First lady of foodservice

Kathleen Seelye FFCSI LEED AP is an industry icon for good reason. Amelia Levin talked to her about her career, her influences and moving mountains

Everyone knows Kathleen Seelye. And for good reason. In more than 30 years spent in the design business, she’s made a name for herself, for Ricca Newmark and for the aspiring designers that she has helped forge their own paths. And she is a frequent speaker, at countless industry events, giving and receiving awards.

A self-described “Colorado girl” with warm eyes and a constant smile, Seelye is approachable, yet confident. Relationships are the name of the game in this business, and Seelye has proved adept at forging them. Ambitious, prolific and driven are three words often used to describe her.

A deep understanding

She started out as a dealership designer and moved up the ranks to become managing partner at Ricca Newmark, president of FCSI and one of the first FCSI Fellows, despite the challenges posed by being a woman in a predominantly male industry.

A hospitality industry lifer, Seelye took her first job in the industry during college summers as a restaurant server at The Broadmoor Hotel, a five-star resort close to home in Colorado Springs.

It made sense that she would later go on to work for the Westin, clocking up four years of solid operations and management experience. She became a restaurant designer for an equipment dealer, a manufacturer’s rep, and a designer again. Design, she realised, was in her blood.

Seelye credits her strong operational background for the deep understanding and appreciation she has of her clients, which fall mainly in the non-commercial category. “I work on a lot of college and healthcare projects as well as some resorts and corporate accounts – I do a little bit of everything,” she says. “I tend to gravitate to more of the non-commercial projects because in many cases, you get to really work with the operator and their whole team directly, rather than just the contractor.

“I enjoy understanding their vision and challenging them with new ideas, so you can truly feel a part of the transformation that takes place,” Seelye continues. “No matter who writes our paycheck – be it the architect or developer – our real client is the operations team because they are the ones with needs we’re trying to address. We have to put ourselves in their shoes on a daily basis. That’s why I feel it’s so important to have some operational background.”

An architect’s eye

This background, merged with a distinct approach to account work she picked
up at Ricca, has led to Seelye’s success. “I am incredibly fortunate to have Tom Ricca FFCSI as my mentor,” she says. “He is a terrific designer because he helps you see things more holistically. His view is sort of like standing on a chair and looking down on a project. He taught us how to take a look at the entire building before we even think about addressing the kitchen and serving areas.”

In an industry where the views of architects and foodservice consultants can sometimes collide, Ricca takes a markedly more inclusive approach. “As an architect himself, Tom taught us to look at what the architects are looking for and work through those challenges before we even involve the operations team.”

A turning point came for what was formerly Tom Ricca & Associates in early 2001, Seelye says, when exhibition – or open “show” – kitchens exploded as a new trend. “That’s when we merged with a hospitality interior design firm to become Ricca Newmark. We felt the role of the foodservice consultant changed dramatically at that point.”

No typical day

Suddenly, the days of designing all stainless steel kitchens behind closed doors were gone as a new wave of beautiful, entertaining spaces integrating cooking and dining areas took hold. Seelye found the level of culinary experience on the operations side has dramatically increased ever since. “We’re seeing a tremendous influx of teams with actual culinary experience and degrees,” she says. In this Food Network, celebrity chef-obsessed era, consultants need to think more like cooks.

In another turning point at Ricca, Seelye was promoted to managing partner in 2007, one of 10 closely-knit partners and leaders in the firm. Since then, a typical day isn’t so typical any more. “I’m now in charge of overseeing eight studios, including seven in the US and one in China.

“That’s a pretty substantial role in addition to designing projects,” Seelye says, noting she spends about 60% of her time designing and the rest in management mode, which also includes overseeing the marketing, branding and financial profile
of the business.

As a newly LEED Accredited Professional, a prestigious designation that requires hours of study and exams, Seelye found sustainable and “green” building projects becoming her new niche and passion. Building on this momentum, Seelye founded Ricca e2 – Sustainable Culinary Environments, a consultancy specialising in sustainable foodservice planning and design. Through Ricca e2, Seelye has helped slews of operators achieve LEED certification, better manage their energy and water use, beef up their ventilation efficiencies, compost and downsize their waste, and develop effective, long-term strategies for mitigating their costs and environmental impact.

Seelye has also published a number of important guidelines, white papers and other documents on environmental awareness and sustainable planning – particularly in the higher education and healthcare sectors – further demonstrating her constant “giving back”.

Industry trailblazer

For this omnipresence and other reasons, Seelye’s colleagues like to call her Ricca’s own “first lady” – the first woman to serve as FCSI president and fellow and the first woman to become a LEED AP.

In essence, Seelye embodies what every young woman – or any young professional – wants to be. Just as intently as her regular audiences, they listen to her advice, guidance and support; Seelye says she takes extra time to meet regularly with all the interns – many of whom are women. In a predominantly male industry that’s only just beginning to shift, Seelye knows what they’re up against.

Upon first entering the industry, she says, “I applied with a local foodservice design consultant and the person interviewing me clearly didn’t think women were appropriate in the consulting world at the time,” she says. “He told me to stay in the dealer design community where I’d get more support. His remarks upset me so much that I was determined to not only become a foodservice consultant, but a great one.”

For Seelye, attending her first Toastmasters meeting changed her whole career, giving her the confidence to stand up and pitch ideas in front of, not only of a room full of men twice her age, but high-level executives. “Working women of my era were mainly in support roles, as secretaries,” she says. “We weren’t in meetings or conducting meetings. We weren’t standing at the front of the room, helping to create a vision and solve problems; we were there to support the men doing that.”

Part of the importance of gaining that confidence not only served as a way to prove her own worth, it meant being able to “speak with care for the individuals she represents”, she says, noting how personally rewarding that experience can be. “I spend a lot of time at FCSI meetings and am thrilled to see so many more young people coming into our industry.”

Seelye, who has served for years on the association’s educational committee, asks “how do we help them build upon their skills and be what they want to be? In many ways, they are very different than the generation I was raised in, and they seem to have a more natural sense of confidence and courage.”

Seelye is no stranger to being a protégé. In addition to Tom Ricca, Seelye gives a nod to FCSI peer John Cini FFCSI, then the CEO of Cini-Little International, as having an influential impact on her career.

Around the time Ricca Newmark completed its merger, Seelye was approached by a large, international hotel group to work in its design division. “It was a really difficult decision for me because it was a huge opportunity to work on some very large global projects,” she says. Torn over the decision, she called Cini, who spent hours over multiple phone calls coaching her through the potential pros and cons of leaving. Ultimately, he helped her realise the greater potential of working as an entrepreneurial designer, rather than a designer in a large company.

“Even though many of your FCSI peers are actually your competitors, they become your true friends you can count on throughout your career.”

As the first female president of FCSI in 1995, Seelye introduced and focused on a long-term master-planning project whereby the board would serve as advocates for the society’s members. “It was a new era,” she says, noting the expanded integration with the European division.

In 2001, Seelye was nominated and inducted into the FCSI Council of Fellows. “It was such an honour to be the first woman and I have learned so much from other FCSI fellows,” she says, noting that her role has shifted from advisory to one focused more on long-term educational planning and programming.

“Just in the last couple of years, FCSI has done a wonderful job in understanding to stay in close connection with the membership across the divisions and focus on the network we have worldwide,” Seelye adds.

“Having an FCSI brand behind my name is important, but only if you’re willing to help maintain the standards for that brand. In turn, those standards have paid back – in new opportunities, connections, friends and partners.”

Seelye has dealt with more than just the challenges that come with any career. A little over 10 years ago while driving, she was hit head-on by a drunk driver and nearly paralysed after the oncoming car’s engine landed on her feet and legs.

Undergoing several rounds of surgery and unable to walk for months, Seelye fought through the pain of trying to draw and travel for her work. Anyone could easily be brought down by an event like this, except Seelye, of course. Not only would she walk regularly again, she would go on to hike to the top of a mountain.

When her two older sisters, who had hiked Everest, decided to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro, she was in. After two years of recovery and diligent training, including climbing 14,000ft Colorado peaks as “practice,” she did it. She is now planning another climb in South America.

It’s this stamina that has propelled Seelye’s prolific involvement in a series of activities away from work and FCSI. One of her prouder moments was serving as one of the founding judges for the prestigious Kitchen Innovations (KI) award programme – that have now been running for eight years, and counting. Seelye says, “The people in this group are some of the brightest in the industry. You really have to keep up with the best of the best to be a part of KI and it helps to continuously reinvigorate you.”

Seelye also represents the foodservice industry as a participant in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Executive Energy Leadership Program, an invitation-only committee that looks for ways to create renewable energy opportunities in markets around the world.

Because that isn’t enough, Seelye, a strong NAFEM supporter, has also served on the association’s Customer Advisory Task Force, which focuses on future markets as an aid for manufacturers to respond to opportunities for new and improved equipment.

These days, it takes more than just experience, expertise and education to be a successful consultant. Every day Seelye finds she must walk that fine line between meeting the client’s needs and challenging them. “There is such a sense of excitement to be able to not only deliver the product that the client is looking for, but engage in an interactive process where clients feel they have been a part of the entire experience,” Seelye says. “We are truly a hands-on firm, in some cases spending all day with our clients designing spaces and selecting equipment and scheduling installations and follow-ups. That to me is the key to success. It’s not the moment you open the door to the final product that is the most rewarding for myself or the client, it’s every moment working up to the opening of that door.”

So what are Seelye’s next “doors”? Growing Ricca Newmark’s business, particularly overseas; a renewed focus in Ricca e2, and taking on more sustainability projects; hiking another mountain, and continuing to mentor the next generation of foodservice designers while giving back to the foodservice community.

The Summit at the Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado
The Summit at the Broadmoor Resort, Colorado


The Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, Colorado

“This is a spectacular five-star resort. I grew up within a few blocks of the resort and was a waitress there during college summer holidays. Renovating the Broadmoor’s old kitchens meant a great deal to me, as three generations of my mother’s family were connected with the hotel. My favourite restaurant at the resort was The Tavern because it had the property’s first exhibition kitchen and The Summit because of its spectacular views of the nearby mountains.”

Keystone Resort, Keystone, Colorado

“We designed the AAA Four-Diamond resort’s Alpenglow Stube restaurant with Celebrity Chef Bradley Ogden. The project was especially challenging due to its accessibility issues during construction – the resort is located 11,444ft up at the top of the North Peak (which actually was one of my favourite parts about the project because I often preferred to hike to the summit instead of using the transport [snow]cats. Food cooked at this elevation is often unpredictable due to the high altitude and requires several modifications. My son was later married at this location on the most beautiful porch in Colorado.”

The NACUFS and Healthcare Food and Nutrition Services Sustainability Guides 

“These two, 350-plus page books were co-authored by myself and Peg Rodger FCSI, RD,  as the first operator-focused, environmental planning guides in the foodservice industry. The step-by-step guides provide a detailed look at 12 areas where operators can create green programmes on campuses, from better food purchasing practices to energy and waste water management, recycling and reuse of materials, chemical use and pollutants and others. The guides are also the product of Ricca e2, my WBE certified (Woman Business Enterprise) business specialising in Sustainable Planning. As one of the first LEED-accredited foodservice consultants, sustainability is especially important to me.”

Amelia Levin

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