I had the pleasure of interviewing Warren Leeds, President and CEO, Dartcor.
From the beginning of Warren’s career, fresh from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, he knew that he wanted to take everything he had learned about food and hospitality and build a dynamic, hospitality-centric company. Warren hadn’t found his market yet, but he knew that fabulous, well-prepared food would attract loyal clientele. In October 1985 Warren did just that, opening Ōme Gourmet Market & Cafe in Parsippany, New Jersey with a huge amount of enthusiasm and willingness to try out our recipes and ideas. Country clubs, corporate dining, off premise catering and restaurant opportunities followed. Thirty-five years later, Dartcor is now a company with over 250 employees and 50 accounts throughout the New York metropolitan market. Dartcor continues to serve its clients, filled with enthusiasm and the desire to share its love of great food served by people who love what they do. Outside of Warren’s responsibilities at Dartcor, he is a member of YPO Big Apple Gold, an Advisory Board Member of Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship at Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and an Advisory Board Member of Skillman School of Business at Seton Hall University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My first job was working at Burger King when I was 16 years old. I started at the fry station at $1.60 per hour and was quickly promoted to “whopper board” and received a 10 cents per hour raise. I vividly remember the rush of working on a busy Saturday lunch shift and trying to keep up with orders coming in from 4 cashiers and a very busy drive through window! That’s when I started to fall in love with the hospitality business –the energy and the camaraderie of working in a team environment, and the smiles on people’s faces when you serve them….it’s all so positive. After I graduated from Cornell Hotel School, I managed a TGI Fridays for a year and then took the leap and launched my own business in 1985.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
On opening day (Oct 7th, 1985) of our gourmet market and café, Fifi, our steward, was a “no call- no show.” I was working behind the counter and could see the pots and pans piling up in the triple sink. That is the moment when you learn to think on your feet…and thankfully my mother and grandmother were in the café. They saw the panic in my face and I quickly gave them aprons and gloves and asked for their assistance. They jumped in and worked side by side to clean not only the pots and pans but the entire kitchen. The kitchen was immaculate, which set the cleanliness standard for our gourmet market from Day 1. And most importantly, this event sent the message that we are and always will be a TEAM and we all have to be willing to jump into the trenches and wear multiple hats when needed.
Lesson learned — be nice to your mother and grandmother.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’ve read a lot over the years. The Ride of a Lifetime by Walt Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger has been a tremendous guide in the current crisis. It’s a great example of the positive impact a leader can have on their organization when they are an optimist, a relationship builder and really care about their frontline associates and guests.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Historically the office cafeteria has been a pretty underwhelming, some might say depressing experience. We set out to change that. People spend a lot of time at work (normally), often eating two meals a day at the office. So, our purpose from the start was to create a better workplace dining amenity for our clients. One that brings teams together, enhances company culture, and promotes wellness with delicious, healthy food and a high-end restaurant-style approach to hospitality. With that purpose front of mind, we have been able to create an environment where our team members wake up each morning looking forward to coming to work because they understand they are valuable contributors to our great vision.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Don’t back down in middle of challenge. Our goal is to nourish our guests and while over the years our methods have changed, we have remaining true to our purpose has helped us persevere.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Clearly the biggest challenge on a personal front was being away from our family and watching our son get married via zoom. Our adult children insisted we stay in Naples, Florida rather than return to New Jersey — it was great advice because I was able to enjoy the warm weather rather than being stuck inside.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We are a people business. So, for me there was nothing worse than telling our onsite team, people who are the heart of Dartcor, that their roles are being impacted by events completely out of their control. I know we will come through the other side and when we do, we are all looking forward to the day when we can welcome back our whole team.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
My father would always say, “In the long run, nothing is as good or as bad as it seems now.” As humans, it’s difficult not to “market-to-market” each day, but if you can be disciplined about keeping a longer-term perspective it mitigates the “dramatic jolts” from the daily news. I’d also say, manage your expectations. Expect the worst, hope for the best.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
As businesses develop and deploy their reentry plans, we see an opportunity for a fresh start — a chance to welcome back, reengage, and take care of our teams like never before. We’re seizing this opportunity in welcoming our team back and we are here to support our clients businesses in doing the same. In these stressful times, our creative hospitality solutions will keep employees safe, well-nourished, with reduce costs and anxiety of returning to the office. Our re-entry solutions are comprehensive and we’re excited to get back.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think a lot of what we would consider normal will eventually return. It’s easy when we’re in the middle of a crisis to think things have completely changed. I think of it like a rubber band. Right now it’s being stretched out. The longer it stays stretched, the more permanent that stretch will be, but once the pressure is released it’s going to mostly snap back to its original form.
I do think we’ve hit the accelerator on already established trends — online retail, technology adoption, remote work, urban exodus.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’ve bootstrapped our business since the beginning and are on great financial footing. In addition to rolling out our Fresh Start program, we are looking for businesses to save and roll into our organization.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I attended a YPO- Harvard Business School program shortly after the Global Financial Crisis in 2009- one of the professors who studied previous financial crisis said there are three likely outcomes- a percentage of business will go out of business, a percentage of businesses will hunker down — hide for cover and emerge from the crisis looking like the “walking wounded” and the balance with come thru with break through innovations and gain tremendous market share. The timing for Dartcor could not be better. My son, Jason joined the business in the 4th quarter of 2019 after working at Goldman Sachs in investment banking and working for a generational family owned business. Jason is working with Dartcor’s senior leadership team on a whole host of initiatives and will certainly be a driving force behind Dartcor’s growth!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s not the Big that Eat the Small… It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow!” Regardless of how big we get, our entrepreneurial approach allows us to problem solve quickly and find valuable solutions for our customers through the ups and the downs.