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Consultancy focus: Culinary Advisors

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Culinary Advisors has a host of US government projects – among many others – under its belt. Amelia Levin learns how it got into the government groove

When they started their firm in 1993, designer Michael Pantano FFCSI and marketing guru Angela McPhaul were both looking for a change after many years at Cini-Little. The third part of the equation was Bonnie Zietlow FCSI, who was working for Aramark at the time.

“Angela and I worked really well together, and she was bringing in a boatload of work for Cini,” says Pantano. Angela admits she “brought the Rolodex” (but not a single active project) when she and Pantano decided to strike out on their own. Now, she does everything but design, including many marketing tasks. Zietlow has since retired, though she stays involved with some projects. Another team member, Suzanne Barr FCSI was with the firm for 22 years before retiring.

That first year in business, the group hit the ground running, even with a pregnant McPhaul and just a few thousand dollars in the bank. With purposeful majority ownership by McPhaul and Zietlow, the government trajectory came about in part because of their status as a woman-owned business. Initially, they self-certified, which was allowed at the federal level. “Many states don’t have set asides for minority- and woman-owned businesses, but Maryland is an incredibly progressive state and as far back as the 1990s required that 10-15% of projects be filled by these businesses,” McPhaul says.

“The feds started to pay attention to woman-owned businesses at that time,” says Pantano, which sort of killed the competition for those government projects and bumped Culinary Advisors and other women and minority owned businesses to the top of the list. Once they completed a few government projects, the repeat projects just continued to pour in. And get this, McPhaul says Culinary Advisors wound up winning even more projects when it was revealed that a few of these other so-called woman-owned businesses were actually run by men, but in their wives’ names. “That’s why it was important for us to truly be a 66% woman-owned business,” she notes.

Pantano points out that for all the work they have had in the government sector, the firm has completed just as many projects in all segments of the foodservice industry, including healthcare, K-12, college/university and B&I, and has completed many renovations for restaurants and bars.

“We pride ourselves on the good reputation we have and on our loyal clients,” he says. “To this day our very first client is still a client.” It has helped that the principals at Culinary Advisors have focused on being generalists so that when a segment is hot, they don’t lose all of their business when it’s not.

Government work

At the start of September 2001, Culinary Advisors was awarded the opportunity to renovate the foodservice programs in four of the five wedges at the Pentagon. Just a week later one of the wedges was destroyed during the tragic events of 9/11.

The project was temporarily put on hold. However, once the building was rebuilt it was back on and became a 10-year project that catapulted the firm into more government work. When the Department of Homeland Security opened up with 8,000 employees, Culinary Advisors was brought on board for that department. That led to work at the US Capitol, other federal agency headquarters and office campuses, and high security projects Pantano says he can’t even mention.

All this also led to more embassy work (the first project had come along in 1994 in Kampala, Uganda) for which Pantano put together a master foodservice design standards document in 2008. This enables the Department of State to easily recreate programs around the world. Pantano has never once had to leave the country to do the embassies; the government uses that master plan and its own resources and local contacts to source and install the equipment. In all, the firm has completed 75 major government projects, but they continue to come through the doors.

Forward vision

With the approaching retirement of Zietlow and Barr, the founders hired Laura Lentz FCSI, but prior to that there hadn’t been a firm succession plan in place. “We initially decided that we would toss the keys to Angela, split up our percentages and turn off the lights,” says Pantano. “Our succession plan was zero.”

But then they had second thoughts and with Lentz on board there was more longevity in the business. Pantano, Zietlow and McPhaul wanted to maintain their status as a woman-owned business and set out to look for a woman who was seasoned in the business, but had room to grow and who could eventually take over the company. Pantano and Zietlow ended up sitting next to Lentz, then the director of design at Cini-Little, at an industry event and were impressed with her. After nine years at Cini, she joined Culinary Advisors in 2016 after looking for a life change that would offer her more potential to develop.

A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and with a background in hospitality and events, Lentz also brought with her a deep knowledge in the corporate sector, having completed many B&I projects. She has also worked on projects in other areas, including healthcare, sometimes swapping projects with Zietlow to learn about that sector. She could be working on as many as 30 or more projects at one time.

The firm is now set up so Lentz and Pantano each maintain their own design studio focused on their own projects with a growing support staff knowledgeable in project management, BIM and spec writing.

When it comes to the future, Lentz says she definitely sees changes happening in the B&I sector, with more companies moving away from traditional serveries of the past and looking more toward food halls and markets equipped with modern technologies such as online ordering, kiosks, self-service and cashless checkouts and designs that cut down on long lines and congestion and offer a more “grazing” feel. Take her recent Capital One headquarters project, for example. She also ensures the firm does more with Revit and 3D modeling.

She’s also excited about what the future holds for her. “Personally, the opportunity as a woman to own my own company is what drives me,” she says. “Mike is a huge supporter in that, and we are at an exciting stage.”

Lentz, who had her second child earlier this year, also enjoys the work-life balance she’s achieved with Culinary Advisors. “It sounds cheesy, but this is an enjoyable and happy place to work,” she says. Indeed, McPhaul says the firm has made increased investments, not only in hiring more support staff, but in offering better benefits, including health, disability, 401k, and maternity leave.

Pantano says: “We try to take care of these talented people who have a long future ahead of them. I think that bodes well for Culinary Advisors’ long-term health. I would love to see this company become, if not the largest firm in size, the most successful in terms of quality.”

Amelia Levin