Bon Appétit Management Company is a food company, first and foremost, so it’s not surprising that chefs get most of the attention around here. But there’s a small army of nonculinary people who are just as important in making “food service for a sustainable future” possible. Bobby Vermette, Bon Appétit’s controller at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is one of those key players.
“Bobby has learned how to tell the story behind the numbers,” says Stephen Scardina, Bon Appétit’s Resident District Manager at Penn. “He understands how every variable fits together, and he works with our teams and our client to help them understand the analytics behind a profit-and-loss report — what’s behind food cost, or what’s behind the indirect expenses. It’s a rare skill, and a really important one.”
From Baking to Cooking the Books (Not!)
Strangely enough, Bobby’s path to controller started in the kitchen — of his own bakery, no less. In his early 20s, in a small town in Massachusetts, he parlayed an internship at a catering company into running a catering bakery with a retail storefront. He loved it, but craving more work-life balance, he left and joined a local corporate account as a cook. A year later, in January 2002 when Bon Appétit Management Company took over food service there, he officially joined Bon Appétit.
Not long after, he told Regional Vice President Elaine Smart that he wanted to move into a more office role, that he had really liked doing his own books at the bakery, and she was supportive. Some were skeptical. “The office manager told me she was going to train the grill cook to do the books,” recalls Regional Controller Angela Howk. “I am very grateful that my response was something along the lines of ‘Um, OK — let’s see how that goes for a while!’”
Once he hung up his apron, Bobby’s rise through Bon Appétit’s administrative ranks was swift. He became the office manager at the corporate location, then controller/office manager at the much bigger Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), then regional accounting support for Bon Appétit’s other Boston-area accounts. Pretty soon he was traveling to openings in the region and beyond to assist in setting up accounting processes.
He had the help of several mentors. Elaine and District Manager Kelly McDonald pushed him to keep moving outside his comfort zone, while Marietta Lamarre (then general manager at MIT, now GM at Colby College), who shared the MIT office with him, helped him learn the office manager tasks and begin to understand what being a controller meant.
Taking the Plunge at Penn
And then came Penn, in 2009. Bobby and his partner were about to put their boat in Massachusetts’ Merrimack River when Elaine called to ask him to be the controller. “It was very intimidating — such a large account, so high profile. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” recalls Bobby. But he went. “My feet hit the land in Philly, and I never did get back on that boat again.”
He may have been nervous, but at Penn, Bobby quickly grew into the controller he is today. He now oversees 16 profit centers, including not only the university’s residential and retail dining halls but also the two new Pret A Manger locations, the Beefsteak joint venture with José Andrés, and the Tortas Fronteras joint venture with Rick Bayless.
“We’re all passionate about food and flavor and hospitality, but we do have financial obligations that we have to meet,” explains Bobby. “Penn has so many different locations, with different needs.” Having come from operations, he enjoys working with the chefs and managers to analyze which things are (or aren’t) working and why — and tweak them: “It’s one of the parts that I love most.”
He delves into check averages and transaction counts, tracking the most successful times of the day and days of the week and applying those offerings and labor mixes to other operations that may be struggling. He talks to the chefs about balancing their program offerings at the all-you-care-to-eat facilities. No variable is too small: “We look at to-go container sizes. We look at how we stock our grab-and-go coolers.”
Then he laughs. “Wow, I am sounding like such a nerd right now, but I will own that. I love every detail of this job!”