, very rural agricultural area. I basically found myself in an opportunity to work in a restaurant at the age of sixteen, bussing tables and making extra money, looking forward to college, buying a car, so on so forth. That’s where everything really spawned for me in the restaurant world. I got sucked into a lot of different aspects of it and really grew real fast, myself, as part of the education and found this passion for food and service was in me. I carried that on as my family moved across the country to Colorado and found myself always working in restaurants or hotels and thought maybe this is something I could do as a career. The old adage years ago was a cook is never going to starve and you always need to have a cook in the kitchen so it sounded like a good deal. I wound up going to culinary school. I went to Scottsdale Culinary Institute and always had an entrepreneurial background myself. Growing up in a rural community, a part of my family and part of the community was everybody worked together, they traded things, bartered, grew their own vegetables, and I always carried those ideals with me through the years. Things grew, I was an executive chef, I had some restaurants myself, and then I came across this company in Colorado. Bon Appétit had opened a new account. A friend of mine had said we’d love to have you help us. I came in and started helping. I was immediately hooked with the ideals and the freedom that was offered to me as a chef within Bon Appétit to make decisions, to write menus. Back then in 1998, this Farm to Fork thing that was just starting to prosper. Our CEO at the time, and still CEO and founder of Bon Appétit, used to challenge the chefs to go out into the fields to meet the farmers and find the most flavorful and freshest food that you could find. That was the challenge. Out of that challenge, spawned the whole Farm to Fork program in 1999 that became part of truly our operating DNA. We’ve carried that forward and we’ve been the leader in sustainability as a national company from that point. We’ve grown through this piece and we’ve always dealt with any of the initiatives that have risen through the years, cage-free eggs, crate-free pork.
Chris: I guess it’s a lot harder once you start off on the right path. Your CEO was very adamant about those skills, and you need those as a chef. I think most chefs would be so excited to go to farms. Everyone wants to do these things, but if you’re in a corporate setting where that’s not even a thing, the fact that he encouraged that, it’s so much easier, you’ve already been on that path, and as trends come, you’ve actually stuck with it the whole time which is pretty admirable.
Leigh-Anne: What’s also great is you offer this to a lot of other businesses which is not the model for a lot of commercial settings, and I think that’s the most amazing part about your business.
Paul: And hearing it again from Fedele Bauccio, who is our CEO, part of what separates us is we work in concert with the communities that we serve. That’s a big piece, the outreach and understanding the labor market, who we’re feeding, who’s staffing our accounts and the folks that we’re feeding as well. It’s truly building that community, whether we’re in a community outside in that outreach, whether we’re in a corporate account or education partner, it’s all the same to us because we’re going to keep our ideals of sustainability initiatives, our fresh from-scratch food programs, with authentic flavors and ingredients and deliver that. It truly takes a community to deliver that.
Leigh-Anne: What farms do you work with, do companies have a list of specific farms that are local to them or do you guys have a list of farms?
Paul: Each area, we network with our sister accounts in the area to work with farmers so they can also deliver. We have a criteria that we do with certifications of insurance and liability limits. We do research that farms to make sure the practices are in place and that they’re using sustainable practices and paying living wage and treatment of their employees and the farmworkers themselves. We do the research and you need to meet the criteria to be a part of the family.
Chris: I think all the effort just ends to a better product, right?
Paul: It’s part of the process to make that connection for our community to know where their food is coming from. To be able to meet with the farmers through our Fellow program, we circle back and do farm tours with our customer base and our clients. The students may be able to visit a farm, pet the cows, herd the sheep, whatever it may be. There is a connectivity of who is actually producing this food and feeding that community. That connection is, in our mind, very crucial to the success of our business plan.
Chris: Can you tell us more what are you doing at Penn? I know you mentioned it earlier that you are making renovations and have a ton of food options at Houston Food Hall. Any other operations you guys are running right now?
Paul: We currently have five residential facilities that are part of a meal plan, an all-you-care-to-eat access system. Then we have five retail establishments, and we also do catering. Built into that piece is meeting the needs of students and the Penn community as a whole and providing services at all different levels and opportunities to feed the community. Part of that is we have a certified Kosher dining facility. We have done major renovations in our residential facilities. We are currently doing a major renovation at Houston Hall, which is a retail, currently has micro-restaurants, six different platforms, a sushi bar. We are creating more of an up-to-date food hall feel and reengineering the menu and platforms so we can deliver some more authentic flavors and meet the needs of the community.
Chris: I know you guys have worked with some entrepreneurs, as well, considering some people are coming from the Dorrance H. Hamilton Culinary Center. You actually have some products in your halls which is very admirable, considering that you can probably make it yourself, but bringing in that local feel local product is definitely a huge thing.
Leigh-Anne: How do entrepreneurs get into that?
Paul: Since the inception of the culinary center, we made a commitment that this was a great opportunity to extend into the community and deliver back and piggy back off of some of the things that the University of Pennsylvania does, and we can do our work through food. And I think we find it very inspiring to speak to a lot of young entrepreneurs, artisans, and folks who have this dream to deliver a product that maybe has been in their family or they’ve found for years this recipe or they’ve found this passion in food and an outlet that, you know, this is an opportunity for career path and so we meet regularly, we know all of the vendors, we have had some phenomenal success stories we’ve worked with some vendors that have moved on from the culinary center to their own brick and mortar stores. Some of the stories are attributed to the amount of business we were able to facilitate. One of the great opportunities that Bon Appétit can offer these entrepreneurs and start up is that access to cash flow. We pay with a credit card on delivery and everything is set up with Kim in the culinary center, so it’s basically pay on demand so we’re not holding cash. I think that’s a pretty phenomenal story. You asked how do you become involved? Our doors are open and I think part of what the culinary center delivers is that stability of licensing, proper food handling, the business knowledge, and it really keeps everyone on course so they have a sustainable business down the road and they are able to help manage that cash flow and scalability of their own business.
Leigh-Anne: Do you have to be affiliated with the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center or you said your doors are open so can any other entrepreneurs…
Paul: Absolutely! If it makes sense and it’s in the community, we have a perfect venue to showcase local goods. We are committed to at minimum 20% of our spend is to local entrepreneurs in that venue so as long as they can meet the liability requirements and all their permitting is in line, then the doors open.
Chris: What do you guys have planned for the future? I know you’re doing some renovations now
Leigh-Anne: Yeah, you said food hall, which I think is very interesting. What’s the difference between a food hall and food court, or has the terminology shifted?
Paul: The whole food court is the idea of something that you’d find in a mall. I think the food hall is a Renaissance featuring star chefs, street food, very authentic experiences in a communal area. It really becomes a destination of different cultures and ideals. What’s happening in the future? I think across the country, labor is the number one issue on our plate.
Leigh-Anne: Labor? On your end or everybody?
Paul: I think everybody’s going to be facing labor issues this year if you’re not already entrenched, and I think part of that is finding a solution in our role and in the community that we recruit our labor pool. Especially in Penn and some of our other areas, we need to do a better job of training, engagement, we need to figure out better solutions. I think that we continue to have the same issues of folks that the pool we are recruiting from it’s hard to maintain and pay a wage that is fair and keeps folks engaged for a long-term commitment.
Chris: So you feel as though there’s not enough qualified staff within certain scalable point? I know turnover in the industry is an issue for everyone. People come in, they go, there’s so many aspects of their lives that sometimes doesn’t work at work, but it’s one of those things.
Leigh-Anne: You’re absolutely right because solving that issue is very large not only the wage distribution nationally that contributes to the problem, but then also trying to qualify everybody or make them up to the standards that you would like a business to run, and then there’s all these different factors, and then there’s also technology that shifts the whole market as well, so finding that median where you can be like okay, now we can thrive and you can thrive as an employee, as well. How do we make that happen?
Paul: Right. The problem there again we need to get to the root cause of the problem. So, how do we conspire to have a workforce that is truly engaged at all levels, and there is a lot of economic barriers that go into that and running a business, and I think some of the things that we face in our leadership is how do you pay a fair wage in an environment that may just be at poverty level? Or maybe it’s below or barely above. What’s the incentive to come to work? Well, we need to find those incentives, and we need to find those touchpoints of building a capable workforce.
Chris: If it’s not too private, do you offer any sort of packages as far as bringing people on and what’s their incentive, if someone’s listening that they want to work at Bon Appétit, what are they going to get out of it? Not actual numbers.
Paul: We offer full competitive wage, we continuously do wage analysis in the city and comparative analysis. We have full benefits for full-time employees, there’s tons of opportunity through savings plans, 401(k)s. The full package of benefits is accessible.
Chris: So, it’s really a career path. You just need people to come in and know that I can scale up, I can be a chef, I can run this whole operation.
Leigh-Anne: What was great about what you said is that you started off you went to culinary school, you have an entrepreneurial background, which is probably a lot of our listeners here, and you took a shift from going to the restaurant into a more corporate setting. But, you ended up loving it because you were able to interact with farmers, which I think a lot of chefs thinking going into restaurants they can do that, then the corporation is like you can’t have that experience. But, based on your experience, it seems like you can, so it’s wonderful for entrepreneurs out there to know there are many different routes you can take in the food industry. You can start your own business, you can get on board with another restaurant and a chef and maybe you could work your way up, or maybe a corporate setting isn’t all that bad. There are wonderful businesses like Bon Appétit here that can offer the same types of opportunities that many chefs are looking for, right, Paul?
Paul: Absolutely and that I think is probably the most significant factor out there is there is opportunity. You truly have the opportunity to make out of it what you want and there is no stopping that. As leaders in industry we really want to facilitate that and open up those doors, again, that we are an employer of choice and we represent not only ourselves and Bon Appétit as an organization, but we represent our partners, the University of Pennsylvania, and we represent the communities that we work in. So, we need to be good stewards of all of our resources and the folks that live in the community, as well.
Leigh-Anne: Thank you, Paul! It was wonderful speaking with you, you had some very pertinent information to tell our audience members, especially those trying to scale up or expand their businesses. So, thank you so much for that.