Happy 30th Birthday, Bon Appétit: What If…
When I joined Bon Appétit Management Company in 1994, I was just a year out of college and already feeling a little beaten up by the “real world.”
Coming to the Sand Hill Road offices, I was greeted with warmth, a clear mandate that the people in the field were the most important part of the business, and a fun touch of family-like dysfunction. Having previously worked for a large restaurant company where I felt there was too much bureaucracy to make a significant impact, and that, as a unit-level manager, I was a second-class citizen — this was a refreshing change. I knew I’d found a special place. I knew I’d found home.
I attached myself to Bon Appétit, its people, and its ethos with a deep respect and pride I had never felt for any other employer. A decade later, in 2004, the company took a turn that I consider the most important event of my career, and I think of many other people’s as well.
Fedele had challenged me and Marc Zammit (then director of culinary support and development) to overhaul a program called Circle of Health. It was originally intended to focus on nutrition education, but Fedele wanted it to be more. We’d already started buying locally and suggesting chefs follow the Seafood Watch guidelines, but those ideas were peripheral to our core message of “custom onsite restaurants.” Publicly we again and again preached “made from scratch” and “fresh,” but we didn’t talk about sourcing to our clients or guests. At the same time, the food scene was changing. Top chefs were starting to talk about small farmers and sustainability, about many of the things we were quietly doing.
“I said to Fedele and Marc, ‘What if we could be that same seminal experience for our diners and our staff? What if we could be that catalyst for education and change?'”
Every new name in the culinary world had the same story. They had been going along trying to prove their culinary chops through complicated French techniques or using the rarest of ingredients found only in far-off lands and then — dun-ta-dun — they ate at/staged at/interacted somehow with either Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, or Moosewood in Ithaca, NY. And everything changed. They started looking to their own backyards, sometimes literally, for ingredients. They started treating farmers as if they were to be venerated, not talked down to the lowest price possible. They started thinking of the health of the oceans and the land, not just the reliability of the delivery truck.
I said to Fedele and Marc, “What if we could be that same seminal experience for our diners and our staff? What if we could be that catalyst for education and change?” As I said it, I was aware of how lofty that sounded. That Bon Appétit could put ourselves in the same category as the most celebrated and influential restaurants in the country. But I also knew we touched more people than either of those high-end restaurants ever could. We had the power to change the view for millions of people. Fedele agreed and set to making that change with a level of commitment that is extremely rare.
“We’ve set a new standard in food service again and again. We’ve respected people, animals, and the environment. And we’ve done it while growing profitably.”
Fedele has always seen driving revenues as the path to success. He knew that if we delivered truly special food experiences people would come more often, and that that was key. If cutting costs meant cutting quality, it was a price too high to pay. And, he had a secret weapon — Michael and his yellow pads of paper.
While Fedele has been out ahead of the industry setting an incredible vision for us, Michael has been scribbling away, playing with the business model, coaching our people, and ensuring the bottom line is as healthy as the oceans we talk so much about. They are the yin and yang, balancing, pushing, protecting each other. We are all the great beneficiaries of that duality. From them I have learned both to be disciplined and take wild leaps of faith, both to lay out multiple paths and to charge ahead with abandon, both to mind the pennies and to see the larger picture. The one thing they are similarly unwavering about, though, is caring for our people. I’ve seen Fedele and Michael (and our co-founder Ernie Collins) stop everything to listen to someone’s ideas or challenges. They care about our lives outside of Bon Appétit, and our families. All 17,000 of us are considered family. That’s not corporate- speak. It’s the truth.
We’ve set a new standard in food service again and again. We’ve respected people, animals, and the environment. And we’ve done it while growing profitably. I couldn’t be more proud of our path or more inspired by our leaders. Bon Appétit Management Company is about more than custom onsite restaurants — it’s about changing the world.