CVI-Orlando

Business Culture, Prime Directives, and killing John Connor

I got sent this email yesterday, which was one I’d sent some three years ago while at CVI-Orlando. At the time we were six months into a $2 million renovation, and working concertedly to establish a new culture.

When you’re trying to build culture, it’s important to be honest and authentically one’s self. People loathe artifice and inherently move away from it. This email happens to be “me” in written form, and I think it was evident of something that’s worked for me over the years. People know it’s not just some corporate policy I’m being forced to endorse while a concealed derringer burrows into the small of my back, but something I full-throatily support.

I offer it here at as an unedited look, an example, of how I believe in communicating with my teams. Also, I just really crack myself up and I can’t get enough of my choice of analogy here. How great is that hipster John Connor meme?

Big thanks to Larry for 1. Having kept this all these years, and 2. For thinking of me enough to send it to me now. It was a nice laugh during a really busy time and a great glimpse of some of the most fun I’ve had during my career.

Ourmission

ourmission2

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Short Doesn’t Mean ‘Memorable’…

I had a realization today, as I addressed about a dozen members of our “Bistro 106” staff and it was this:

Company culture best gets communicated through the stories we tell.

We have this sign posted in a few places around the community – namely on the inside of doors from the kitchen to the dining room. Each person there probably touches it 20 times per day. Yet, no one could name all six words of the mission statement. Yes, I said ‘six WORDS’.

Short doesn't necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Short doesn’t necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Please know, I take full responsibility for this.

A culture that doesn’t get talked about – that doesn’t have stories told about it – won’t spread.

Realizing this, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.  So I explained how we’d come up with these six words and in this combination: It was because NOT doing these three things was the source of all of our problems, at every level of our organization.

I offered specifics on all the unprofessional, buck-passing, value-crushing things we’d done in the past. It wasn’t pretty, and many of our newer recruits (say 50%) were surprised to hear that this had been the case. The veterans just nodded their heads and recalled how bad things had been. Not that they’re perfect now – in fact, that was partly the reason for this meeting – to take us from a “rules culture” to a “philosophical” one. A culture where people’s passions were aroused and their minds dwelled on their work.

I told stories about two versions of our business: one in which we hold these key components in our hearts and our brains every moment, and another version where we did whatever we wanted. Not hard to imagine how these two worlds would look after a short while.

Nearly as bad was the version in which everyone was simply a wage-slave and wasn’t permitted to think or act for the greater goals of our company. What a miserable life that would be.

In fact, I told them all that if I couldn’t enjoy what I did for a living, I would:
1. Seek to change it for the better through action and suggestions.    If that didn’t work I’d have to…
2. Find work elsewhere, or if that was somehow impossible I’d…
3. Kill myself.

Actually, that last one is a little drastic, but I use the hyperbole for effect. It’s that important to me – people ought to enjoy what they spend the overwhelming majority of their time doing! Anything else is insanity.

Sure, more rules and “Carrot & Stick” management can get any group to be better, but it has it’s limits. It’s rooted in the industrial revolution’s relationship between labor and management. Toyota has long since shown that even for cranking out widgets, it’s a poor model for running a team. Then why should we use it for running people who are supposed to surprise and delight our clients.

I always hated meetings where a group gets yelled at for what a few have failed to do properly. In fact, I hate groups. I love teams, but I hate groups. I’ll always prefer to have a meeting with a team and get them excited about the things we need to do to succeed. When you do this, the carrots and the sticks take care of themselves.

If You Build It: Leasing Through Better Meals?

One of the most interesting things about CVI-Orlando (Collegiate Village Inn) is that we have a dining hall and meal plans. NO ONE in off-campus student housing markets have these things – and for good reason. The cost to build a commercial kitchen and dining hall are staggering and the space they consume could be used for rentable units. Nowadays if you want a meal plan you outsource the operation to a 3rd party meal plan company of which there are many.

modern on-campus dining options

Our chief competition - on-campus dining halls of the 21st century

Fortunately for us, CVI was built 20 years ago when UCF had virtually no on-campus housing and the surrounding area in general was sparsely populated/built up. Originally, CVI housed mainly football players and other athletes and with food costs being what they were, it obviously made financial sense to serve meals in-house. Does it still make sense? What are the margins? Can a café’/meal plan serving 400+ students daily be profitable?

Apologies, but you’ll need some rough numbers to get this next part of the challenge. I know, stats are a killer for these blogs but they’re absolutely required. I promise to be gentle.

Plans are included with the monthly rental rates. Here are the meals per week we serve with the corresponding percentage of the community that has selected that option. Differences in price between the plans is about $30 per month. Again, these numbers are only an example:

Any 7   MPW                17% of Students

Any 14  MPW                23% of Students

Any 21 MPW                60% of Students

Any idea what the redemption rate is on meals? That’s the number of meals we actually serve each week compared with how many we’re responsible to provide under these terms. Go ahead and guess a percentage. I’ll tell you a little later.

The largest initial challenge regarding the café’ was figuring out what being successful there meant. I mean, serve great food and have an amazing experience and more meals get eaten. More meals consumed means greater cost, means less profit. Also, the number one factor in people choosing us is the meal plan so if you skimp on quality and cut costs you kill your number one area for adding value. You can see the dichotomy rearing it’s 9 hydra-like heads with its hankering for filet mignon and strawberry blintzes, can’t you?

Before we could do much of anything we had to establish how many meals we were responsible for and how many were being consumed. What were our costs per meal? Believe it or not we had only estimates. Sure, people “signed in” to redeem their meals but the numbers were never compiled as there were around 3000 meals served weekly and who had time to count up all those hash marks?

We made a new excel spreadsheet which pulled directly from our day-to-day occupancy report which also reflected the current meal plan option. This gets updated weekly and the host stand uses this to verify the number of meals consumed for each Student. At the end of the week we click the hash marks into the electronic version and it auto tabulates the meals consumed by day/meal/plan type, and gives us our redemption rate. After two months of solid data it turns out it’s about 45%. So if we’re on the hook for, say 5000 meals in a week, we’ll likely only serve 2250. That’s about 321 per day, or closer to 370 M-F and 200 on Sat/Sundays.

It’s my belief that the best way to succeed at anything is to start with a picture of what the best possible way to succeed would look like. If Donald Trump and Bobby Flay teamed up to do a venture that looked like this place, what would they do? What would the food look like? What does the right mix of; delicious, cost effective, fast, nutritious, visually appealing, and convenient dining, look like? How do you brand an in-house cafeteria and make it more than a school lunchroom without dropping a quarter million in the process?

Bobby Flay really likes that chicken, yo!

Would Bobby Flay have the same thoughts about our chicken?

We knew that listening to Resident feedback was a huge part of this endeavor. People (especially our female students) wanted healthier options, and more accurately – more visual appeal from our healthy options. We had to focus on being less utilitarian and more customer-centric. We could do this. We could also do it for less money if we were smart.

Fewer burgers and more to-go mandarin orange-sesame salads. Out with “café” as the generic name – we were now “Bistro 106.” Complete with a new logo. BTW, the “106” comes from CVI being 106 in roman numerals – clever, right? I wish I could take credit but alas I cannot.

We eliminated deserts as we couldn’t do them well and they were going uneaten. In their place was a ton more fresh fruit – strawberries, melons, pineapple. We began Mongolian Grill nights on Wednesdays with presentation tables while we show classic Kung-Fu movies on a big screen. These became a huge hit. We closely paid attention to waste and reduced it through observing eating trends and predicting with great accuracy how many meals we’d go through on a given day.

Not all decisions were popular and we’re always working out the kinks. People miss their deserts so we do them a couple of nights a week now and in exchange for checking in on Foursquare to help promote the “Bistro 106” brand. It may not be every night, but it is of a much higher quality and we’re proud of that fact. One of our team members lamented the loss of pepper-jack cheese. Many still wish we had more vegetarian/vegan options. We’re still figuring out exactly what we are in terms of a fast-casual dining experience and we’re hoping our latest innovation will help.

Eat & Tweet

We want your feedback so badly we'll even embrace Twitter!

Starting this week we’re rolling out “Eat & Tweet” where through table-tents we’re encouraging Residents to give us real-time feedback on the food/experience through sending a message to @bistro106 or #bistro106. Those that do will automatically be entered to win a weekly prize valued at around $25. We’re fanatical about feedback and want to know the whole story so we can be our best.

In future posts I’ll fill you in on some of the specific changes we’re making to food/purchasing/processing, etc… and what mix and metrics we settle on as our ideal benchmarks. If you’re in the neighborhood (University and Alafaya in Orlando) come see us and have a meal at Bistro 106 on me!

“If you build it…” …creating a Property Management company from scratch.

For the past 5 months I’ve been building a (non-affiliated) Student Housing Property Management company from scratch in Orlando, FL serving UCF and Full Sail students. Going forward I’ll be using this space to relate some of the challenges and solutions we come across in that pursuit. I guess you need a few details to understand exactly what I’m about to get into…

The asset at focus is across the street from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!) and houses about 400+ students in an off-campus, dormitory-style setting. The community is known as CVI-Orlando, or more formally: Collegiate Village Inn. It boasts; a 6000+ Sqft restaurant/dining hall which serves about 22,000 meals each week, weekly housekeeping service, and private 24hr shuttle to Full Sail University.

this guy

I totally used to live there!

It also once housed Donovan McNabb when he played for UCF back in the late 90’s.

Cool, right? I’m excited already.

Upon arriving in October, I got to spend a few weeks with the departing Business Manager who had worked with the former partner/director for 11 years. It became clear immediately that this was an incredible opportunity. Every aspect needed updating and reworking in some way – some major overhauls, others just minor tweaks. In addition to the entire operational. marketing, and pricing overhaul we were about to undertake, the entire community was going to get a multi-million dollar face-lift. Every room, every common area, all the amenities – it all had to change, and change fast.

Two things were readily apparent: 1. The staff was dedicated to making CVI the best it could be. Many had been working here for some time and all were open to learning about industry standards and best practices. 2. The ownership cared deeply about rebuilding the community. With long ties to the property and the area, they’ve committed major dollars to setting new heights for UX (user experience) and fiscal returns.

I’ll update you regularly with pictures, policies, procedures, and the philosophies we’re employing to get the job done. If we succeed as planned, there is another CVI in Tallahassee that’s presently awaiting the same system. We’re building something great here and it’s going to be the start of something very big – both for the Residents and the staff alike.

I leave you with our new Mission Statement as it’s absolutely vital to everything we’re doing and everything I’m going to be talking about. Till next week!

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