Happy 30th Birthday, Bon Appétit: Strong Relationships
Before Bon Appétit Management Company was born, I had already been working in the contract food industry for years. Fedele and I both worked for Saga Corporation, a very successful food service company that was known for its people and its strong relationships. It also was like a family.
In 1986, I was running Saga’s education business, their founding and largest business segment. Fedele had run the corporate side for years, but he had moved on to the restaurant lines, Black Angus, Velvet Turtle, and others; business & industry was going to roll up under my responsibilities. Then Saga was acquired in an unfriendly manner by a competitor, and everything changed.
Fedele saw the chance to buy Bon Appétit Catering, with our Saga colleague Ernie Collins. It was just a matter of time before I would join them to open the private college and university market and launch our education business.
My first desk at Bon Appétit was sharing that same card table with Fedele. I pulled up a bridge chair and sat at the end. We were both on the phone a lot, and we’re not exactly quiet speakers, so I decided I really needed to go find my own place…except we had no money. So I got a membership at the United Red Carpet Club at San Francisco airport, and that was perfect. They had phones and a copy machine, and they said hello to me every day.
I knew we needed to quickly sign at least one education client that we could build on. So I went to the sisters at Santa Catalina School, a Catholic high school in Monterey, CA. They had been my client for years at Saga and were troubled by the fact that there was this new company that they’d have to be dealing with, the one that acquired Saga. They said, “We really would like to do business with people we know, and Michael, we know you and like you.” They decided to switch to Bon Appétit, and I promised them that I would personally make sure that everything we did was right for them. Not long after, another former Saga client, Biola University in La Mirada, CA, also brought us aboard.
Silicon Valley was big for us on the corporate side, but our break in education was getting into the Pacific Northwest. We knew that if we could bring an account on there, many would follow. We had the reputation, and they knew us well. We invited Lewis & Clark College to be Bon Appétit’s first college outside of California, and they said yes. A couple of other schools were interested but wanted to wait and see how we did at Lewis & Clark. Sure enough, Seattle University, University of Portland, Willamette University — all still clients — soon joined us. We knew were on our way then.
It took us a few years to make our numbers work. Our chef-driven model had never been tried in college food service. The old financial projections were based on participation at all-you-can-eat dining halls, and how many meals you could expect students to miss. When we started, we knew the industry was running on around 65 percent participation. We thought, “Well, we’re going to serve pretty good food, we should probably price it at 72 percent.” When 90 percent showed up, we got killed on food costs. The chefs who were bringing in such wonderful food and giving us the opportunity to please clients and parents, and retain students, were costing us a fortune. So we did have to go back and reprice the business. We eventually figured it out, and then Fedele and I could finally cash our own paychecks, which had been piling up in a drawer — though we never once missed payroll for employees.
We had to deliver the quality we had promised, no matter what. If we went bankrupt, we went bankrupt. But we knew that if we misstepped and didn’t deliver, then quickly our clients would say, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have an engine behind them.” But it wasn’t hard to show them that our food really was great.
The food was important, but the relationships were equally so. I told our new clients and those clients who followed me from Saga that “you’re buying a relationship; you’re not buying a salesperson. I will be here to make sure this happens.” And we were there. We washed the windows. We mopped the floors. They never saw a company do that. (Back then we couldn’t afford anyone to wash windows, but they didn’t know that!) In addition to those previously mentioned, we added Marylhurst College, University of Redlands, Santa Clara University, George Fox University, and many more we are still so proud to be working with.
“We had to deliver the quality we had promised, no matter what. If we went bankrupt, we went bankrupt.”
They trusted us, they still do, and I am still so honored by that. As I travel around visiting our accounts, the thing that impresses me more than anything, that has fueled who we are and how successful we’ve become, is how often our clients thank us for delivering on our promises. They say that they’re so glad they made the decision to enter this relationship with Bon Appétit.
Our people in the field are responsible for this. All of you deliver, day in and day out. It’s because of you that we are here, and your relationships with our clients, with our guests and our farmers and everyone else, are the engine that will keep us going. Our reputation for delivering is what leads to all those referrals and gives us the best retention rate in our industry.
Thank you all for 30 wonderful years.