Bartolotta cooks up kitchen for Kohl’s

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Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
http://www.jsonline.com/story/money/2016/10/20/bartolotta-cooks-up-kitchen-kohls/92418108/

Menomonee Falls — For Bartolotta Restaurant Group, it’s an opportunity to branch further into a promising business area.

For Kohl’s Corp., it’s a shiny amenity to help in the quest to attract and retain good people.

And for Jason Wessels, the new dining area and kitchen his employer unveiled this week — a huge space that combines industrial-chic design with around-the-world food prep stations — is more than acceptable.

“This is amazing,” Wessels, who directs the big retailer’s shopper loyalty program, said as he got his first glimpse of the 32,000-square-foot area at corporate headquarters that Kohl’s has dubbed “The Kitch.”

“Like, amazing….It’s unbelievable.”

Following the lead of companies such as Silicon Valley tech firms that compete ferociously for talent, Kohl’s is wagering on the notion that one way to an employee’s heart is through his — or her — stomach.

“Corporations, particularly financial and high tech, where attracting and retaining high-skilled employees is very important, have seriously upgraded the quality of the meal services that they provide,” said Thomas MacDermott, owner of New Hampshire-based Clarion Group, a food service consultant.

Kohl’s isn’t Google. But for a department store retailer beset by stalled growth, changing consumer preferences and the ever-looming, Godzilla-like threat of Amazon, anything that helps bring in and hold smart employees may well be a smart bet.

“We knew we needed to elevate the quality,” chief administrative officer Richard Schepp said.

So, out with an in-house dining setup Schepp described with faint praise, saying it had been “OK” and “a decent cafeteria experience.”

In with a sleek, contemporary dining hall and such fare as Neapolitan pizzas, freshly prepared sushi, and specialty salads (beet and goat cheese; spelt and roasted squash with maple dressing) from a kitchen run by Bartolotta, which owns several highly regarded and popular restaurants in the area.

Just a little over five years ago, Kohl’s was cooking its own food at its 5,000-employee headquarters and, according to Schepp, not very well.

Now it has signed up with one of Milwaukee’s premier restaurant operators, outfitted a completely new kitchen and built a dining area that offers a wide range of collaborative gathering spaces and private nooks.

It’s a spot away from cubicles and offices that’s meant to be used all day, full of power outlets and USB ports but free of Kohl’s branding and even any references to the company’s “Greatness Agenda.”

“You feel like you left the building,” Schepp said.

Kohl’s won’t say what it spent, but turning a warren of cubicles into a dining area that can seat 750, a kitchen the size of a mini-mansion and a barista bar to boot isn’t cheap.

“This is all brand new,” Bartolotta group co-owner Joe Bartolotta said as he showed off the space. “…We gutted everything. We tore out the ceilings. We tore out everything. It was a very sizable investment.”

Whatever Kohl’s spent, it appears the company can recoup a small part of the expense through an agreement with the state that gives the firm tax credits in exchange for capital investments.

The deal was struck in July 2012, when the company planned to build a new, $250 million corporate campus a few miles from its present location. Kohl’s abandoned the plans 17 months later in favor of a less-expensive expansion at its current site. The $137 million in capital investment the company made there through last year, however, have helped it earn $18.3 million in state tax credits under the agreement.

The corporate impulse to amp up in-house dining isn’t broad, but rather is concentrated in sectors such as tech, said Mike Buzalka, executive features editor of trade journal Food Management.

But he said upgrades make sense for companies that, like Kohl’s, are situated where there are few nearby dining options.

It’s unusual for a firm to hire a restaurant operator, rather than a food-service contractor, to run its kitchen, Buzalka said.

Joe Bartolotta, however, sees the venture as a way to diversify. His 1,000-employee company has 11 restaurants, including highly regarded spots such as Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus.

But opening stand-alone restaurants is costly, and Bartolotta has been looking increasingly at opportunities to run places without the big capital investment. The firm operates four restaurants at Wauwatosa’s Mayfair Collection, for example, that are owned by the shopping center’s developer.

Two years ago, Bartolotta took over the food court at the U.S. Bank Center and opened what it calls the Downtown Kitchen. That operation impressed Kohl’s executives and paved the way for creation of The Kitch.

Profit margins on such businesses are lower than at a typical Bartolotta restaurant, but with a minimal upfront investment and an all-but-captive market of 5,000 potential diners, it’s an attractive proposition, Joe Bartolotta said.

That thinking makes sense, suggested Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic Inc.

“When we look at the full-service space where Bartolotta operates, the high end is doing OK, but there aren’t a lot of growth opportunities for new restaurants,” Tristano said.

John Wise, operations director and managing partner at Bartolotta, said Downtown Kitchen serves about 500 people for breakfast and 1,500 to 2,000 at lunch. He expects the numbers at Kohl’s to be bigger.

Wessels, meanwhile, expects the new space to be about more than food. He believes it will bring colleagues together and spur beneficial collaboration.

Many people, Wessels said, regard the kitchen as the heart of their home.

“This is really going to become the heart of our office,” he said.

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