Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of Great Performances, has long contributed to the wellbeing of the metro New York area through her efforts as an activist, philanthropist, and creator at the center of all of the social events of the city.
Thankfully, Liz Neumark has now been formally recognized as such. Recently named to the Crain’s list of the 50 most powerful women in NYC, she is much more than “the woman behind the food at top galas, fundraisers and intimate parties throughout the city.” Neumark also devotes her time to work on food-justice issues; in 2007, she founded the Sylvia Center, a nonprofit that teaches children and families how to cook healthy food. She’s also a member of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger Advisory Board and the Fund for Public Housing.
However, Neumark’s most notable accomplishments are perhaps in her guidance with Great Performances, which is quickly radicalizing the world of food catering through innovative projects and new directions. We recently talked with the activist and businesswoman to discuss the crazy yet exciting direction of her company, and why it matters so much that she is able to represent the food industry on this prestigious list of powerful women.
What does it mean to be named to Crain’s list as one of the most influential women in New York?
You know, it’s kind of staggering honestly. This is a city with a lot of great women, so it’s really an honor. I feel that there are dozens and dozens of women I know who are incredibly impactful, so it should be a bigger list and it just makes the honor of being on it even greater. However, I also understand that being on this list is a recognition of our industry and what hospitality and foodservice mean to New York, both in terms of the fact that everybody eats three times a day, and that there are so many jobs created by our industry. Recognizing our industry and being chosen to represent our industry is what really means a lot to me. I’m glad to be the poster child for hospitality.
Tell me a little bit about the changes that you see in this industry and where it has gone; the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s such a multifaceted industry. It’s everything on the gamut, on the affordability scale, from high and low end service to fast foods eliminating service wherever possible in some places, and then there’s outstanding and attentive old-world service on the other end of the spectrum. It’s also an industry that people thought would be immune to technological disruptions that have been upending the status quo. Yet these disruptions are impacting hospitality: the experience, the production, the systems, the communication with our clients. I don’t think we’ve adequately gotten our heads around that because we do think of food production as one of the last manufacturing industries left. We have to think about food in terms of new technology and disruptions because they’re happening. Any disruption of this kind is a change in the labor force or the impact of millennials. But even though everybody complains about the next generation, I really think the question is how do we harness technology to operate smarter and better? And there are so many places that need to be thinking about that. We need to simplify the way we communicate to our buyers.
Let’s talk about your company. Do you have a CMO, if you will, that just runs engagement for you now? How do you handle that element of the business?
We may talk more globally about our philosophy and guidelines, but it’s really in the hands of our managers on the front line; we’re not giant retail people. The retail elements of our business are really like the icing on the cake, it’s more so in our cultural institutions. We’re operating in restaurants and cafes.
A company like yours has always done a great job of responding to customer needs and customer comments. Is it more complicated for you to stay on top of your “reputation” or does it make it easier for you to compete?
It’s both harder and easier. Yeah, on the one hand, being able to engage instantly in dialogue with your customers is great. On the other hand, it’s more work! But the reward is worth it.
What about the actual point of production? Are you still in a central commissary environment? What equipment are you using for these large-scale operations?
We’re still a centralized commissary, but whenever possible we will bring a final stage of production on-site. We don’t keep this hidden, but instead bring it to the front of the house and make it an event. We did this one time for a couple thousand people where we had a rice-making station that let people come into the tent. We had silk kettles cooking the rice right in front of the guests, and we had custom-made these giant pans set up on block bases with propane underneath to keep them hot. So the guests could see us mass-produce the rice and prep it with all the seasoning and flavor. This put all the drama, all the feeling and all the freshness right in front of the guests. We also did some Chinese pancakes for them. We did these vegetarian style, but also with Peking duck that was griddle-cut and assembled right in front of the guests; we would never do an operation like this years ago, but we now embrace these creative changes.
It’s interesting how you’ve grown into many things that you probably thought you’d never see yourself in. What’s an example of one of your more radical projects?
That could not be more true. It’s interesting that operationally, we’re so strong. There are all of these new opportunities, too; we’re shifting towards this experiential marketing and many edge events, so that’s where we find ourselves doing things that no one could even conceptualize before. An example would be that we were helping the Taste of New York and the MTA by offering hospitality to disrupted train riders for awhile. We did this at nine different points on Long Island and we were working with existing vendors who are in the Taste of New York program; these are small vendors, a new matzo chips guy or a little beef jerky guy in Montauk, and we’re giving out their products. We’re pulling together the whole distribution system.
Would you say that the quality of catering, or its sophistication, has increased over the years?
I’d say the quality is pretty consistent. However, we feel that the level of sophistication, broadly speaking, has gone up. I always knew food was fashion, but we have to think about it even more so. Our visual engagement and presentation engagement have always been quality; the same goes for the deliciousness of our food. But we add all of this to the knowledge that our guests are eating out more and now, people are looking for more creative food. We have to keep this in mind moving forward.
To learn more about Liz Neumark, Great Performances, and their catering events, please visit their website.