With an award-winning career advising on cutting-edge foodservice concepts for multinational companies, Karen Malody FCSI tells us how it started when she decided to quit social work
Karen Malody exemplifies that sometimes following your dreams actually is the way to go. She always loved food but didn’t originally choose that as her career path. Instead, she became a psychiatric social worker. In a career with a high burnout rate Malody worked in the particularly difficult sector of crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
“I realised my emotional structure did not align with a job that needed me to be both compassionate, yet appropriately distanced,” she recalls, “I left my job – from an agency I had co-founded, so it was a tough choice – sold everything and went to Europe alone for six months. During this trip I realised that food and culinary ethnology were my true passions. What people eat, the history of why they eat it and how they prepare and share food is a lifelong fascination and study.”
She decided to start at the bottom and learn the food industry from the ground up. So, she did just that, working as a cheese expert in a cheese shop then, in 1977, opening and running a catering firm and cooking school.
The cooking school drew quite a few chefs in the Seattle area and later, in 1989, she joined the large Seattle restaurant group Satisfaction Guaranteed Eateries to run their menu development.
After that she had a stint with Larry’s Markets (an upscale grocery store chain) before joining the Seattle mecca, Starbucks, as their food and beverage director in 1993. She later served as menu development director.
She was there when the Frappucino was created. “It was a fascinating project – to take something that a store partner had made up during a hot California summer and commercialise it into a product that could be blended and remain in suspension in the cup,” she says. “We then developed several flavours. The operations folks were apoplectic, both because of the noise of the blenders, and the labour distraction created by the drink’s popularity. It was the start of a new era of drinks and processes for the company.”
Working hand in hand
With all that experience behind her, she decided it was time to launch her own consultancy, and in 1997 Culinary Options was born. Malody runs the operation, with her husband, Charles Malody consulting on bar design and drink development.
Her consultancy focuses on the menu development side, helping restaurants create overall concepts and execute menus. “There can be some frustration with that,” she says. “So many times other consultants are hired to design kitchens without a menu or culinary concept in place. I wish I could work more collaboratively with the design people – they really go hand in hand.”
Although she does collaborate from time-to-time, one of her biggest frustrations is that many people don’t know consultants like her exist. She is often hired via a referral from another project or from equipment manufacturers.
“People will go to manufacturers because they’ve fallen in love with equipment at a show,” she says. The manufacturers will then recommend someone like her to make sure people know how to cook with the equipment they purchase. It can be a struggle when there is no menu or concept in place prior to the build-out and then the operators have no idea how to operate equipment or choose menu items that make sense.
“Before I hand a project over to an operator or design consultant I pass along a detailed menu, outline of the type of cooking required, and even recommend some of the equipment. It really helps the design consultant to have that type of information,” Malody explains.
The best advice she ever received from an executive coach was that it’s important to love and care about your clients. Running Culinary Options solo, she has to be picky – she can only take on so many clients. So, while she’s not necessarily selective in the type of arena, she tries to assess whether the client is a good fit. Her experience has been in commercial restaurants, but she also enjoys working with clients such as hotels, business and industry, colleges and universities, grocery and meal delivery services.
She has landed some interesting projects, starting with a Seattle pizzeria in the early 2000s that really put her work on the map. Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria was looking to become the first pizzeria in the Pacific Northwest to get the rigorous certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
To make sure she was helping owner Joe Fugere follow the strict protocols, she herself became certified, a move that would help her later in her career on pizzeria projects across the country. Malody earned the Management Advisory Award for Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in 2004 and it was also recognised at the National Restaurant Association show as a “hot concept”.
As she continued to work with pizzerias across the country Malody learnt a key hallmark of meal planning; different parts of the country have different menu must-haves whether it be sweet tea in the South or Cuban coffee in Miami.
Her first exposure to the non-commercial side of the food business came with a huge project for Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation in 2011.
The company was going through a campus renovation in East Hanover, New Jersey. The client wanted to abolish the typical corporate cafeteria, and instead add restaurants to their campus. The management team needed someone who understood the restaurant and menu piece for this project so Malody was brought in.
She worked with various FCSI kitchen designers and she provided menu concepts and detailed directions for equipment to execute these menus properly. Outside restaurateurs were brought in for the three concepts, which Malody believes are all still operating today.
“This was a critical project for me, and ultimately altered much of my consulting, as it was a first foray into non-commercial work,” she remembers, “I learnt the unique challenges that non-commercial operators face, and it confirmed what I had always believed: that no matter the foodservice setting or environment, everyone needs to be attentive to concept development and menu content.”
In 2013 she took skills from that project to help Amazon create their foodservice concepts during a two-year project for several buildings they were constructing to accommodate 50,000 employees.
“They wanted to revolutionise their campus dining. Their desire was to strike the word ‘cafeteria’ from their midst and isolate multiple potential restaurant concepts that would be appropriate to their employee demographics and organisational culture, she explains, “They wanted the concepts to be both unique and on trend without competing with the various retail foodservice concepts that were also going to be housed at the street level of their buildings.”
This was a challenge, but Malody worked with Innovative Hospitality Solutions and Hammer Design Associates to submit 40 different concepts. The team ultimately decided to build out 25 of those concepts – with Malody providing background narratives, conceptual menus and equipment needs – including a Peruvian chicken concept, panini place, bibimbap, and Mediterranean.
A more recent project in 2016-2017, was the chance to develop a fast-casual concept for Holiday Inn of Americas. The hotel chain wanted to utilise their limited labour force, which didn’t have a high skill set in the kitchen, to create food guests would love. They brought in technology that would allow this to happen while still serving three meals a day.
Work hard, play hard
Malody has gained work opportunities from being an FCSI member, but her participation in the organisation goes much deeper. The collaboration with colleagues, mentorship, learning opportunities and networking have allowed her to excel professionally.
She is most appreciative of the lifelong friendships she’s made along the way too. She received the FCSI Service Award for contributions to the organisation as well as the previously mentioned Management Advisory Award.
Since Malody is charged with developing menus across the country, she is also aware of all of the trends popping up in foodservice spaces across the country. She sees the role of the foodservice consultant to be much more multi-faceted than it used to be with consultants needing a broad knowledge base in everything from technology to packaging (with the rise of delivery). No longer are menus just designed for dining in.
She’s also seeing a continuation of plant-centred eating and more nutrition dense eating as well. “People will start asking more questions around things being nutritionally sound,” she predicts. That doesn’t mean that food won’t be flavourful. Spice-forward, bold global cuisine will continue to proliferate in the dining space. One of the biggest changes will be a smaller kitchen footprint. Look for “very focused concepts”, whether it be Japanese cheesecake or pupusas (a cornmeal flatbread from El Salvador), where organisations can utilise technology and lower labour costs.
And although Malody takes her job seriously she enjoys extra-curricular activities. In fact, she is an avid dragon boat paddler – to hear her talk about it is to gain insight into why she has built a successful consultancy career.
“Dragon boat racing has allowed me to realise that my capabilities are not limited to preconceptions about what I can or can’t do. It pushes me and allows me to build both inner and outer strength. The camaraderie with fellow paddlers is fabulous. Great friendships have been formed. It is hard work. But I love hard work – and staying strong.”