Chef-Turned-Catering Director Seeks to Inspire Customer Satisfaction
by LENNY KOUPAL, CSU Communications Director
A new, but not-so-new face heading up University Catering is Naomi McKinney. For several years, her demonstrated energy and focus helped move her up the ranks from frontline worker to executive chef within University Dining. After a year’s hiatus from University Dining, she was encouraged to return, not to the kitchen, but to the front of the house as catering director. Those years of experience planning meals now provide valuable assistance in planning smooth and successful events on and off campus. We caught up with Naomi who shared an equal measure of easy-going demeanor and passionate determination.
‘I feel it’s very important to empower the employees and the students. That means giving them the knowledge they need to do their jobs the best that they can. So I make sure that I’m speaking to people the way they need to be spoken to; to make sure that they understand what needs to be done, and if they have questions to remain approachable at all times. And mix in a little bit of humor every now and then.‘NAOMI McKINNEY
Share a little of your life story that brought you to Minnesota State Mankato and catering
I graduated high school in Missouri and went to culinary school in Oregon. I graduated there in 2006. Then I moved to Hawaii for a year. I fell in love and came home. I worked in Kansas City for about five years at the Hyatt Regency downtown. They had a conference center that included seven restaurants. So I got experience in all of them. I started out learning everything in the first restaurant and moved to the next one. That continued until I made it to The Skies. That was the restaurant at the top of the hotel and it revolves, If you got to The Skies you knew you had made it. I’m originally from Minnesota, so I moved back here and started working with Jamie Waterbury (now director of University Dining) at the local restaurants at Neighbors and Number 4. Once he moved here, he said, “You want a job?”
That was a good choice on his part. So then tell us about your time here and coming back as catering director.
So when I got the job here, I was a frontline employee. But they saw potential in me, which was awesome, so I moved up. I was a supervisor in a year and became a sous chef three to four months after that. Then Jamie got a promotion and I got his job as executive chef. I wasn’t working on-campus meals but rather with CSU retail. My primary areas at the time were Garbanzo, Star Ginger and Erbert & Gerberts. Then, I went off for a year to try something else.
What led to your decision?
You know, in your younger years, you are unstoppable and you feel like you’re never going to get old and you’re never going to slow down. Well, eventually I just knew I didn’t want to be in the kitchen for too much longer because it does a toll on your body. So I asked myself, “Where are you going, Naomi?” I tried a free-standing restaurant and it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Is that when you heard University Dining calling your name?
Jamie actually called me and was like, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Jamie, I don’t, I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of opportunities here” and told me about the catering position. And I just knew—at this point in my life–it was going to work out. I’m calm now. You know, I’m not flying around as much as I was before.
And you have a family, right?
Yep, a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. So that’s why for me it’s important to have a set schedule to know when I’m working and to be able to have that balance to see my kids, too.
But catering must present some odd hours at times. Does the schedule create problems for you?
It causes a little. I have to be on it. You know, I have to know exactly what’s going on in my life, exactly what’s going on in their lives, what’s exactly going on in their dad’s life.
Well, good for us. One of the things that’s always impressed me about you is just how you are in command when I see you training people. You’re very articulate. You’re very knowledgeable. People just listen to you. What do you see as your strength with this kind of a position?
I feel it’s very important to empower the employees and the students. That means giving them the knowledge they need to do their jobs the best that they can. So I make sure that I’m speaking to people the way they need to be spoken to; to make sure that they understand what needs to be done, and if they have questions to remain approachable at all times. And mix in a little bit of humor every now and then.
I’m sure that you rely a lot on student help for catering. Is that a different training process?
When you’re working at a retail concept, it’s “This is how it’s done. So, this is how the business wants it done.” With catering, it’s “What does the customer want?” Maybe this is how we always do it, but if the customer says “We want it like this,” we have to roll with it. Figure it out, stay calm and just work with the client to make sure they’re getting exactly what they want.
Will catering be mostly campus events or more like part campus, part community?
Right now it’s mostly campus-wide. But one of the things I’d like to bring to the table is bringing the community in just a little bit more? And by doing that, seeing how we can reach the students. For instance, there’s an upcoming event to raise money for an international family. I want to talk to our students to see if this affects them in any way. And if they want to be a part of that event.
So what do you hope students gain from working with you?
Just real-life skills and understanding that you have to be focused and go to a job every day–be on time, do a great job to your best of ability, so just teaching them how to balance that. Put your hours in and make it count. Learn something from it. So, anything I can do to help them be stronger, I’m going to be there for them.
‘I love doing things from beginning to end and seeing the outcome. I get excited when the orders come in. I love talking it over with the customers and figuring out what we can add to it to just jazz it up a bit. And I love seeing it go flawless. And I also love fixing problems, so throw a problem in there. That’d be fine. I’d love fixing it and seeing that at the end of all i can say, ‘OK, everything went smoothly.“NAOMI McKINNEY
How many students will you have on your catering staff?
We’re hoping to get 20, but usually, it rides between 12 to 15.
Are you continually hiring?
We like to get the base set right away but things change. So every once in a while, we’ll have staffing changes. But we’d like to keep the same crew for at least a year—if not four years.
What’s a first-year mark of excellence for you?
At this point, to go through the whole year having every catering event go as the customers want it. There’s always stuff that happens behind the scenes. But as long as the customer is satisfied with every event that we put out and that it’s on time and everything is correct. That, for me, tells me we did it.
How will this compare to your mark of excellence as a chef?
For me as a chef, I would meet with every RSO group. So, I don’t think that’s necessarily going to be my job? I still want to be available for them because I know they have a lot of questions. My experience as a chef will help walk them through the process. But my catering position also includes a lot of the logistics and support. That’s a totally different side of it from what I used to do so. The chefs help from the kitchen, but then I never saw the side of, well, who’s taking care of the front? Well, that’s catering.
Being a trained chef must help when making creative menu choices.
I’m wanting customers to feel comfortable calling me and saying, “Hey, I have an idea. This is what I’d like to do.” And I want to build the menus with them? Come up with ideas, work through what will work, what won’t work. Then go to the chef “Hey, can you help me?” Or maybe the customer wants something they saw in some magazine. “Can you make it happen?” Yes, and I know that chef Tim is behind it as well. He loves coming up with something new. It makes our day.
And we have an awesome team that if we bring and we say “Hey, the client had this idea.” The chefs are like, “Ooh!”, and we all just get in there and start throwing ideas and then the baker says “This is what I could do. Here’s some ideas that I saw.” And we bring it all together to come up with something fabulous.
What other opportunities are presented as catering director?
For me, it’s getting to know the faculty, staff, and people here at MSU so that we can have a strong relationship. If they need anything, they know they can pick up the phone call and we will make it happen. And then also just communicating with them and them to me as to how their events went and if something isn’t exactly as it should have been, or how they wanted. That they let me know so I can make sure next year that doesn’t happen.
So post-event will have a high priority for you as well.
I found a way after each event to send out a survey. We used to try to put it on the table with the QR code and it always got wet or would disappear. So now I can just send them an e-mail with a quick survey if they’d like to fill it out. I’m hoping we get a lot of those back.
We haven’t really touched on weddings. You do those too, right?
Yes, we do. I started in May. My first week was the first wedding. And then the second week it was a social gathering at the President’s House, and then it was a wedding and another wedding. So I got my fair share of high-profile events right away.
Do you do much off-campus stuff?
Not terribly, but that’s another thing we’re trying to get ourselves into a little bit more. For us, it’s really just making sure that we have the people and the time to go off campus if there are other events, because we still need in-house to happen too. I don’t want to overbook, but I like to say yes.
So, no is something that needs to be added to your vocabulary.
It’s true. I wanna say yes. It might need to be a long noooooo.
What’s your secret for managing and prioritizing multiple events.
Really just don’t get behind on the game. As soon as orders come in, I start thinking. I start looking at the schedule, looking at who I’ve got, and then if there’s nobody available, I have to start searching and staying ahead of the game so the employees can’t see that strain and hustle. They just see everything’s fine and we’ll do our part if she does her part.
Are you saying, and don’t let them see you sweat?
Do you find yourself a multitasker, or does this just come with the territory?
Luckily, just having the experience as a chef and having worked a lot of these big events that we do on campus, I’ve got the experience of knowing who needs to do what, when, where, putting down the name, the time, exactly what they’re doing. So we cut out all the confusion for everybody. Because, like I said, nobody should be stressing out except me, and my stress should be over by that time.
What excites you about being a catering director?
I love doing things from beginning to end and seeing the outcome. I get excited when the orders come in. I love talking it over with the customers and figuring out what we can add to it to just jazz it up a bit. And I love seeing it go flawless. And I also love fixing problems, so throw a problem in there. That’d be fine. I’d love fixing it and seeing that at the end of all i can say, “OK, everything went smoothly.“