Q&A Sabrina Capannola

President, 2013-14 Society for Hospitality & Foodservice Management and Senior Project Manager at The World Bank

Sabrina Capanola likes to tell this story. “If you find somebody who’s 18 and knows what it is they want to do with their life, could you please have them call me?

Because at 46 I’m still trying to figure it out!” But that’s not true at all. Capannola is currently the outgoing president of the Society for Hospitality and Food Management (SHFM). During her career she has worked for IBM, Nation’s Bank and has been director of food services for Merck and is now senior project manager, General Services Department – Support Services at World Bank Group, where she oversees conference services, foodservices, and office hoteling for World Bank Group’s 10,000 employees. But the greatest gift she believes she has given SHFM is the new “H” in the organization’s name.

When did you start your career?

My first job in foodservice was when I was five years old and would stand on a milk crate at the end of the produce aisle in my grandfather’s grocery store, grinding Eight O’Clock coffee. I always made sure to inhale the fresh ground aroma before sealing the bag for a customer. I went to college at Niagara University first as a pre-law student. Then I switched over to the school for hotel and restaurant management at the university. But I didn’t start my foodservice career until I got out of college. I went abroad and went to school in Switzerland.

How did you go from law to hospitality?

I kept finding myself, during breaks, working in restaurants, and in hotels and thinking, I really like this, maybe I should be doing this. I joke that it wasn’t a big stretch for me — my gram and parents owned grocery stores and so I grew up around food. The joke is, I went from raw food to cooked food. It really wasn’t too big a stretch for me to end up in this. When I got married, I moved to North Carolina. I was working for Marriott at the time. When I was looking through all the Marriott opportunities in Charlotte, I came across this one at IBM for a catering director. I said, hmm, now what in the world could that be? And here I am today. I really didn’t know that side of the world existed, and I think some of that remains to this day. It’s all so amazing. Here’s what’s happening in my building today. We’ve got a big event happening in our auditorium right now. At 3 o’clock we have the President of Uruguay coming in. And CNN and all the media. And then we’re turning the room for Hilary Clinton to come at 5 o’clock. Boring? I don’t think so!

What do people think when they hear the words “foodservice”?

The perception of our industry isn’t that exciting. But it’s not the people behind the cafeteria line with the hair net, as some think. We get to do great, exciting stuff. It’s not what people might think it is. And you get to have a broader reach than when I was in hotels. Some parts of my life were as a room service manager, a restaurant manager, a banquet manager. The diversity of experience keeps you challenged. It keeps you sharp. So it’s pretty fun.

What’s changed over the years since you started your career?

In this segment of the industry what’s really great is there is now an appreciation for how valuable the services are that we offer to the employees in our environment, and not just with food but with the breadth of workplace hospitality, how that impacts the organization, how that impacts them culturally, how it increases productivity of employees and creates a desirable place that helps them attract and retain good people. Right now the big focus here where I work is around creating spaces, around collaboration and creating those informal places for meetings to take place, what’s going on in the organization. My organization’s going through a time of change.

We’re reorganizing, so how can we reflect that back and really speak to who the organization is. You can tell a lot about a company, not by just their financial situation, but how they think about their employees. When you walk through the buildings, you can feel it and, and we have a lot to do with that.

Tell me how.

Well, it’s in how we treat our employees and it’s not just something that you can say. You can have an employee handbook, this is our culture and all that good stuff, and a vision statement. But are you going to feel that when you come into an organization? For example, here at the World Bank, we’re a multicultural organization. If I look down the corridor, the person next door to me is from Malaysia. Across the hall is someone from the Philippines, next door, Ghana. It’s a big melting pot. And we can say that diversity is important and all that, but when you go into my cafeteria, you better see it. For example, it’s Singapore Day here. And the authenticity with which we do these things and we celebrate the cultural heritage is all part of that. And my main cafeteria has, instead of like a traditional American one, where you’re going to have your deli and grill, here I’ve got South Asian, and Pacific Rim, and Africa and Indian. And we get in big talks about northern Indian versus southern Indian. We can say we’re committed to diversity, but do we live it?

We’re a true mirror back on the organization. When you walk through the halls, you can see these things that they’ve celebrated, and it’s important. So, from that perspective, do you want to create a vibrant space for people to have those interactions? Of course you do. And that’s a big part of my job.

Do you see differences in what people like to eat?

I’ll use myself as an example. What are people 20 years younger than me looking for? And not just with food, but in space and from an employee culture. They don’t look at work as 9 to 5, and sit in an office or a cubicle all day, and just do this. It’s a much more free-flowing, interactive thing, and we have to be able to foster that, and let them be creative. And we’re an important part of that, because how you create those spaces creates the opportunity for collaboration.
Actually, I’ve been a member since the ’90s. When I was at Bank of America, when I was with Nations Bank, we had someone there who actually encouraged me to join. And it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, both personally and professionally. It is a fabulous network of people.

I am impressed when I go to SHFM events about the minds that are in those rooms. I’ve learned a lot from the events, and not just from the programming. Just interaction. And what is so great about our membership is it’s a very nurturing group. They’re a very helpful group. I’ll have a challenge at work and I’ll send an email out and say, you know what? I’m being asked to do x and I’ve never been asked to do x before. What the heck do I do? And I can send out an email to people and the responses I get and the phone calls help me figure it out.

As you look at your agenda as president, tell me a little about what the highlights were. What imprint would you like to leave on the organization?

I feel a special responsibility that I’m the first president of SHFM. And when I look at our 35-year history, we’re still foodservice at our core. That’s something we’re never going to lose. My tagline has been, embrace the H. So that’s been a critical focus for me. But let’s not forget about the F word. Embrace the H because we have to. But don’t forget what the F stands for.

What do you mean when you say, “embrace the H”?

The depth and breadth of workplace hospitality. And reflect that in our programming, that it was a thoughtful choice to not only do critical issues around space and hospitality and how that feeds into the foodservice professionals sphere and the cafeteria environments and all that. A cafeteria isn’t just a cafeteria. Especially in these times, everyone’s trying to be smarter with their space. That’s a heck of a lot of square feet to leave sitting there that you’re only going to use for a couple of hours a day. So, what are the possibilities, and so that sort of thing is challenging. What could we be? How can we be? Giving our members the information they need so they can use their sphere of influence in their companies, and really look to the future.

Hospitality means a lot of things, but here’s what workplace hospitality is, the influence on an organization and telling our members how they can embrace that. From facilities to whatever, if we’re just saying we’re SFM, are we the best organization for members? Are we going to be able to give them the resources they need? And as SHFM, we better reflect back on who they are and what they need.

What do you see as the value of SHFM?

When I talk about the great community of SHFM, and the networking opportunities, and the outreach, that’s a lot of the value of membership. Another goal I had was to do more of what we call our SHFM locals, not just have meetings be about critical issues in our national conference, but keep the conversation going, and create opportunities for more valuable connections with our members.

We’re going to have almost 10 locals this year. We’re doing them in Charlotte, and Boston, and in Chicago and out in San Francisco, and Seattle. So again, we don’t just want to be, oh, I’ll go to national conferences, I’ll kind of touch the wall, but keeping that community active, looking at a theme of, okay, what are we hearing from our members, what do they need, and addressing that with a lot of programming. How do we make sure we’re delivering on that commitment?

SHFM has always had a broad New York City base. What impact has New York and some of the members there had on the growth of the organization, the culture of the organization?

Our tri-state area membership is really important to SHFM and I hope it remains a strong part of SHFM. What’s great is, you have a concentrated area that has the diversity of a lot of environments, so it really stimulates the organization. You get a lot of different flavor and it helps you to keep your perspective. SHFM does want to be broader than just the tri-state area, and we’re doing things, as I talked about, the locals, and Seattle, and San Francisco, and into Dallas, and Chicago and all that. So, we want to have balance there, but we never want to forget New York. That’s a very important thing and those members — it’s kind of like that old saying, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And working in New York, look at how good their operations have to be because of the choices you have on the street. My goodness, you can walk out of the door and go to the best this, the best that. You’ve got to be on your toes.

At one point in my career I worked in a very suburban/rural environment in Ohio. And I had a somewhat captive audience. But in New York, you don’t have that. People there have the opportunity to go to a lot of different places, so they’re really up there on the trends. I think both coasts are. That’s why I’m glad to see our West Coast really coming in. They’re up there on the trends, and they’re on their game. They have to be to compete there.

What’s ahead?

We talk so much about menus and food safety and now, farm to fork. We’ll do a lot of programming around that, but as I say, SHFM is food, food at our core and our members, a lot of them, like myself, are food at our core. So you need those complementary schools almost more than you need the food. We’re foodies at heart, and if I’m not working, I’m going out to great restaurants or watching the Food Network. Where am I getting the space stuff, where am I getting the conference center stuff, where am I getting those other things. A little harder to come by sometimes, so that’s what we’re trying to deliver, those skills there so we can really be part of the conversation with our facilities counterparts and our buildings and, and things of that nature. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

What was your biggest contribution to the organization?

I would like SHFM members to really get why we added the “H,” that it’s not just talk, it’s not just a letter we added in there. But we’ve shown them why we did it and it makes sense to them. And they see value in it. Now we want to make it, SHFM, our indispensable industry resource. And serve every category of our members. Not just the corporate liaison, and the self operator, but our contractors, our consultants, and suppliers.

And here’s what I really would like to achieve. Increase the visibility of our segment of the industry. And do more school outreach, and let people know we’re not just talking a lot about the schools, but also our foundation, the military, people looking for a better quality of life. We’ve all got a lot to offer.