Foodservice Equipment Reports

FER EXCLUSIVE: Young Lions

If you want a glimpse of what our industry will be like in the future, spend a little time reading about our 2015 Young Lion Awards winners. This year we interview not only our honorees, but a few of their closest colleagues. The stories they tell paint a picture of individuals whose dedication, service, professionalism and creativity is guaranteed to inspire you.

The Young Lion Awards have a long history: They were created in 1984 when the Foodservice Equipment Reports crew helmed the former FE&S at Cahners Publishing. The purpose of the awards is to recognize and honor younger equipment and supplies professionals who already have had a significant impact on our industry. We believe their vitality, intelligence and commitment to this business inspires everyone, including those further along in their careers as well as those new to the industry. 

Every awards cycle, the Commercial and Noncommercial Operators in our new class of Young Lions are nominated by carefully formed Selection Advisory Boards comprised of industry experts. Young Lions in the Dealer, Manufacturers’ Rep, Service Agent and Consultant categories are selected by their association affiliates: the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association, the Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry, the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association and the Foodservice Consultants Society Int’l. FER is grateful for their partnership in this worthwhile endeavor. 

We will honor our 2015 Young Lions at FER’s Industry Excellence Awards Gala during The NAFEM Show, Feb. 20 at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel, Anaheim, Calif. To join the celebration, visit bit.ly/1t96MTW or call Christine Palmer at 847/336-2049.



Young Lion - Service Agent
Michael Via
Sales/Accounts Manager
Refrigerated Specialist Inc.

Mesquite, Texas



Michael Via has spent the past 20 years working at Refrigerated Specialist Inc., holding down every job from maintenance, on-call rotation and operational installations to, most recently, sales and accounts management. Always ready to pitch in when needed, Via (pronounced vie) never leaves the office on a sales call without work clothes, gloves and boots in the trunk as well as a bag filled with repair tools and gauges. 

But the thing that makes Via proudest is not his megacoup—landing the hot and cold foodservice equipment maintenance service agreement at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium—or his partnerships with such national clients as Brinker Int’l., Cheddar’s Casual Cafe or On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. What makes Via proudest is his work with kids. Specifically, kids from the culinary-arts program at Rockwall High School, Rockwall, Texas, who Via mentors as part of the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation’s ProStart program.

“The best advice I ever got was from [RSI President and Founder] Marvin Hester,” Via says. “When he hired me for the sales position here, he told me that I needed to find a way to give back to the community.” 

Taking Hester’s advice, Via joined the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association and, before long, began volunteering as a timer at ProStart culinary competitions.

“Then my friend Kevan Fenderson from Brinker handed me a list of area ProStart programs and told me to pick one,” Via says. “My daughter’s school in Rockwall happened to be on the list, so in 2011, I signed on to mentor their newly launched ProStart culinary program, led by Chef Cody Hayes.” 

Hester applauds his employee’s extracurricular activities. “During the ProStart competition season, Mike is at every practice with his kids. That’s two to four hours a day, six days a week,” Hester says. “Mike recruits chefs, managers and other foodservice professionals to give presentations to his team about topics ranging from skills and food cost to labor management. He’s even been known to barter his own free labor to fix equipment for celebrity chefs in exchange for them teaching a skills class to the kids.”

Via literally goes the extra mile for the kids. “Last year, our culinary-arts competition team was working on their menu; they needed to create five-star food in 60 minutes without any electric equipment—so no refrigeration,” Hayes recalls. “The team really wanted to make a white-chocolate Bavarian-cream dessert with a spun-sugar garnish. The problem was how to get the cream to set up without refrigeration. Mike not only came up with a solution—dry ice—he also made the 30-mile round trip to pick up the dry ice every week when the kids practiced.” 

Via has seen firsthand how ProStart can change lives. He mentions one student by way of example. “Andrew is blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other,” Via says. “He figured that the best he could expect after high school was some sort of low-level job, but he still showed up for the ProStart culinary practice sessions.”

Hayes noticed Andrew’s enthusiasm and added him to the team as an alternate. When one of the team members had to drop out of the competition at the last minute, Andrew was tapped to take her place. “Andrew was scared to death during the competition, but he performed flawlessly and received rave reviews from judges,” Via says. 

Andrew’s performance helped the two-year-old culinary-arts team earn third place at the state ProStart competition this past spring, toppling about 35 other Texas teams and earning scholarship money needed to fund the team’s future education. Sweetening the school’s showing, Rockwall’s restaurant-management team, also in only its second year, went on to win the national championship title.

“Very few of the students had even been thinking about going to college when they joined ProStart,” Via says. “But now, thanks to scholarships, we have some in the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas; Le Cordon Bleu, Dallas; and Johnson & Wales University in Denver and Miami.” 

“It’s been amazing,” Hayes adds. “I don’t think any of this would have been possible without Mike and his support of our program. He has truly helped change the lives of our future industry leaders.”

In addition to ProStart, Via is a member of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association. In 2011, Via and his CFESA mentor Gary Potvin, owner and president of Pine Tree Food Equipment, Gray, Maine, coordinated the association’s support of a charitable project organized by the Restaurant Facility Management Association. 

Potvin, who serves as a CFESA v.p., offered high praise for Via’s get-it-done nature. “I’ve been representing our service organization in RFMA’s Vendor Expo for the past five years,” Potvin says. “Having Mike as part of the staff made my job so much easier this year. Mike is caring, driven, considerate and devoted to anything he gets involved with.”

Now on CFESA’s board of directors and co-chair of the association’s marketing committee, Via has helped add ProStart as one of the beneficiaries of CFESA Cares, the organization’s charitable arm. 

But at the end of the day, Via always comes back to the kids. “We don’t know where they’ll end up—the culinary industry is so vast,” Via says. “But we do know we’ve helped give them a leg up. And that feels really good.”



Young Lion - Dealer
Mason Greene
Director of Operations
Hotel & Restaurant Supply
Jackson, Miss.


Mason Greene, director of operations for Hotel & Restaurant Supply (H&R), based in Jackson, Miss., has built a solid career by volunteering in the industry, showing respect to the dealership’s leaders and sincerely caring for his co-workers. 

Greene’s grandfather Percy founded H&R in 1953, and his father, Jerry, serves as president. “My father never pressured me to get involved in the business,” says Greene, who joined H&R 11 years ago after working for a religious charity organization for three years. Prior to that, he earned his master’s degree at Mississippi State University.

“Joining H&R was always an option in my mind, and, looking back, I can’t imagine being a part of any other industry,” he says. “It’s highly relational and has many challenges, and there’s room for creativity.” 

Since Greene joined H&R, the company has grown to six locations, three of which opened in the past eight years. Behind the scenes, Greene has improved the company’s IT infrastructure by creating an intranet (a private computer network) for better internal communication. He also upgraded the company’s backend software, used for quoting, ordering and purchasing, to more efficiently serve customers. Additionally, he established a corporate marketing department with two full-time staff members who work with the executive team, sales managers, general managers, purchasing groups and third parties to serve the company’s marketing needs.

“Ultimately, my top responsibility is to help set up the H&R team for success,” Greene says. “I want to give them everything they need to give our customers the best experience, and that drives most of my thinking and plans for the future.” 

Outside of H&R, Greene, a Certified Foodservice Professional, participates on the board of directors for the smallwares buying group Allied Buying Corp. and the equipment buying group NexGen. He’s actively involved in the Foodservice Equipment Distributors Association, serving in 2015 as treasurer on the executive committee.

Ask Ray Herrick, FEDA executive v.p., about Greene, and he quickly recalls one morning during the association’s 2012 convention. 

“Mason was convention chair, and he was opening the event with a speech advocating for a strong dealer-based distribution system,” Herrick says. “Mason is a soft-spoken man, but, that morning, he came out like a lion. He made the most articulate and strongly worded defense of the dealer I have ever heard on what would be missing in the channel of distribution if there were no dealer. Everyone was impressed with how on-target his points were on the value of the dealer to the end user and manufacturer supplier. It was pure leadership in action.”

Back at H&R, Greene works to forge positive relationships with the company’s leaders and his co-workers. One of his biggest challenges was joining the H&R team as the owner’s son. 

“It was important to me to come in and work hard and show respect to those around me who’ve made H&R what it is today,” Greene says. He proved himself by starting out working in the warehouse and in the field on installations.

Marcus Lyon, a general manager for H&R, is a close friend. “Mason is an outstanding man of character and principals and is a great leader because he truly listens and cares about people,” he says. “He is very humble and rarely speaks just to be heard. I have been with Mason in several circumstances where one could easily get angry, and I can honestly say I have never seen him lose his temper. These are just a few qualities that make him a great leader; he’s extremely likeable and refreshing to be around.” 

Jerry, Greene’s father and boss, agrees he’s an exceptional leader. “Mason has a strong faith and takes a personal interest in all of our customers and employees,” he says. “He’s one of those guys who is always willing to do anything for anybody.”

For instance, Greene doesn’t think twice about picking up a case of drinking glasses from the warehouse on a Saturday and delivering them to a restaurant operator in an emergency. His support is personal as well: He once drove a co-worker who struggled with alcoholism to a rehabilitation center and helped him begin his recovery. 

“The most important thing to me is that my co-workers at H&R know I care about them and want the best for them and the company,” Greene says. “I’ve learned the most by watching my father over the years and seeing how considerate he is of others when making decisions. People respect him for that, and they put their trust in him.”

Looking ahead, Greene’s excited about continuing to invest in technology to make H&R run as efficiently as possible and to grow with the knowledgeable staff who surround him. “We have a lot of people who’ve been with the company longer than I have, and their experience is so important,” he says. “We also have some solid young people who I know are going to make great leaders.” 

To up-and-comers in the industry, Greene suggests getting involved as much as possible. “This industry is overwhelming when you first start out because there’s a lot to learn,” he says. “But if you stick with it and embrace it, you’ll become more valuable and you’ll have an enjoyable, fulfilling career.”



Young Lion - Manufacturers’ Rep
Kevin Eaton
President
Eaton Marketing & Associates Inc.

Clearwater, Fla.



Kevin Eaton believes if you work hard and build quality relationships with your customers, success will follow. He practices this philosophy daily as president of Eaton Marketing & Associates Inc. (EMA), a manufacturers’ rep firm in Clearwater, Fla. He stepped up to lead the team in 2012 and follows in the footsteps of his father, Bob, who founded the firm in 1992. 

Since taking the helm, Eaton has pushed EMA to the forefront of the industry by incorporating leading-edge technology into many facets of the business. He outfitted all of the sales reps with tablets, which they use to access a mobile foodservice sales program called Orgo. The software contains the company’s customer database, quotes, drawings and any other information the sales reps need to successfully complete a job.

Eaton also nurtured the launch of EMA’s social-media infrastructure, complete with LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook accounts, to name a few. The company’s marketing team posts monthly blogs on industry topics and emails dealers and consultants a monthly newsletter, highlighting installations and manufacturers’ products. The various platforms drive business to the EMA website as well as manufacturers’ websites. 

But even as Eaton recognizes the need to embrace technology, he often remembers a tried-and-true lesson his dad taught him: No matter how many times you email or phone a customer, you’re never going to get the same discussion as you would if you sat down and talked with them face-to-face.

“No matter what changes in the industry, it’s still a person- to-person business, and I think that’s refreshing,” Eaton says. “We once took members of a regional pizza chain to a customer’s factory for a face-to-face visit, and we ended up securing the manufacturer as the chain’s supplier.” 

In everyday work life, Eaton’s responsibilities include managing the EMA team, which has grown from 11 to 14 members in the past few years, and overseeing a value-added installation company, Florida Restaurant Equipment Installers. He also serves as EMA’s primary contact for manufacturers and calls on Florida’s consultants.

Ken Schwartz, FCSI, president of SSA Inc., a design and consulting firm in Pinellas Park, Fla., has worked with Eaton on numerous projects and knows his passion for the industry. 

“Kevin is truly one of the hardest-working visionaries in the rep business and an appreciated resource,” Schwartz says. “As a firm working internationally, Kevin avails himself to us on an almost 24-hours-a-day basis, and his commitment and follow-through are paramount to our ability to respond quickly to our clients’ needs.”

Eaton’s drive to succeed partly comes from wanting to prove he has earned his place in his company’s business and that he hasn’t fallen back on his father’s achievements. 

“When covering my dad’s previous accounts, I always wanted them to feel I earned their business and not that I was riding his coattails,” he says. “I once accompanied a dealer who my dad previously worked with on a business trip to Seattle to help him make a meaningful impression on a potential customer. Making that type of trip was not something we often did.”

Eaton’s commitment to the company inspires the EMA sales reps to go above and beyond the call of duty. “We have the most progressive, hardest-working staff in the industry,” he says. “They’re not afraid to work weekends if they have to or do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer and strengthen the company’s reputation.” 

Eaton motivates the sales team by not fretting and by staying positive. His wife, Kay, who also works for EMA, calls him a glass-is-half-full kind of guy.

“I always tell my team, there are no such things as problems; there are opportunities to succeed,” Eaton says. “In everyday business, with the amount of fires there are to put out, you can either let the challenges shake you up or you can meet them head on and look at the positive side and work together through the issue.” 

Jeff Hessel, v.p.-sales at B.S.E. Marketing, a group of manufacturers’ agents in New Hyde Park, N.Y., has represented the same product lines as Eaton and says he shares ideas and understands how to make progress in the face of industry challenges.

“Kevin and I had a joint opportunity to bring a home soda-maker brand to the commercial world,” Hessel recalls. “Kevin immediately hired a dedicated sales person to sell the brand and flew his team to New York to meet with them and our team in an effort to advance the ball quickly.” 

Hessel adds, “Kevin doesn’t let grass grow under his feet when he has a passion; he’s quick to get on a plane and research an opportunity.”

Along with his duties at EMA, Eaton holds the position of 2015 treasurer of the Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry. He has earned his Certified Foodservice Professional credential and will receive his Certified Professional Manufacturers Representative credential in January. 

More than anything, Eaton says, Kay and their two children, Katharine, 12, and Rachel, 7, inspire him to work hard. “I aspire every day to be the best father and husband that I can and to be a good role model for my kids so they know what hard work can do for them in life,” he says.



Young Lion - Commercial Operator
Catherine Helwig
Equipment R&D Project Manager
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Lebanon, Tenn.



Thanksgiving 2013 proved the tipping point that edged Catherine Helwig into the equipment side of the foodservice business. Then general manager of a Cracker Barrel unit in Tampa, Fla., Helwig and the restaurant’s kitchen and serving staff struggled to keep up with the nonstop rush of dine-in and carry-out orders. 

“Cracker Barrel does nearly double or triple its usual volume on Thanksgiving, but in the same footprint with the same equipment,” Helwig says. “We didn’t have enough cooking equipment to keep up, so how were we going to maintain quality while still satisfying our guests?” Throughout the hectic 16-hour day, Helwig kept telling herself, “There’s got to be a better way to use our equipment...”

When she heard about a job opening within the company for an equipment R&D project manager, Helwig, whose nine years with Cracker Barrel include serving as a training and development specialist, jumped at the opportunity. 

“[Equipment R&D Director] Mark Williamson was in charge of shaping the direction of future Cracker Barrel restaurants and improving existing ones,” Helwig says. “And I already knew about issues at existing stores.” Helwig impressed Williamson with her knowledge and drive and subsequently was promoted to equipment R&D project manager in December 2013.

Williamson values the hands-on abilities Helwig brings to the position. “Cathy has the unique ability to leverage her experience as an operator without being married to past processes and protocols,” Williamson says of his protégé. “She also has the courage to be a change agent within our organization.” 

As an example, Williamson points to this year’s initiative on improving plated-food temperatures. A typical Cracker Barrel dishes up as many as 300 covers per hour, but the restaurants’ heated pass-through windows lack the space to keep all of the plates equally hot.

The solution—increasing tray-space in the expo window—may have been simple, but reaching it required Helwig’s insight. 

“It was Cathy’s knowledge of our cooks’ and servers’ behaviors that helped us understand that [merely] increasing the heat-lamp wattages would not [be enough to improve] food-temperature scores,” Williamson says. “We needed to change how the window functioned in concert with improved equipment performance to make a difference.”

The new, 114-in.-wide warming window, now being retrofitted into 297 locations, measures 30-in. deep—some 8 in. deeper than previous versions. “Now, even when trays are lined up two deep, all the food stays hot under the heat lamps,” Helwig says. “Complaints about cold food have dropped by more than 70% at restaurants that have the new equipment.” 

Design and Construction Director David Winter worked closely with Helwig during the retrofit project. “Cathy is efficient, hardworking, organized and detailed in all brand-wide project rollouts,” Winter observes. “She is able to relate to and work with people at all levels within Cracker Barrel and with our vendors. She uses her knowledge of being a restaurant operator with Cracker Barrel to make sound decisions on [behalf of] the operators who serve our guests every day. Cathy also focuses on quality assurance to make sure all her projects are successful.” 

Williamson appreciates Helwig’s pragmatism and common-sense approach to problem solving. “Cathy’s always thinking about what a piece of equipment can do for us now, as well as what it can do for us in the future,” Williamson says. “We had a situation where the menu team wanted to add a new product that required additional refrigeration on the grill line. After reviewing some expensive options, Cathy was able to repurpose an under used sandwich cold rail to come up with an inexpensive solution. The [menu] promotion was rolled out successfully and on time.”

Helwig is helping lead a renewed push toward equipment that uses utilities more efficiently—and in the process has found cost savings in unexpected places. “We’re working with the company’s energy-management team and our vendors to monitor equipment and building energy use to show areas for improvement,” Helwig says. One upgrade currently in the works has involved grills. “We’ve found that switching to steam grills saves significantly on gas but also on cleaning chemicals, thanks to their high-polish surfaces,” Helwig says. 

As one of the few women working the equipment side of Cracker Barrel’s business, Helwig realizes she’s taken on a trailblazer role. “You have to balance being tough without being abrasive,” Helwig says. “A sense of humor is essential; plus, you need to have confidence in yourself and your knowledge.”

Cracker Barrel’s 70,000+ workers may not realize it, but Helwig already is making a difference by speaking up for them at corporate decision-making meetings based on her firsthand knowledge of kitchen and front-of-house work. 

To help smooth the learning curve, Helwig has joined a women’s mentoring group within Cracker Barrel. Helwig also looks forward to attending her first National Restaurant Association and North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers shows in 2015. And at press time, Helwig was two short weeks away from her wedding—but true to form, she had everything under control.



Young Lion - Noncommercial Operator
Zia Ahmed
Senior Director of Dining Services
University Dining Services
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 


Now in his fifth year as senior director of dining services, Zia Ahmed oversees operations at Columbus, Ohio-based The Ohio State Univerisity’s 30+ foodservice outlets, including traditional cafeterias, the Ohio Union dining service, cafe and cart operations and catering, plus foodservice at three regional campuses and two childcare centers. The foodservice department operates on a $56 million annual budget and employs some 2,500 student employees as well as about 240 full-time workers. On top of his Ohio State responsibilities, Ahmed is serving as president of the National Association of College & University Food Services. Additionally, Ahmed will be honored by the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers in February 2015 with a Doctorate of Foodservice. 

Change comes slowly in such a big setting as Ohio State, but that hasn’t stopped Ahmed at all. 

“Obstacles don’t seem to exist for Zia,” says his boss, Gretchen Metzelaars, Ohio State’s senior associate v.p. of student life. “Before Zia arrived, we had three traditional dining operations and several smaller marketplaces,” Metzelaars says. “Zia recognized the duplication of labor taking place as well as upcoming campus-wide changes that would increase residential foodservice operations by about 25%. He finagled the use of half of a warehouse across campus in order to build a 17,800-sq.-ft. central food-production facility. It opened in January ’14.”

The production-kitchen debut set the stage for further foodservice expansion. “We’re building a 900-seat, all-you-care-to-eat dining operation with kitchens covering two floors,” says Ahmed, detailing just a few of the projects he oversees. “We’re also working on a retail foodservice operation that will feature a rotating menu, including sushi, deli, Asian and Mexican. We’re renovating a 12-year-old marketplace concept. Then there’s the new coffee concept—it’ll have its own roasting equipment. The beans will be 100% traceable from their origins; we’ll send student managers to the Honduras to meet the farmers producing the coffee so they understand the entire coffee life cycle.” 

Despite his hectic schedule, Ahmed is very much a hands-on, “let’s do it”-style leader. “Zia persuaded the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to give him a greenhouse they weren’t using so he could grow greens for dining services,” Metzelaars says. When the greenhouse beds were prepared, “Zia came in at 4 a.m. in blue jeans and a sweatshirt with a small team of students and staff, and they planted about a third of an acre of kale, lettuce and herbs. By 6:30 that morning, he was back in the office, in a suit, making coffee as usual for the staff.”

Ahmed also has a gift for conveying his vision to others. In what Metzelaars describes as a “monumental feat,” Ahmed succeeded in debuting the campus’s first food truck. “Shortly after Zia arrived, he saw food trucks in Columbus and wanted to add one to campus,” Metzelaars says. “But he met a lot of resistance from above. Zia managed to educate the Ohio State administration that today’s food trucks are clean, serve healthy food and let you connect with the campus community in many more places. Today, we’re testing one food truck. Judging by the lines it generates, we’ll have more in a year or two.” 

Ahmed believes in bringing the best culinary practices to his school. To that end, he brought on board Lesa Holford, associate culinary director/corporate executive chef.

“Zia coordinated an exploratory trip for the leadership team, chefs and industry peers to tour several Southern California universities as well as authentic Asian and Latin eateries,” Holford shares as just one example of Ahmed’s commitment to building an Ohio State culinary brand. “He also has led the charge for a campaign to help students eat healthier food.” 

The partnership Ahmed is most proud of is his relationship with Ohio State students. “It’s impossible to be in touch with all 2,500 student employees, so we set up a council of students from all areas of campus that meets every three weeks,” Ahmed says. His also is a familiar face at other student meetings, including the Undergraduate Student Government, the Residence Halls Advisory Council, the Council of Graduate Students, groups for Muslim, black and Asian students and so on. “I get text messages from students all the time about the food and more,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed’s mentoring has inspired more than a few students. Prior to his position at Ohio State, Ahmed was not only the director of dining services at The University of Akron (UA) in Ohio but also a professor. Amy Parikakis took Ahmed’s business-management course during her sophomore year at UA. “Zia was by far the best professor I had as an undergrad,” Parikakis says. Two years later, she happened to run into Ahmed at the UA campus rec center. Not only did he remember her, he asked her to apply for a graduate-assistant position in his department at UA. 

“Zia’s leadership and drive have pushed me to be the best I can,” says Parikakis, who later again served under Ahmed as an intern at Ohio State while completing her master’s degree. “I drove [two hours] from Akron to Columbus every Friday just so I could work alongside Zia. It was well worth the time and distance. Being able to learn and grow from a man who inspires, motivates and embraces everything he does is priceless.”

Holford sums up Ahmed’s leadership. “Zia’s unique quality is his ability to engage and inspire others while he gains valuable insight, and his commitment. He encourages team members and students to speak openly about the organization and makes everyone feel like their opinions matter.” 



Young Lion - Consultant
A.J. Barker
Managing Partner and Director of Culinary Brand Development
Think Tank Hospitality Group Inc.
Lynnwood, Wash.



Brimming with energy, A.J. Barker, senior associate FCSI, puts his creative ideas to work as managing partner and director of culinary brand development for Think Tank Hospitality Group Inc., Lynnwood, Wash. The firm specializes in restaurant startups, offering all types of services from concept development to opening. He also spends a quarter of his daily work life as co-founder and director of operations for Container Concepts, Santa Barbara, Calif., where he designs foodservice operations to cleverly fit inside recycled shipping containers.

“Is there a better way to provide food or beverage? Is there a less wasteful way?” Barker asks. “These questions constantly drive me to figure out how to design leaner footprints and smarter kitchens in terms of efficient equipment and ergonomic design.” 

Barker started his foodservice career at 19 while working with Chef Gustav Mauler at Spiedini Ristorante, Las Vegas. He remembers walking past an office door and seeing Gustav and world-renowned architect Paul Steelman, CEO of Steelman Partners, Las Vegas, consulting on a resort they were opening in South Africa.

“As a young cook, watching them work on the project, it made an impression on me, and that’s when I immediately knew I wanted to be a design consultant,” Barker says. “It was the first time I saw an architect and a chef plotting out entire blueprints for a massive resort and doing so from halfway across the world.” 

Barker went on to graduate from the Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), Portland, and since has worked primarily on the West Coast as a chef/consultant. He is an American Culinary Federation certified executive chef and is trained in 13 different cuisines. His diverse background also includes catering festivals, including the Seattle urban music and arts festival Bumbershoot, as well as events at the Gorge Amphitheater, an outdoor concert venue in Quincy, Wash.

Wade Koehler, executive director, Foodservice Consultants Society Int’l.-The Americas, says, “A.J. is more of a foodie than most of our FCSI members; he’s a trained chef first.” The two regularly work together on association activities. Barker participates as a 2014-2015 board member of the group FCSI ICON, which focuses on emerging professional consultants. He also donates time as a chef representative for the association’s “Ask the Experts” tradeshow booths throughout the year. 

“A.J.’s mind is always turning and coming up with ideas to solve complicated problems or to approach common issues in such a way that everyone in the room sees things differently,” Koehler says. “When I visited his office, I couldn’t believe the number of sticky notes hanging on his wall. Each note listed a new, innovative idea.”

Barker recently showcased his creative abilities when he collaborated with Steven Cote, Winnetka, Ill., on a project that earned third place at the 2014 Pioneering Foodservice Concepts competition at the Int’l. Hotel, Motel + Restaurant Show in New York. Called CafeBellas (formerly Healthy Foods Coffee & Tea Co.), the project was a turnkey foodservice kiosk ideal for nontraditional foodservice venues from parks and ski resorts to hotel and hospital lobbies. (Foodservice Equipment Reports is the official media partner of the 2014 Pioneering Foodservice Concepts competition and will publish more on the winning concepts in the January 2015 issue.) 

“We had to create a concept with no kitchen that provided healthy meals and refreshments to [for example] skiers and snowboarders on the top of a mountain,” Barker says. “It was quite a design challenge, and it was on an expedited schedule.”

The group designed a concept that relies on sous-vide cooking techniques to turn out healthy meals remotely. Employees transport fresh meats and vegetables, prepackaged by a nearby subcontractor, to the kiosk and slowly warm the vacuum-packed ingredients to serving temperatures by submerging them in water baths. Barker specified biodegradable servingware that customers can hold while on the move. 

Robb Ferer, co-founder and director of development for Container Concepts, says Barker’s vast knowledge of the industry and his understanding of brand development was why he teamed with him.

“We met with the owners of a newly formed pizza chain this past spring,” Ferer explains. “A.J. used his franchise development and multi-unit experience to help negotiate an agreement where the owners will offer franchisees our containers outfitted as turnkey pizza restaurants.” 

Eric Norman, FCSI, v.p. of MVP Services Group, Dubuque, Iowa, and winner of the 2013 FER Young Lion-Consultant award, also has worked with Barker.

“A.J. is a forward thinker when it comes to his approach to projects,” Norman says. “We were working on a restaurant kitchen design, and A.J. recommended that, instead of doing a traditional cookline with a massive exhaust hood, we use accelerated cooking technologies—induction burners and combi ovens—combined with ventless solutions. The design allowed the operator to plug and play with equipment to support seasonal menu changes and reduced equipment costs.” 

Norman adds, “Because of his culinary background, A.J. was able to translate the operator’s recipes from using traditional cooking equipment to accelerated cooking technologies with ventless solutions.”

Coming up, Barker looks forward to encouraging young professionals to get involved in the industry through his role with the FCSI ICON group. He suggests colleagues reach out to students as early as high school.

“Younger generations have progressive and well-thought-out ideas, and we’re only going to see bigger and better things the earlier we reach these minds,” he says. “When I first started consulting, I never saw anyone under 30 walk in as a client, and today, 40% of them are under 30. It’s important our industry mirrors that shift.”

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