Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals - This Week: Will Joseph
“Insight; New York Hospitality Professionals”, a weekly interview series with professionals from the MICE industry in New York.
These are uncertain times for our industry – yet we believe that now is the moment to bring our industry closer together by strengthening our ties and relationships on a more human level. It is for this reason that Shackman Associates is undertaking a series of interviews with other New York hospitality professionals to learn how they are managing during this time.
In today’s episode; New York Hospitality Professional Karen Shackman, President and CEO of Shackman Associates interviews Will Joseph, Director of Sales at Abigail Kirsch Catering.
Karen: Please introduce yourself, your role in the company, and how long you have been with the company.
Will: Good Morning. My name is Will Joseph and I lead Abigail Kirsch’s off premises catering sales team while also supporting the teams at our exclusive venues, Tappan Hill in Tarrytown and The Loading Dock in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Simultaneously, I am the regional sales lead for Constellation Culinary Group’s portfolio of exclusive venues in New York City, including Carnegie Hall, The New York Historical Society, and The New York Botanical Gardens. I have been a part of Constellation since 2014, when we were at the time operating as Starr Catering Group, born from the Starr Restaurant Organization, and joined the Abigail Kirsch team full time in January of this year.
Karen: So pleased you could join us, Will. And thank you for providing a concise overview of the company structure and your role. It certainly has expanded significantly since we worked together all those years ago at Carnegie Hall. And congrats on joining the Abigail Kirsch team. We have had the pleasure of working with so many of your wonderful colleagues at AK over the years as well.
What is your current situation? Are you and your teams still working remotely?
Will: The majority of our teams are indeed working remotely, myself included. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn and like everyone else, have been forced to create as comfortable of a work environment at home as I can alongside my wife, who is also working full time. With some of our cultural venues beginning to re-open, I have had the pleasure of being able to put on hard bottom shoes, a button down shirt, and once again participate in the energy of a lively dining environment. But the majority of my time is spent on video calls with our various teams moving forward with project- based work and doing our best to plan for what is ahead.
Karen: Who would have thought 8 months ago, that putting on more formal attire to go to work would elicit such joy!! How the world has changed. It is certainly very positive news for us all that some of the cultural venues are reopening, and with that some of the great dining establishments.
It seems that you now have two divisions of the company under your purview. How did this come about and what does this mean for the company?
Will: In 2013, Starr Catering Group grew tremendously in both New York City and Miami, with the opening of our business at Carnegie Hall, New York Botanical Garden, 15 Central Park West (residential dining), and The Perez Art Museum. With that momentum, we were acquired by Elior North America with the intention of building a larger group of upscale cultural catering, business dining, and off premises catering teams. In 2016, we added Abigail Kirsch and in 2017, Design Cuisine in Washington DC. In the last several years, much of my work has been focused on finding the recipe for each organization’s ‘secret sauce’ and honing in on the best way to incorporate it in daily operations company-wide.
Karen:. Frankly, I did not realize the evolution and expansion of these various organizations from 2013 to the present day. It is truly quite impressive – and by covering so many segments of the catering industry, I can understand your focus on differentiating each. How do you connect with your team members in each brand segment?
Will: We utilize Microsoft Teams as our primary communication tool that allows us to collaborate on projects together. We have a regular cadence of communication and have found it really important to stay consistent with the communication despite the lack of pre-covid business volume. We also really emphasize engagement between regions within a brand as well as cross brand.
Karen: Has the flow and content of communication between you and your teams changed during this time? Anything specific you have learned through this new mode of connecting?
Will: Despite the fact that pre-covid, we spent more time together than with our families some weeks, it has been a thrill learning even more about our team’s life outside of work. That goes for industry colleagues and our clients alike. My sincere hope is that our shared experience throughout the pandemic brings about a more empathetic, thoughtful, and caring community here in New York City. I believe that we have become more conscious of each other’s struggles and more committed to celebrating each other’s successes.
Karen: I am so pleased you mentioned this. It is exactly for this reason that we embarked on this interview series. In the early stages of the pandemic, we all felt so isolated, and it became really important for us to connect on a human level. We were, and still continue, going through challenges in our industry and the hope is that these interpersonal connections and appreciations will survive this pandemic. What has been a source of solace for you at home during this time?
Will: The most essential strategy to ‘getting through this’ is always having something to look forward to, big or small, unique or routine. My wife and I feel very lucky to have spent the pandemic looking forward to our first baby, coming next month. Whenever I get distracted and frustrated, which happens A LOT, I am always able to re focus on this one thing that really matters most. As a theme, many of us have developed an even deeper relationship with family and friends, which has been a real joy. Music is another essential to my everyday experience; I turn it on in the morning and it’s pretty much going until I fall asleep. There is a public radio station in Los Angeles, KCRW, that has been my primary source of music discovery for 10+ years and my life would be a lot less groovy without them. And finally, my time in Prospect Park, near home, has been so helpful in allowing me to stay clear headed. I bring our dog, Kaya, up there a few times a week and we are always able to discover something new. From the out of work bartenders selling homemade cocktails, to the pop up live music, smorgasburg food market, picnics, volleyball games, bird watching, there is always such a festive, positive energy there.
Karen: And some say that New York is dead! Thank you for painting such a colorful picture of daily life in Brooklyn. More importantly, congratulations on the pending birth of your first child! That is truly exciting for you and your family. And it is wonderful that you and your wife have this great together-time now just before the birth. How are you keeping yourself sane from both a mental and physical perspective?
Will: Mental health is so important and needs to be more openly discussed. I didn’t always recognize that but feel very strongly about it now. One of the things I am doing to stay sane is just simply talking about mental health with friends, family, and colleagues. More specifically, I try to incorporate daily breathing exercises, really simple stuff, and I recently learned of ‘The Maui Habit’, which simply encourages you to say, ‘Today is going to be a great day’ when my feet hit the ground out of bed. Setting that intention from the get go is a simple but impactful exercise for me. I also try to move my body regularly through yoga, cycling, running, and walking –active movement is my best tool in combating anxiety and stress.
Karen: I am learning so much about different coping mechanisms from everyone. “The Maui Habit” sounds like a very important one to adopt to set the tone of the day. I may just borrow that. Is there anything you are reading or watching that has resonated with you?
Will: My wife and I have loved deep diving into The Wire. We’re not binge watchers who can crush three hours in a row but we’ve just finished 3 seasons since March and look forward to another few seasons ahead. I rediscovered my love for Malcolm Gladwell’s books with Talking to Strangers and Blink and since New York Historical Society featured an incredible Harry Potter exhibit in late 2018, I have been slowly working my way through those books and movies with my wife.
Karen: I foresee a great deal more of Harry Potter in your future. I am a huge fan of the series – thanks to my daughter – and so enjoyed the exhibit at the New York Historical Society. Hard to believe it was in 2018. Once travel restrictions have been eased, what is on the top of your list to do?
Will: I have had major FOMO watching friends and family explore the National Parks out west so the first thing I want to do is to head out to Bryce, Zion, Arches, and the Grand Canyon. I might need to wait a bit for the kid to grow up a little but I can’t wait to put him in the hiker pack and get to exploring the great outdoors.
Karen: Seems so many people are out rediscovering nature right now – and there is so much to see and appreciate in the great outdoors. Back to work reality now…. Are you still dealing with cancelations, rebooking?
Will: Yes, we are. The pandemic has left no event untouched and will continue to impact the plans of both new and existing events for some time. We are committed to finding the best path forward with each of our clients based on the unique circumstance of their event and their priorities surrounding it. We are incredibly lucky to benefit from client relationships that go back decades - we are committed to the long view and want to make sure that, despite all the chaos this pandemic has thrown at us, we can build a game plan with our clients in a collaborative and reasonable way.
Karen: Are any of your clients considering virtual or hybrid events?
Will: Yes, absolutely. Many of our clients have shifted their focus to producing virtual events and once large- scale events are able to take place in person again, I believe that a hybrid model will become quite popular. The technology available in the virtual event space is innovating so quickly and allowing event producers to deliver content in an incredibly dynamic way. But it is also clear to me that nothing available thus far can take the place of an in-person experience. I can feel how hungry people are for real social engagement and the excitement of walking into a well- designed room with vibe, energy, and great looking food just cannot be replicated, let alone the unique interactions that can only take place face to face.
Until in person events are safe to take place once again, we are offering our physical spaces to support film shoots and virtual / hybrid events, as many others have as well.
I’d like to shout out Event Manager Blog (https://www.eventmanagerblog.com/), a division of Skift, what I have found to be the most comprehensive and constantly updated resource for event industry news, analysis, and creative ideas from around the world.
Karen: Glad to know that you are putting your iconic locations to good use while we wait for in-person events to return. And thanks for providing the link for this valuable resource. I am sure a good number of people will appreciate that too. How has the company sustained itself over the past few months, and what are your plans going forward – specially as we enter the early holiday season?
Will: At the end of March, we recognized that our commissary kitchens would no longer have the typical event volume to rely on for the foreseeable future. We quickly adjusted our operating model and in collaboration with local emergency management offices, turned our commissaries in Miami, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York into production kitchens that could cook, pack, and ship meals to residents dealing with food insecurity. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve now served over 8 million meals through this project.
We’ve also now just launched a meal delivery program, Prepped, offered across the Abigail Kirsch, Constellation, and Design Cuisine brands, to support our clients who are hosting virtual programs but would still like to serve their guests a curated food and beverage menu at home.
We haven’t formally announced it yet but I am glad to share with your community that, for the first time ever, we are going to package and sell our famous Kirsch Krunch as a wonderful holiday gift opportunity. It’s this incredibly addictive, salty, sweet, crunchy, chewy snack that we have only ever gifted our own clients but are excited to offer to a much wider audience this year.
Karen: Kirsch Krunch!!! I can absolutely vouch for this totally addictive and mouth-watering treat we have enjoyed for so many years. Glad this will be more widely available. It is, however, impressive how your various entities have been able to redirect efforts over the past 7 months. 8 million meals – truly amazing. I imagine you are developing new protocols for social distancing and health and safety measures – how will these be implemented?
Will: In the absence of early guidance from city, state, or federal officials, I joined a group of NYC event professionals to create a set of protocols that we could all agree would accommodate a safe and responsible environment for guests attending events. With the reopening of outdoor dining and now indoor dining, we have specific measures set forth by the city and state. We go through a formal retraining with each of our service team members on those guidelines before they work an event and we continue to update everyone on our team as guidance evolves. This includes PPE, modified styles of service to avoid cross contact, adjusted floor plans set for social distance, temperature checks, and more.
Karen:. I imagine that you are referring to B.E.S.T. It is a true testament to this industry that so many event and catering professionals have banded together to create a workable standard for in-person events city-wide. What are the priorities you are focusing on in order to get back to business.?
Will: Getting back to business for us does not mean things going back to the way they were in 2019. Getting back to business now means adopting an entrepreneurial spirit and finding the need you can satisfy with the resources you have available. We are incessantly asking our clients how we can be of support to them, no matter how different that support might look to our last collaboration. Like many of our industry peers, we have colleagues on furlough; those of us that are active are working diligently to develop new business concepts to get as many people back to work, as quickly as we can. That is the priority right now.
Karen: Actually, that is very well put. Thinking out of the box, and trying to find new avenues of business and client support is really what we are all focusing on now. I am so hoping that we will be back to business – in whatever new variation, soon. And we hope to work with your team sooner rather than later. Any parting words or insights you want to share?
Will: Be optimistic! I’m not encouraging us to deny that there is an incredibly challenging and problematic situation at hand but I know that this industry, especially in this city, is full of the most passionate, creative, spirited, positive, and powerful people I know. And I want to encourage us to find the most constructive, affirmative way forward as a team and community as we rebuild the best version of this as we can. I have LOVED spending time with industry peers and ‘competitors’ that I hadn’t previously known well and leaned on them for guidance and advice. This pandemic is not going to last forever, and I truly believe that we will come out on the other side more empathetic and conscious of others. We are in it together!