First Choice

In Rich’s Innovation Center, Everyone Gravitates Toward the Kitchen

Inside Rich’s new “Innovation Center and Atrium @ Rich’s” at its world headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., Stephen Rich surveys the sparkling Innovation Kitchen and Customer Solution Studio that, as Innovation Center Chef, are now his domain.  He gazes down the impressive 20-foot countertop made of Italian marble in the Customer Solution Studio and scans the sleek, six-burner stoves and the sparkling new fryers and ovens in the Innovation Kitchen that anchor the showy facility.  And it all makes him very happy.

“I love this kitchen inside and out,” Stephen says.  “As a chef, I’m drawn to all the stainless steel here, but I’m pretty much a blue-collar type to begin with, so I tend to fall for things that are steely, whether they’re shiny engines, or frying pans, or carving knives.”

His ultra-modern Customer Solution Studio, or show kitchen, and Innovation Kitchen, or test kitchen, are two key elements of an 84,000-square-foot, multi-use $18.5 million renovation project that opened in June 2014 and replaced the 25-year-old Rich Renaissance Niagara Atrium.  The conversion signals a new approach to service and accessibility for Rich’s global customer base, while further promoting a cooperative work experience for associates both at the Buffalo headquarters and in scores of company locations around the world.

Stephen’s excitement over the renovated space doesn’t stop with the Customer Solution Studio.  In a wing of the Atrium, customers are invited to check out a flexible, multi-use Innovation Kitchen that can be used to replicate a typical back-of-the-house foodservice operation.  The setup enables Rich’s to demonstrate how its products easily integrate into real food preparation environments.

“Our kitchen facilities have been built with our customers in mind,” Stephen explains.  “With our Customer Solution Studio, we have a spacious, high-tech product presentation area complete with advanced videoconferencing capabilities.  And both the Customer Solution Studio and the Innovation Kitchen offer us all the equipment and resources necessary to recreate a customer’s exact kitchen environment and food preparation processes, so we can show how our food solutions seamlessly fit into the customer’s situation.”

Beyond all their operational practicalities and demonstration advantages, the new studio and kitchen facilities in Rich’s Innovation Center have other, homier qualities that also set them apart.

“The kitchen often is regarded as the heart of the home, which is an ambiance we’ve recreated in our Customer Solution Studio.  We’re saying, ‘Welcome to our home,’” Stephen states.  “The idea is to put customers at ease by actually bringing them around the kitchen table.  This is not your typical sales setting – when we host customers, the feeling here is much different.

“It’s like that party you have where everyone always gravitates toward the kitchen and real conversations suddenly are springing up over the kitchen island or among small groups sitting on bar stools,” he continues.  “People are getting to know one another, our customers feel more involved, and now we’re having genuine discussions, instead of us telling them what we think they want to hear.  These are authentic interactions that help build relationships.”

The Customer Solution Studio and its kitchen amenities so far have been utilized for both prearranged and impromptu sales presentations, as well as for brainstorming sessions, team-building exercises and even community-based gatherings.  Response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, Stephen points out.  “Customers trust what we’re showing them and, because of the informal surroundings, we get to field questions that you might not hear in a boardroom or conference room.”

This sort of family atmosphere is pretty much second nature within the Rich’s organization as a family-owned business.

“I’ve always been involved with food,” Stephen admits.  “The first thing I can remember making, unbeknownst to my mother, was some concoction of banana pudding when I was about 10 or 12.  And I always enjoyed the treats that the company came out with, including the éclairs I’d get out of my grandfather’s freezer when I was small.”

Except for a short-lived stab at getting a degree in sports medicine, Stephen’s adult life, as well, has been centered on the food business.  He switched schools and majors, eventually earning both an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in foodservice management from Johnson & Wales University, in Rhode Island.  He worked the bar-and-restaurant circuit for a lengthy stretch before joining Rich’s in February 2002 as a regional culinary manager.

“I love selling and meeting customers’ needs and helping them make money,” he says.  “That part of me comes from my time in bars and restaurants and that instant gratification you get when a patron says, ‘thank you.’  I think I was bound to end up in this area as a career.”

Now he oversees many of the key product presentation tools Rich’s employs when customers come to town or associates with a need appear from around the corner.  It’s his job to make sure all the Innovation Center’s kitchen equipment is up and running and well calibrated, as well as glistening.  The Customer Solution Studio can seat more than 80 people, theater-style, and its strategically located, broadcast-quality cameras and monitors give food preparation demonstrations that up-close, network feel.

Technologically, the product presentation area has been designed for improving the speed and efficiency of customer teamwork for Rich’s sales, marketing and culinary teams.  From this Buffalo site, food and equipment presentations can be instantaneously streamed both to Rich’s associates and to outside customers and other external audiences anywhere around the globe.  The Innovation Center also houses a Learning Lab outfitted to accommodate, if necessary, educating of all 9,300 Rich’s associates throughout the world.  “We do have a quite a few options here,” Stephen modestly concedes.  “The place really does shine through.”