Independent Dining At Mid-Sized Offices

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These articles by Kathleen McGinn Spring were prepared for the

May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Spicing Up the Corporate Lunch Room

Holly Trump and Luigi DiMeglio refuel hundreds of area

office workers every day. They are co-owners of Gallery Cafe, a

15-employee

food service business that manages three corporate cafeterias and

caters office events. Up ahead of the of the roosters, they huddle

with their managers at 5:45 a.m. in the dining room of 107 College

Road East. Rising after a short meeting, the day’s game plan fixed,

they run non-stop until late afternoon ordering fish, making soup,

teaching employees how to saute, re-composing salad bars, taking care

of spills, fielding last minute entreaties for sandwich deliveries

to nearby offices, and ringing up lines of hungry desk jockeys.

Customers walking into the cafeterias from their cubicles looking

for a mid-day energy boost often tell one of the pair how tired they

are. "They say they’re having a hard day," Trump says.

"See

if they could last six hours down here with me!" Not likely. Even

with the day’s rush past, Trump perches on the edge of her chair,

jumping up every few minutes to take calls from office managers with

meeting menus and spring picnics on their minds, and running back

to the kitchen to discuss concerns with employees as they check in

on their way home.

She is the high-energy half of the culinary duo, dramatically ripping

up junk mail when a check long-promised by a corporate catering client

does not appear with the day’s delivery, and speaking passionately

of how much she enjoys taking raw hires and turning them into chefs.

DiMeglio is a little more low voltage. Less involved in cooking and

training new employees — "I’m not as patient as I used to

be." — he has to make his time and energy stretch to cover

his restaurants, Valentino’s and Nicky D’s in Forrestal Village, as

well as the corporate cafeterias.

The two met through a mutual friend, and formed their partnership

in 1997. "Talk about soul mates," says Trump of the business

union. "A gift from heaven." DiMeglio had just gotten into

the corporate cafeteria business, opening Gallery Cafe for National

Business Parks, the company that manages College Road East office

buildings. His first manager did not work out. "He was a 6/10

man," DiMeglio says. Cans of food for institutional use hold 10

ounces each and come six to a case, and the guy built his cuisine

around opening them. "He lasted a month," DiMeglio says. He

then hired Trump. He says he made her an equal partner less than a

year later because "She’s very aggressive." Because of Trump,

he says, he was able to expand to other locations. Taking her on as

a full partner, he says, "was only fair."

Gallery Cafe also manages the corporate cafeterias at 100 College

Road West, the new building on Route 1 just south of Forrestal

Village,

and at 206 Carnegie Center, Covance’s headquarters. Asked whether

they want to take on any more cafeterias, DiMeglio quickly says,

"That’s

it. We’re tapped." But just as quickly, Trump says, "We’d

like to do an entire park." Yes, DiMeglio agrees, for the

opportunity

to manage all the corporate eateries within an office park, they would

stretch. In fact, he says, they had been set to handle the dining

rooms at the facility RCN had hoped to build.

Keeping their operation manageable is a key concern, though. They

have turned down offers to manage cafeterias in other parts of the

state. Just recently, Trump says, Firmenich expressed interest in

having them manage an eatery in Newark. Out of the question, she and

her partner say. They need to keep their cafeterias close to one

another,

and can not add too many without losing control over the quality of

the food and of the service.

DiMeglio and Trump have been preparing and serving food

all of their adult lives. DiMeglio is from a Princeton restaurant

family. He opened Victor’s, a pizzeria and Italian restaurant on

Nassau

Street across the street from the university, with his twin brother

Vinnie and an uncle in 1976. He opened Vesuvio’s, also on Nassau

Street,

in the site now occupied by Blue Point Grill, in 1981. Both

restaurants

closed, in part because of soaring rents in downtown Princeton, and

Vinnie left the restaurant business to start Caliper Farms

Landscaping,

a Montgomery-based business, with another brother, Angelo. DiMeglio

stayed in the business, but began a move toward catering to the

corporate

crowd when he opened Valentino’s Pizzeria-Trattoria, one of the first

restaurants in Forrestal Village, a mixed use office/retail complex

that draws a big lunch crowd from surrounding office parks.

DiMeglio attended Princeton High School and lives in Washington

Township

with his wife, Susan, a speech therapist, and their three sons, Frank,

a 14-year-old who attends Lawrence High, and Vincent and Anthony,

students at the Pond Road Middle School.

Trump, who is not related to Donald as far as she knows, is from an

entrepreneurial family with a flare for cooking. She swears by her

great grandmother’s rice pudding and stuffing recipes, and says her

mother, Dolores, is "an awesome baker." Her late father,

Edmund,

owned the Trump Roofing Company in Hopewell, and her mother helped

out in the business. Her sister, Robin, teaches special education

in Montgomery, and her brother, Peter, just returned to the area from

Los Angeles and opened Metro Grill, an 80-seat casual dining spot

on Scotch Road in Ewing.

Trump started and ran Main Street, a Yardley restaurant, and has been

a chef at both the Logan Inn in New Hope and the Carversville Inn

in Carversville, Pennsylvania. She has been a food service manager

at both the College of New Jersey and the Pennington School, and has

held executive positions with food service giant Sodexho Marriott.

Trump earned a bachelor’s degree in administration from Trenton State

College (Class of 1986) and a certificate in food and beverage

management

from Mercer County College. She also holds a number of certificates

from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York.

Trump owns Party by Design, a Ewing-based catering company. She lives

in Ewing with her housemate, Ann Degennaro, director of wellness at

the College of New Jersey, whom she describes as "the company

therapist," a help with everything from stress management to

giving

employees talks on avoiding drug use.

For both Trump and DiMeglio, the dining room of Gallery Cafe’s first

cafeteria, at 107 College Road East, is ground zero, where they have

their first cup of coffee in the morning, and close out the books

at the end of the day. It is an attractive green and mauve space

divided

from a zig-zagging food service line by a curving wall with a jaunty

green stripe. Its tiny bud vases — each holding one white and

one violet flower — and its prints of Paris street cafes say

"bistro"

as much as "cafeteria." And, in fact, DiMeglio says,

"Cafeteria

is a dirty word." Undeniably, this is mass feeding. Three hundred

souls pass through for lunch, the vast majority of them coming in

two great blasts — at noon and at 2 p.m. But DiMeglio stresses

that theirs is not fast food.

Trump writes up a new menu every morning, not making final decisions

until she takes the day’s temperature — perhaps leaning toward

comfort food on an unseasonably cool spring day, or a fruit soup as

a fitting accompaniment to the buds opening outside. Customers, the

vast majority of whom show up day after day, "know how to

eat,"

DiMeglio says, "and if they don’t, we teach them." The duo

steer their office-bound clientele toward eating their main meal at

noon, a habit they say many have adopted. Others eat a light lunch,

but ask to have another meal packed up to be taken home for dinner.

In all of their cafeterias, there is a conscious effort to stretch

diners’ palates. Jerry Yusko has been managing Gallery Cafe’s

cafeteria

in the Covance building for three years. He watched the same customers

walk in and go for the same spot at the sandwich counter day after

day. Now he goes up to the tradition-bound and points out inviting

salads and entrees, urging them to try something different.

"They’re

afraid," he says of the culinary timid. "They think if they

don’t like something, they’ll be stuck with it." Not so, he

assures

his customers. If the taste of vegetarian roasted vidalia and parmesan

soup offends or pan seared salmon with saffron tomato and green onion

butter is just too alien, he will be glad to take it back and produce

a nice tuna sandwich.

"Everything we do is different," Trump says. "There is

no such thing as chicken salad. It’s always chicken salad with peach

chutney, or with roasted peppers, or with Dijon mustard and walnuts.

It’s not chicken noodle soup, it’s West Tisbury clam chowder."

Of her cuisine, she says, "It’s all weird." At first, the

lunchtime crowd held back, seeking safety at the sandwich station.

Things have changed in six years. "After they get over the fear,

they like to experiment," she says.

At its three locations, Gallery Cafe serves up

sandwiches,

soup, salad, and dessert to nearly 1,000 people a day. While the

company’s

chefs strive for variety, they recognize their customers’ favorites.

"They like chicken," DiMeglio says. "They can’t get enough

of chicken, any which way you like it." But there is very little

demand for beef. Nothing to do with mad cow disease, he says, but

rather a reflection of what he describes as a "high end"

clientele,

a group that is "conscious of what they eat," and perceives

red meat to be less healthy than other foods. Pasta is a lunchtime

favorite, as are salads, and vegetarian dishes continue to gain in

popularity.

As for when office workers are most likely to drop by, as opposed

to running out to a restaurant, Trump says it’s hard to fix a pattern.

Weather plays a part too. Traffic is definitely up, especially at

the Covance cafeteria, when it rains. But the first warm days of

spring

bring extra customers too. "I see them coming," Trump says.

"When it’s nice out, we get people walking over from other

buildings."

The majority of the customers at all three of Gallery Cafe’s

cafeterias

come from the buildings in which they are located. Most of the rest

stroll over from nearby buildings. The public is welcome at 107

College

Road East and at 100 College Road West, but not at the Covance

building.

While Gallery Cafe is happy to serve anyone, the company does not

court outside business. "We don’t advertise," DiMeglio says.

"We’re here to serve the people in the park. As long as we serve

them, we don’t need to reach out."

Employers subsidize lunch for their workers at the Gallery Cafe

facilities.

DiMeglio and Trump subtract 20 percent from each employee’s check

and send bills to employers at the end of the week. They say the

practice,

and the amount of the discount, are standard throughout the area,

although they say some companies do maintain cafeterias where their

employees incur no charges at all.

The subsidy is good for Gallery Cafe’s business, and for the employers

too. "If the companies subsize, they know all their employees

will come in," DiMeglio says. This keeps workers close to their

desks. DiMeglio says some customers are in and out in minutes,

carrying

their lunch back to the office. Others linger, chatting with friends.

In either case, a trip to an on-site cafeteria takes a fraction of

the time it would take to drive to a restaurant, find parking, be

served, and make it back to work. For the cafeterias, DiMeglio says

subsidies ensure a steady supply of repeat customers.

Even with the subsidies, lunch at Gallery Cafe’s cafeterias is not

cheap. Sandwiches, including wraps and pannini, are $4.95, or $2.95

for half a sandwich. Sauted pasta dishes are $4.35; special pasta,

$4.95. Entrees, perhaps corn meal crusted pork medallions or crab

cakes with Louisiana remoulade, are $6.95. Add a homemade cookie and

a bottle of juice and "it’s $10 at the register," says

DiMeglio.

Customers rarely balk, he says, and when they do, he reminds them

that everything is fresh.

"When leaf lettuce is $32 a case, I don’t have a choice,"

Trump says. "When broccoli is $24 a case, I have to buy it.

Commodities

always change. They skyrocket. I’ve seen carrots at $22 a case.

Vegetables

this winter were horrendous." Beef is higher too, and fish was

way up during Lent.

Squeezed on one side by the price of ingredients, the partners are

constrained on the other by price barriers their customers won’t

break.

"We haven’t raised prices in two-and-a-half years," DiMeglio

says. Asked how high office workers will go for lunch, he doesn’t

hesitate. "That’s it. We’re tapped," he says. Customers will

not pay more than $5.00 for a sandwich.

Gallery Cafe finds it a challenge to serve up meals made of fresh

ingredients while straddling an inflexible price point, but the

company

is breezing through another common business problem. While up and

down the Route 1 Corridor employers of all stripes struggle with

staffing,

this company’s owners say finding — and keeping — good help

has never been a problem. And this despite the fact that, according

to Trump, they overstaff, keeping an extra person in the dining room,

and in the kitchen, ready to fill in if customer traffic suddenly

surges.

Training workers is the best part of the job for Trump, who has been

an educator/evaluator with the Culinary Institute’s student externship

program, and a mentor to aspiring chefs in the restaurant she owned,

and in those at which she has worked. She says a cafeteria, despite

its concentrated rush, is a better place for training chefs than is

a restaurant, where the flow of orders is constant. "One employee

I taught started as a dishwasher," she recounts. "Now he’s

composing the most beautiful salads. That’s what I enjoy the most.

We grow them." Workers generally come to Gallery Cafe through

word of mouth, and the top ones are given a shot at managing a

cafeteria.

Rising in the pipeline now are Virginia Milius and Pete Sapon. Neither

had a culinary education or a food service background before joining

Gallery Cafe. Milius, who grew up in Queens and first worked in the

area as a clerk at the Corning Revere store in Forrestal Village,

has been with the company for three years. Not only did she not cook

when she arrived, but she wasn’t too keen on experimenting with eating

either. "I wouldn’t even have tired red peppers when I came

here,"

she says. Now she talks of candying walnuts and making brittles to

add to salads. Where she found retail boring, she says "I love

cooking. It gives me an adrenalin rush."

Sapon, a native of Guatemala, began working for DiMeglio nine years

ago, but left for a couple of years to try working in Chicago. Back

again, and getting ready to move up into management with the company,

he says the appeal is being part of a team in an organization that

feels like a family.

For the whole Gallery Cafe crew, there is no question that corporate

cafeterias are absolutely the venue of choice for restaurant

professionals.

Among them, they have worked in every type of food service setting,

but as one they say nothing beats their current gig. The reason is

lifestyle. The lunch rush ends before 3 p.m., and by 4 p.m. the pots

are scrubbed, the floor is washed, and the day is still young, leaving

time for family, school, or sports. There is a feeling of being part

of the mainstream that restaurants rarely offer. Weekends are free,

and, like everyone else, they get a day off to celebrate Thanksgiving

and Memorial Day. Says Trump, "You can have a life."

Top Of Page
Independent Dining At Mid-Sized Offices

Joe Gillies, owner of Independent Dining Concepts, grew

up in the kitchens of his family’s restaurants, first the Town &

Country

in Nutley and then the Chadwick Diner at the shore. Childhood memories

include the time the prep cook, a native of Trinidad, "disappeared

with all the secret recipes." Gillies’ grandmother stepped in,

replacing the departed employee’s specialties with her own Italian

recipes.

Gillies’ father is retired now, and the family diner is a memory.

"It’s a tough business," he says. "It’s just non-stop,

90 to 100 hours a week. Every night, weekends."

A graduate of Nutley High School, who says he has been working in

restaurants since he was 10, Gillies wanted a career in food service,

but one that was less demanding. During a sabbatical from the family

diner he managed a Ground Round restaurant, and more recently worked

for Campus Food Service, a corporate dining company based in North

Jersey. After two years with Campus, he formed his own corporate

dining

company, and went out on his own.

In 1998, Gillies opened Cafe 500 at 500 College Road East. Five more

corporate cafeterias followed in the next three years. Independent

Dining Concepts runs the cafeterias at 100 Overlook Center, 3

Independence

Way, 600 Alexander Park, the Princeton Insurance Building on Alexander

Road, and on Davidson Avenue in Somerset. He has 18 employees, and

plans to add more cafeterias. His company sometimes takes over

existing

cafeterias and sometimes builds them from the ground up within new

office buildings. The economic slowdown is stalling talks on some

projects, but Gillies says the concentration of offices in this area

creates plentiful opportunities.

He was drawn to Central Jersey area not only because of its growing

roster of office parks, but also because he finds workers in this

area to be affluent and willing to spend money for a good lunch.

"We

had a building that was predominantly state," he says. The state

workers that frequented that cafeteria were "lower paid

clerical,"

and, he says, "We saw a huge difference in the per-person check

average."

In order to be profitable, a corporate cafeteria has to be in a

building

that has at least 450 to 500 workers, he says. And the cafeteria needs

to pull a lot of them. "It’s a shortened day," he says of

the time span during which most cafeterias are open each day. "You

have to maximize every minute."

Gillies’ niche is the cafeteria that is neither too small, nor too

big. On one end, there will not be enough traffic, on the other end,

he finds corporations prefer to go with large cafeteria operators

such as Sodhexo Marriott. There in the middle are companies, or

multi-tenant

office buildings, that don’t want to deal with an untried solo

operator,

but don’t offer enough traffic to appeal to one of the mega cafeteria

companies.

Gillies says his company is big enough to do bulk buying, and has

the staff and the expertise to add another cafeteria easily. He is

glad to go after the medium-sized sites, and says the fact that he

is willing to design their cafeterias and supervise construction helps

him get them. He says that the biggest cafeteria operators often

dictate

configuration specifics to landlords, and insist the landlords pay

to have them built. He is willing to work with whatever space the

landlord is allotting for a cafeteria. Most often, it is not a very

big space.

"Building developers do want cafeterias on site," he says,

"but it is not feasible for them to give us a lot of room."

The lion’s share of square footage has to be given to rent-paying

tenants, and, like other cafeteria operators his size, Gillies

understands

this. "We get squeezed into a small space," he says. "We

have to be creative."

Gillies designed the cafeteria at 600 Alexander Park and at Davidson

Avenue in Somerset. And while space allotments were not generous,

he says he made sure to build in "the proper equipment for menu

variety." Friends sometimes say they envy him his "captive

audience" of office workers, people who often have no other lunch

options nearby. And indeed, he does say that a factor to weigh in

deciding to open a cafeteria is the proximity of other lunch options.

But if he doesn’t offer a variety to the people who drop in day after

day, he knows "they will just get in their cars and go out on

Route 1."

While he has left the 24/7 life of the diner behind him in favor of

watching his sons, Tyler and Jason, play baseball and soccer, Gillies

has built parts of that early experience into his own company. His

Manhattan clam chowder, for instance, is made with the recipe he

learned

from the late Gene Landwehr, longtime owner of the sprawling

restaurant

on Route 29 opposite the Delaware River that is now Anthony Merlino’s

Waterfront.

Landwehr’s family spent summers at the shore, near the Chadwick Diner,

and his children worked there. "Gene was bored when he

retired,"

Gillies recounts, "so he came to work for us." Landwehr

elevated

the diner’s cuisine. "A lot of my culinary training came from

Gene," he says. "He taught me everything I know,"

including

the clam chowder recipe.

The chowder recently sparked a conversation between Gillies and one

of his corporate cafe customers. She remembered the chowder from its

earlier incarnation, and is now eagerly waiting for it to show up

at the eatery that is just an elevator ride away from her desk.


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