The FCSI Interview: Arlene Spiegel FCSI

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Arlene Spiegel’s tremendous experience in hospitality has given her a tremendous insight into how to put customers first, reports Amelia Levin

For Arlene Spiegel FCSI, it’s all about the people. And the processes, but more about that in a bit.

Growing up in a restaurant family helped instill this sense of hospitality in its purest form. “My brother and I were routinely put to task peeling carrots and making deliveries,” says Spiegel, whose father and uncles owned and operated restaurants in New York. “We were indoctrinated at a young age with the understanding that the customer comes first, even before holidays and weekends and special events.”

Years later, Spiegel would put this understanding to practice as a restaurant owner herself. As a highly sought-after consultant, putting her clients first has always been the name of the game. But, there are other important people too; the ‘Associates’ in Arlene Spiegel & Associates refers to the many subject matter experts, including architects, developers, investors, attorneys, chefs, branding and marketing professionals, and even other consultants, who Spiegel regularly brings into each project.

Together, the best people produce the best results. “You can’t be a genius all by yourself,” she says. Even her company tagline states: “We have the tools, the people and the network to help clients every step of the journey – from the concept to the opening of a memorable and successful business.”

Having a strong, “boots on the ground” operations background is just one of Spiegel’s strengths that has given her an edge in the consulting world, and that has helped her build a 100% referralbased, extremely prolific business. “You need that real-world knowledge of what to do when your ice machine breaks down and the manager doesn’t show up, or they put construction in front of your restaurant and guests can’t get into the front door,” she says.

Forging new dreams

Spiegel’s foray into restaurant ownership began when her original dreams changed. “I always liked business and had dreams of being an attorney, but I got married and had children and life plans changed,” she says. “I found myself needing to make money to put food on the table, and what I knew how to do quickly was run a restaurant and feed people.”

She opened Garden of Eating in Queens, New York, with a menu that catered to the then burgeoning healthy eating movement. This time in the restaurant world, though, she would do things a little different than previous generations. Instead of literally counting cash in the register to see if there was enough left over for food and necessities, she took a more business-minded approach and developed systems, processes and procedures to better track sales, train and manage employees, and run a more structured operation.

The approach worked; Spiegel was able to expand her concept with additional locations, and she even earned the Small Business Woman of the Year and The Pacesetters Award from the US Small Business Administration.

“The next thing you know, I was writing ‘how to’ columns for Restaurant Business magazine, and as a result of that exposure, started to get requests from other restaurant operators asking me to help them with their businesses,” says Spiegel, who adds that this work allowed her to apply the protocols she had already tested by running her own operation to other restaurant operations. This was the beginning of her path in consulting.

“At some point, I realized that I enjoyed the consulting more than I did being in operations,” she says. Today, as a highly sought-after industry consultant, Spiegel’s client list spans the gamut. She works with all types of restaurant and hospitality businesses, including independent restaurants, corporate chains, major hotels, academic and cultural institutions, real estate developers, and casinos and other gaming and entertainment businesses – both nationally and internationally. In addition, she has developed cafes and restaurants for boutique and national groceries and specialty food stores.

Though she regularly receives many referrals, Spiegel focuses on answering what she calls the “5 C” questions to make sure the client is the right fit. The first ‘C’ is the Client – is this someone Spiegel wants to work with? The second is the Concept – does the idea have legs?  The third is Commitment – is the client committed and has done the required homework? The fourth is Culture – what kind of business does the client want to grow? The fifth is Capital – does the client have the money to take on this project?  If all of those things fall into place, “I’ll take on the project regardless if it’s working on a hot dog stand or a master plan for a developer; every single project deserves the full spectrum of attention,” says Spiegel.

Developing concepts

Spiegel has worked with well-known respected businesses, including SeaWorld, Cherokee Nation Casinos, Ford Foundation, Anheuser-Busch, Hill Country Barbecue, Saratoga Raceway, R House in Miami, The Pennsy Food Hall, Brookfield Place, Havana Central, University of California-Davis, and Myron’s Delicatessen for The Isle of Capri Casino.

In collaboration with the New York Racing Association and its foodservice operations team, Spiegel developed the food and beverage concepts at the historic 1863 Clubhouse at Saratoga Raceway. The $30m, three-story, 36,000 sq ft structure with a gleaming copper roof was built on the space next to the 91-year-old clubhouse that has also long been the home of the At the Rail Pavilion dining tent.

She also collaborated on the development and launch of The Pennsy,  a New York-centric food hall in a former Borders Book Store space in Penn Station, where no on-site cooking was allowed. Spiegel worked with star chefs, developed the operating standards for the management team and helped the landlord with lease agreements with the various vendors.

For the media giant Hearst Corporation, Spiegel designed a high-end food program in the new global headquarters. This included Cafe 57, executive dining and conference rooms, and the incorporation of menus from the various Hearst publications including O, The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping.

For Brookfield Place, Spiegel worked with a team of consultants to develop the retail and restaurant master plan for Brookfield Properties. Working alongside architects, kitchen designers, engineers and marketing professionals, Spiegel developed an array of exciting restaurant and market concepts for tenants and neighborhood visitors. She also worked with internal retail specialists to maximize rent revenues.

For the newly built Cornell Tech, an academic tech center on Roosevelt Island, New York, Spiegel collaborated with engineers, architects, project consultants and sustainability consultants to develop a proprietary, net-zero carbon footprint food program. “For every piece of equipment I specified I was reminded how many trees would need to be planted to offset the energy drain,” she says. “Menu engineering  became the driving force on this project.”

Working with a major convenience store chain has also helped shape the way Spiegel consults her restaurant and hospitality clients. “The way [convenience stores] evaluate space gave me such an eye-opener,” she says. “Every square inch needs to perform. You must look at your space and see if it sells something or says something about your brand. If you’re not looking at vertical merchandising and traffic flow and wayfinding and site lines and making sure the customer sees all the opportunities to engage with your brand, then you’re missing out. Most consultants don’t look at space in that way, but at the end of the day, you must make a sale or create a memory.”

Fostering culture

At one point, Spiegel served as director of the global food and beverage practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which helped her add a more global perspective to her consulting toolbox. “I learned how to work with banks, investors, M&A specialists and provide more guidance to my clients to help them scale their businesses,” she says.

One of Spiegel’s favorite sectors in which to work is product development. Some of the products Spiegel has developed include Chloe’s Fruit, Something Good to Eat signature soups, Alfredo’s Original Pasta Sauce and Hu Kitchen chocolates. “I try to identify a signature sauce, dip, salad dressing, spice rub or marinade that a restaurant is known for and bring it to market,” she says.

“With every project I take on, I try to see what I can learn from it,” she says. “I am in a constant state of curiosity and want to share things I have learned with my clients.”

While it’s not listed on any scope of work, Spiegel says she is committed to improving the working environment and to foster a wholesome culture in every organization with which she works. “One of the greatest joys I get out of working on projects, and which is very much a throwback to when I operated my own restaurant, is seeing employees grow in an organization,” she says. “I have seen one employee start out as a dishwasher and now he owns 10 restaurants in New Jersey. When I go back to visit a client and see a server who is now regional developer for the chain, I feel like I have made a positive difference because I have helped make someone’s life better.”

Last year, when the pandemic hit, Spiegel – like her clients – had to pivot,  and develop new ways to adapt to sudden change. She developed a program called ‘Come Back Strong’ for her restaurant, entertainment, catering, and hospitality clients who were deeply impacted by canceled events and closed-down dining rooms. The program focused on tackling key initiatives: including menu engineering, takeout and delivery programs, safety and sanitation protocols, marketing, social media strategies, exploring new businesses opportunities, and optimizing cash-flow and labor productivity.

“Above all, the clients realized they didn’t have to figure it out all by themselves and I would be their tour guide and trusted friend to get them through this time,” she says. “[The program] was very successful, and I still receive thanks from clients who survived this past year.”

Spiegel also helped her restaurant and catering clients connect with local hospitals, schools, police and fire stations and other intuitions to feed the public while keeping employees engaged. “[The hospitality industry] demonstrated that it’s possible to have something bad happen and turn it into something good. It was very inspiring to see,” she says.

Value in education

Personally, for Spiegel, the pandemic afforded her more time to take advantage of continuing education, including educational opportunities offered by FCSI that helped her earn her Continuing Education Units (CEU) credits. “It’s been so great to hear about what’s going on in different segments of the industry through webinars and podcasts and  virtual visits to showrooms and food suppliers,” she says. In the 20 plus years as a member of FCSI, they were never more valuable than 2020.

Spiegel remains proud of her work mentoring women. “When a group of women pioneers got together many years ago, we founded the first chapter of The Women in Foodservice,” she says. “We had no roadmap academically or professionally on how to create our own businesses or launch products. We knew we would be successful as a group when our goal was to not have to have a separate women’s association anymore because that would mean equal opportunity had been achieved.”

Spiegel admits that she could “go on for hours” in talking about the restaurant industry and its future. “I’m very high on the hospitality industry; I relish and am excited by it,” she says. “The fact that people have given me the privilege and honor of allowing me to help make their dreams come true or solve their problems, is the most meaningful work you can ask for, and I am so grateful to be a part of it.”

Amelia Levin