Vice President of Operations for Unidine’s Corporate Culinary Group, and President, SHFM
Victoria Vega, Vice President of Operations for Unidine Corporation’s Corporate Culinary Group and Senior Living Culinary Group, was recently elected President of the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management (SHFM). Vega has had an extensive career in the workplace hospitality industry.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to ask Victoria Vega a few questions about the different opportunities that helped mold her career in the foodservice industry, as well as her continued involvement with SHFM.
Please describe your background, and discuss how you got into the industry.
I had the privilege of attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has a renowned hospitality tourism management program. On my career day during senior year, a recruiter from Aramark asked me why I didn’t appear on their interview list, and insisted that I meet with them. I ended up going to work for Aramark right out of college in business dining in metro New York. Aramark provided me with my foundational knowledge in contract food service. After a thirteen-week immersion process, I was placed at Salomon Brothers at the tip of Manhattan, which was a fabulous experience. I worked my way up through Aramark, and eventually opened Viacom MTV Networks, who previously had not incorporated any dining services. I spent ten years at Aramark, and went on to work at Restaurant Associates and Compass.
Who would you consider to have been a mentor? What have you gained from him or her?
I believe that I’ve had several mentors that have been critical to my success. First, was Dick Cattani when I began at Restaurant Associates. He was incredibly smart and strategic, and a great role model. He elevated me to organizational leadership. Next, Rick Post at the Compass Group was a tremendous mentor as well. He took a lot of time to meet with me, troubleshoot challenges that I may have been having, and talk about big picture corporate strategy and accountability for results. My current boss at Unidine, our COO, Tom Warren, has also encouraged me to be the best that I can, not only for my team, but also for myself within the industry. So I’ve gotten great validation from three exceptional leaders, which has had an important impact on my confidence.
How did the opportunity at Unidine come about?
Timing is everything. I had actually accepted a new position elsewhere. Mark Freeman, the president of SHFM at the time, had tasked me with the rebranding of putting the “H” into SHFM. So I worked on the rebranding initiative of how we remarketed the society. When Mark heard that there was an opportunity to run the corporate dining segment at a corporation, he urged me to pursue it. After he made the introduction for me at Unidine, I ended up accepting the offer and moving to Boston.
How has the industry changed since you began?
First and foremost, it’s gone from an entitlement to a de-centralized need. Dining in the workplace hospitality arena really mirrors the businesses that we serve. When I started in dining, there were a lot of self operated businesses, full subsidies, and private dining rooms. Now, it’s really about fast and friendly, convenience and portability, so you can eat at your desk. The trends push our industry to constantly innovate because our consumers are so savvy with all of their options. We can’t consider our consumers a captive audience anymore.
Corporations such as Google and Facebook have embraced dining with activities including day-care and ping-pong. Are we moving back towards a subsidized dining environment?
I think we’re moving into a different world of change in which corporations view dining as an amenity used to attract the best talent and retain the best workforce. It becomes a part of their brands. When corporations look at dining as an amenity, food plays a transformative role in helping corporations add to their brands.
When Unidine has the opportunity to partner with organizations in which wellness is part of their culture, it creates a win-win. We go on to create and customize solutions for that organization and their customers, clients, and guests. It really comes full circle for me.
How did you become involved with SHFM? How has it become a part of who you are and what you do?
I became a member of SHFM when I was 23, so they’ve literally seen me grow up in this industry. I was always involved in clubs and networking while I was in school. To spend 28 years involved with the organization, and go on to become the president has been an unbelievable experience. I’ve been involved in the organization on many levels, from being a founding member of the women’s council to being a part of conference planning committees and running the critical issues conference.
You’ve given a lot to SHFM. What has the organization given back to you?
I’ve gained a tremendous sense of pride through my responsibilities with SHFM. I’m the only child of two deceased only children. So over the years, the people that I’ve met through SHFM have truly become my family. They have become the people that I trust. I always encourage all new members and first time conference attendees to really get involved and remain engaged, because I really believe that what you get is a function of what you give. At SHFM, what you give comes back to you threefold with the relationships and the knowledge gained. The chance to spend time with some of the key leaders in the workplace hospitality industry is a rare and terrific opportunity.
As you took over the reins of SHFM in Florida, the room literally shook when you addressed the assembly. What’s on the agenda? What are the goals that you’d like to achieve in the next year?
I’m going to be leveraging the strength of the contractor by focusing a little bit more on the “F” in the SHFM. I truly believe that food is our future because without the “F,” there really is no “H.” One of my platforms for 2018 will focus on where food comes from, how we produce it, and how we serve it. The bottom line of what we do every day is related to food, so I’d like to put some of the focus back on that. We will largely accomplish this at next year’s conference, where the theme will be “food as our future.” The SHFM foundation is actually sponsoring a research project related to food waste and food origins with the University of Houston.
Please discuss the opportunities that exist in your segment of the business for women.
My major platform initiative is the relaunch of the SHFM diversity council. It’s important that our leadership in workplace hospitality reflects the diversity of the people that work in it. If you look at our statistics, I believe it’s 52% female in mid-level field management in the contract foodservice industry. There’s nothing but great potential. The women’s council was created only fifteen years ago, and by tapping into the knowledge and the resources of that diverse group, it has changed some of the direction and purpose of SHFM. It’s important that we be role models for inclusion.