What drives the nation’s top foodservice operators? To celebrate IFMA's 66th annual Gold & Silver Plate Awards, we asked the 2020 Silver Plate Class to share some perspectives and words of wisdom with the industry. Find out what they have to say about their passion for foodservice, career accomplishments and what it means to be part of a legendary group of operators.
Meet Victoria Vega, Senior Vice President, Specialty Group at Unidine Corporation. Victoria received the 2020 Silver Plate Award in the Business & Industry/Foodservice Management category, and was nominated by Hobart-Traulsen-Baxter.
How did you get your start in the foodservice industry?
“When your passion is vivid, you do not make pale commitments.” That’s how I remember corporate dining pioneer Stephen Elmont, who spoke on a cold January winter session at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He shared the foundation for his professional success, three basic tenets that still resonate with me today: provide excellent service, build the best teams and invest in the development of loyal people. Keeping my original class notes, looking back, I was mesmerized by a career opportunity where I could be a food and beverage leader working in a corporate environment and not in a hotel. Having my life come full circle thirty years later as the recipient of the Stephen Elmont lifetime achievement award from Isenberg School of Management at my alma mater, validated the impact his drive for excellence in food and service delivery had on directing my path into the workplace hospitality segment.
What do you enjoy most about your career in foodservice?
It’s easy to say that as hospitality professionals we love people, but I relish being part of a culture that collaboratively drives innovation. At Unidine, my cross-sector responsibilities enable me to amplify my voice. Our intense focus on exceeding customer expectations and delivering customized dining solutions ensures that constant change is not only welcomed, but required. Food is a personalized experience. It’s unique to everybody and that’s what motivates me each day at Unidine. Having the opportunity to impact the wellbeing of others through food, to be a change agent and to steer others on a path of servant leadership pushes me to be better than the day before.
Tell us about your biggest career accomplishment.
I have been fortunate to experience several professional milestone achievements in the past 2 years.
As the SVP of Unidine’s specialty group, I am the highest ranking female operations executive at my organization. This pinnacle role allows me to micro-innovate while working collaboratively to manage a high performing team. Our CEO Richard Schenkel provides me with the tools and gives me the autonomy to deliver customized solutions for our clients while setting the retail operating vision to inspire our team members to achieve their potential. Unidine has empowered my entrepreneurial spirit and fueled my confidence to deliver impactful organizational results that bring tangible benefits to our clients and team members. Being given the span of control to direct the future of workplace hospitality standards for Unidine’s partners is a unique leadership experience. By effectively shaping our organizational focus, I am rewarded daily as I witness the enterprising ambition and fresh thinking that motivates my team to greater success and achievement. Being a respected cross sector leader for Unidine is undeniably one of my biggest professional achievements.
My most profound industry achievement was being elected the 39th president of the Society for Hospitality & Foodservice Management (SHFM). Leading a dynamic association of my peers, colleagues, competitors and suppliers has made me a better leader at Unidine as this role is akin to being a CEO. When you become president of this great association, you leverage your relationships, seek out the expertise and guidance of others, and literally call in every favor over the course of your career. Channeling the interests of so many required diplomacy and strength of character and although I represented a small regional company, I was given a dominant role in charting the future of workplace hospitality. My presidency yielded multiple strategic initiatives that advanced the organization’s agenda while positioning SHFM as the association of choice for professional development and networking. After growing up in this industry, it was my personal nirvana to lead SHFM into the future.
How is your segment making a difference for the foodservice industry?
As a career proponent of diversity and inclusion, I have successfully used my voice to draw attention to the immediate need of all foodservice companies to socially support the changing composition of our workforce. We need to be culture carriers providing non-discriminatory access, inclusion and career advancement welcoming diverse perspectives at all levels of service. I consider myself a workplace hospitality leader who fosters a need for unity and connectedness, breaking down barriers and promoting women, minorities and military veterans. Having equal access and welcoming more diverse perspectives ensures our industry segment is leveraging our differences so we can unleash our unrealized strengths. From workforce diversity to WMBE supplier partnerships, as president of SHFM my major platform initiative included the launch of the SHFM diversity council. Being champions of ethical corporate responsibility to inclusion, awareness and collaborative thought, sets the tone for individual and organizational advancement.
What advice do you have for someone new to the foodservice industry?
I have an unique vantage point when approaching our future foodservice leaders. My involvement with the Isenberg Hospitality and Tourism Management program gives me the opportunity to introduce young professionals to foodservice, ensuring that the industry will have bright and talented leaders of tomorrow. As an executive mentor, I am privileged to share my story by teaching, showing and sharing best practices. Mentorship has been a critical factor to my success and over the years many industry icons have recognized my talents and impacted my personal leadership style.
We all have unofficial mentors, but my message is clear – you need more than mentors, you need a personal board of directors. In an evolving industry, you must continue to be a student. I tell young professionals to always be in inquiry, push for new experiences and stand ready to absorb continuous learning from multiple trusted sources. Lean on the knowledge of others, tap into their energy and enthusiasm and even replicate some of their success.
What does being an IFMA Silver Plate recipient mean to you?
Becoming the recipient of the 2020 IFMA Silver Plate is an iconic achievement. It is the culmination of a career filled with hard work, dedication and drive, coupled with validation that all my choices and personal sacrifices have brought me to this zenith. Unidine rewards me with daily affirmations of my impact on our clients, team members and guests, but being recognized by IFMA signifies that my peers recognize the contribution I have made to the workplace hospitality industry I am so proud to serve. From the time I started in this industry, I had 4 professional goals. To be recognized by my alma mater for lifetime achievement, to lead my industry association and to receive the ultimate honor for my impact as an IFMA silver plate winner. Trifecta! And while I joined Unidine’s executive team last year, I have many years ahead of me in this career to step into the C-suite. I am confident that I am on the road to that final destination.
What is your favorite meal?
Although I have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the United States and explored international flavor palettes through my personal travel, my favorite meal always brings me back to the nostalgia of my youth. Growing up, my family had a beach house on the Jersey shore where we spent every summer weekend. To end the season, each Labor Day, my parents and I would catch blue claw crabs bayside along the long beach island intercostal waterways. From the time I was 5 years old, I learned how to bait, net and trap these crustaceans.
While a day on the boat was a great experience, returning home with a full barrel of crabs was the reward. In the kitchen, my dad would boil the stock pot and show me how to clean the crabs to preserve the meat. My mother would start the sauce and teach the importance of layered flavors. As the only child of two only children, we’d dine on our bounty then freeze dozens of our cooked crabs to grab over the winter, enjoying the last taste of summer all year through. Jersey crabs with simple marinara over angel hair pasta will always be my ultimate meal and a sacred memory of my parents.
Celebrate Victoria and the rest of the Silver Plate Class on Monday, Nov 2 in Scottsdale at the 66th Annual Gold & Silver Plate Awards Celebration. This year’s program has been added to IFMA’s Presidents Conference and tickets are now available.