Category: Food for Thought

04- May2023
Posted By: Hollie Altman

From Client to Consultant – Hollie’s Experience Joining the JGL Team

It is hard to believe that it’s been two years since I joined JGL!

It was February 2021, less than a year after the pandemic turned the world upside down. I had been laid off from a museum job I loved here in Miami (a former client of JGL), was assembling 30,000 emergency meals a day with my former employer’s catering partner and making mango pies to sell on the side! My kid finished kindergarten on the computer, and I sent her off to summer camp in a mask. It was literally “wicky-wacky land!”

When my now-boss Tracy Lawler posted on LinkedIn that JGL was looking for support, I thought to myself, “Hey, I would be perfect for that!” And now, two years later, here I am!

It has been a wild ride since then. After almost 15 years of running event departments in two different major Miami cultural institutions, it felt like I was starting from zero. For many years, my life involved sitting at a computer in short stints between doing laps around huge campuses, interacting with gobs of colleagues and clients, and being behind the scenes at hundreds of events. Now, I was at my home office, mostly alone (with my dog, Mei Mei) analyzing, writing, thinking, analyzing and thinking some more. It is very different, but I love what I do. I am able to blend my love for the cultural world with events, food & beverage and impart my knowledge and experience for the benefit of organizations and communities.

View from my desk: Mei Mei watching me

During the height of the pandemic, I not only had to learn a new job (like many others), but a whole new way of being.

And then the restrictions began to lift, and I went on the road… Pittsburg, Longmont, Denver, Sarasota, Ft. Meyers, Palm Beach, San Diego, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Phoenix, not to mention several clients here in Miami! I have seen some of the country’s most important landmarks, and met with some amazing, inspiring leaders. I love supporting our clients and helping these incredible organizations achieve their operational goals. In my own small way, I am making a difference!  The work we do has the power to impact the community; whether it be encouraging local sourcing, adding jobs, or celebrating cultural diversity – my work makes me feel so proud!

My daughter says she wants to do what I do when she grows up – visit museums and taste food. She’s one smart cookie!

22- Mar2023
Posted By: Connor Leahy

Help! Our Dining Provider Can’t Turn a Profit!

One of the most common issues we’ve seen in the post-COVID higher-education field is a sudden lack of profitability for food service Operators. This is not surprising with fewer students opting to reside on campus and continuing supply chain issues; but understanding the new realities of higher-education food service doesn’t make it any easier to stomach the never-ending subsidy statements from your food service Operator. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many Operators struggle and fail to find a solution to this problem. Thus, it’s up to you, institutional leadership, to find creative ways out of the red. Here are five potential solutions that you might implement to move your dining services back towards profitability.

  1. Consolidate as Many Services as Possible

Consolidating all food services (dining, catering, vending) is the most straightforward solution possible for institutions looking to decrease their subsidy. Economies of scale come into play here; the more services (and thus, revenues) that fall under an Operator’s purview, the easier it will be to maintain profitability. If your institution currently contracts its food-related services out to different Operators, consider consolidation.

  1. Mandate Meal Plans for Non-Residential and Commuter Students

The loss of residential students on meal plans has been the biggest hit on revenue generation for higher-education dining. A guaranteed source of income makes planning for upcoming semesters easier. Operators can aim to keep costs below meal plan sales, and greater meal plan sales provide leeway in incurring costs. Consider introducing a modest declining balance meal requirement for non-residential students. A modest $200/semester plan for 500 commuter students could add $200K in guaranteed revenues to offset an Operator’s costs. Mandated plans also have the benefit of encouraging non-residential students to stay on campus longer and integrate with the larger residential community.

  1. Market Event Spaces to Third-Party Clients

Many higher-education institutions have beautiful but underutilized event spaces that are only available to student groups, alumni, and institutional leadership. While allowing third parties to host events on your campus does complicate event booking and security policies, it can also be a great source of revenue. Not only does this result in incremental catering revenue (as a rule of thumb, catering is much more profitable than dining), it also results in event rental revenue direct to the institution. Many third-party corporate and social clientele are willing to pay a premium for use of a ‘non-traditional’ event space. These event rental fees could go directly towards offsetting an Operator’s potential subsidy in the dining operation. In highly populated metro areas where space is at a premium, minimal marketing efforts can effectively fill an event calendar and guarantee additional revenue.

  1. Develop Off-Premise Catering Relationships

If your institution is unwilling or not able to host third-party events on campus, another potential solution might be to bring your catering department to the third party. Under this scenario, a food service Operator would utilize the institution’s kitchen to prep catered meals for off-site client events. This can be a great solution for institutions in metro areas with numerous office parks nearby. To offset any increased wear and tear on kitchen equipment, look at implementing a percentage of sales maintenance/repair/replacement charge-back to the Operator. If successful, some institutions may even be able to negotiate a percentage of off-site catering sales commission to further offset any potential subsidy in the dining operation.

  1. Look at Developing a “Master RFP” with Other Institutions

This should be an institution’s last resort in the quest for profitability. While this solution frequently results in big savings, it also reduces control over your dining services. This approach effectively maximizes the consolidation of food services on campus by combining your institution’s food services with multiple other higher-education institutions. This can be particularly advantageous for higher-education accounts with smaller residential populations; three Universities with a combined 6,000 student population are much more attractive to an Operator than a single university with a population of 2,000. This ensures greater revenue for an Operator and also results in reduced costs through sharing of labor and a common supply chain. If you have developed close relationships with nearby peer institutions who are in a similar predicament, this may be a great solution.

A word of warning for these and any other potential solutions; make sure to do your homework! Share your thoughts with your food service Operator and ask them to run detailed projections for any proposed changes to your dining services. While these solutions can be very helpful in certain scenarios, they can also have negligible results in others. Creating a dedicated event rental site for your institution, for example, might cost more than the incremental revenue generated from event sales if your institution is located in an area with limited venue demand. Regardless of your initial proclivity towards any solution, work with your Operator to determine the best approach towards profitability.

JGL is always happy to expand our network, have informal conversations, and share industry insights. Contact us to chat about your operation!

09- Mar2023

Most Frequently Asked Questions About Food Service and Retail Programs

The JGL team works with organizations across the U.S. and Canada. Our goal is to help our clients reach maximum success with their amenity food service programs, retail merchandise outlets, and catering operations. We have compiled a list of the questions we are asked most frequently by clients who are charged with building these types of programs.

  1. Is there a minimum attendance level required for an organization to have a café or retail location?

We believe that offering food service and retail merchandise has the ability to enhance the visitor experience, deepen ties to the institution, and increase the length of stay. Smaller institutions can consider a simple kiosk or mobile cart that is weekend or seasonally programmed for both food service and retail merchandise operations.

  1. What are the metrics we should track for our store?

Capture rate, check average, sales per square foot and top seller by units and volume are important measures.

  1. Can our institution still have a café even if we do not have a full cooking kitchen on the premises?

Many café operations are supplied from outside kitchens (called commissaries). This allows the organizations to preserve valuable space for programmatic initiatives and generally negates the need for a hood and fire suppression system onsite.

  1. Where is the best location for a café?

The best location is one the visitor sees upon entry to the venue, ideally near the gift shop! This may not be possible in many facilities. If the café is not highly visible, be sure to have good directional signage within the building and feature it prominently on the website, maps, and collateral material.

  1. We know our café will not be profitable, but we cannot afford to subsidize it. Are there other options?

Catering and retail operations are much more profitable than café operations. Consider a short, preferred caterer list, an exclusive caterer, bundling the liquor rights with the catering operation, including retail, or guaranteeing a certain volume of internal catering. The more revenues opportunities an Operator can capture, the more likely they are to support an amenity café.

  1. Will a “destination restaurant” generate sizable profits and be a draw to the institution?

The number of financially successful, true “destination restaurants” within a cultural environment are few and far between. Many more fail than succeed. A destination restaurant requires a separate outside entrance, heavy street traffic, and full control over hours, menu, and price points. It also helps to be in an area where there are other successful restaurants. Tread carefully here because the failure of a destination restaurant within an institution will be considered a failure of the organization.

  1. What is the optimal contract length?

It depends upon the start-up cost, the volume of sales activity, and whether there is an investment requirement. A contract with no investment (for food service) might be as short as 3 years. The average in our practice (for food service and retail) is 5-7 years. A contract with significant investment might be 10 years plus.

  1. Should an online store be part of the retail concession contract?

YES!  There should also be a commitment and focus from the Concessionaire to operate the online store effectively and not as an afterthought.

  1. Is an exclusive relationship or a preferred caterers list the better choice?

It depends upon the norms in your market and the goals of the food service program. We do not generally advise developing an exclusive relationship if the rest of the market has preferred lists because that will create a negative differentiation. Below is a chart that highlights the commonly accepted advantages and disadvantages of each:

Measure Preferred List Exclusive
Client Choice High Low
Varied Price Points Likely Less Likely
Café Development Unlikely Likely
Commission Return Lower Higher
Investment Potential Little or None Higher
Facility Caretaking Depends Upon Caterer Better
Marketing Assistance Will Feature on Website Will Commit Money
Sales Assistance Unlikely Likely
Preferred Internal Pricing Limited Definitely
  1. What is the average percentage or fee paid to venues by their caterers?

For catering, the starting commission nationwide is 10% on food and beverage; the current average is 13%. Commission terms are based on sales volume. Sometimes an Operator will present a sliding scale that will include increased commissions (well above the national average) once catering sales pass a specific threshold. Catering commission may be reduced if there is a requirement to run a visitor food operation, a significant investment, or a short-term contract.

  1. What is the average commission paid to cultural institutions by retail operators?

The commission varies depending on sales volume. We have seen as low as 15% and as high as 36%.

For more information about any of the topics addressed above, please contact JGL Consultants for a complimentary consultation!

09- Mar2023

JGL Gives Back: The Princeton University Art Museum

JGL is excited to award the Princeton University Art Museum a $3,000 gift in honor of our founder, James G. Lawler. This first gift is significant for the following reasons:

  1. Jim was a class of ’58 graduate from Princeton University.
  2. Jim and his wife Barbara made Princeton, NJ their home and the community in which they raised their family.
  3. Jim always felt a deep connection to both the Museum and the University.

We are delighted to support the Princeton University Art Museum and believe strongly in their mission. As one of the world’s leading teaching museums, the impact of their collections, educational programming, and various publications has the power to transform generations to come.

The Museum is undergoing an ambitious expansion project designed by Sir David Adjaye. The Museum is scheduled to open in late 2024. To learn more about the expansion and the Museum, click below:

A New Museum for Princeton | Princeton University Art Museum

Our search for the next recipient of the JGL Gives Back contribution has begun! If you have suggestions regarding organizations that are dedicated to the arts, education, travel or food service, email us at [email protected] to nominate your choice for the next $3,000 gift!

18- Jan2023
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

Is Your Food Service Program Stuck in the Past?

Happy New Year! People are coming back to the office on a more regular basis and things are starting to feel more like 2019 again… thank goodness! Now the question is, how do you keep things fresh and interesting so that boredom doesn’t settle in?

Here are 6 tips to ensure your corporate dining program is staying ahead of the curve:

  1. ROTATION – Be sure your program includes rotating pop-up concepts that represent local, popular restaurants. This allows employees to conveniently enjoy their favorite local spot without having to leave the office. Creating a variety of offerings is crucial to ensuring consistent engagement.
  2. ASKING A QUESTION – Find creative ways to encourage employees to become more invested in the food service program. For example, if you are considering a new coffee brand, offer a taste test that concludes with a vote, or ask guests to submit their favorite family recipe to be featured at a weekly Chef’s Table station.
  3. TECH MATTERS – Order ahead, self-checkout and App-based platforms are a must. Even if you find that people are more inclined to make purchases the old-fashioned way, technology speaks volumes about the level of program your organization has. Additionally, having a technology program in place allows for faster and more efficient communication to support marketing initiatives.
  4. WELL, WELL, WELLNESS – In this day and age, not only are people concerned about the spreading of germs, but we are very focused on overall health! What kinds of foods can help build a strong immune system? Having a registered dietician available to answer questions and help develop programs that are relevant to wellness is more important than ever.
  5. TRANSPARENCY – From responsible food sourcing to allergen sensitivity, to carbon emissions, a food story is vitally important. The how, when, where and why need to be communicated.
  6. USE YOUR DATA – You have access to all the information you need to understand exactly what ‘your people’ want. Review your sales data, participation rates, marketing campaigns and top sellers to develop an analysis of what excites people and gets them to walk through the door.

Whether you self-operate your food service operation or work with a management company, JGL can make recommendations to energize your food service program. In many ways, we are excited for the world to feel like 2019 again, but your food service program shouldn’t be stuck in the past.

18- Jan2023
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

Your Food Service Contract Is Expiring – Should You Renew or Go Out to Bid?

JGL frequently works with corporate clients who are trying to determine whether to renew their food service agreement or go out to bid. While there is not one answer that fits all, here are a few elements to consider when faced with this decision.

  1. Employee Satisfaction: Are employees generally satisfied and regular users of the dining services operation? Employee participation is critical in this environment of decreased office population.
  2. Creativity and Proactive Thinking: The best relationships are ones where the vendor comes to the client with new ideas for consideration. If you, the client, are driving all creative thinking it may be time to go out to bid.
  3. Age of the contract: If the contract was signed more than ten years ago, it might be a good idea to consider an RFP. Industry terms, norms and operating practices change over time, so an older contract likely does not have all the bells and whistles more current contracts do.
  4. Current Relationship: If the current relationship with the vendor is good and generally has been over the course of the contract, a renewal may serve you both well.
  5. Responsiveness: No vendor is going to be perfect all the time. What matters is how they respond to challenges. If your vendor is responsive in the face of challenges, that is a positive consideration for renewal.
  6. Evaluate reporting: Does the vendor give you the reports and data you need to understand the business? Are the reports accurate and timely? If not, it might be time to consider a change.
  7. Renew with Tweaks: If you are generally satisfied on most fronts, but want to implement one or two modest changes (like including KPI’s in the renewal), use this time as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with your provider. This is the best of both worlds as you get change without going out to bid.
  8. Consider a Provisional Renewal: When JGL works with a client who is generally satisfied but is seeking meaningful change in key areas, we will often offer a short-term renewal while the vendor focuses on improving the deficient areas. At the end of a proscribed period, the client has a better sense of whether the vendor can effect change. If positive progress exists, the renewal is extended, and if not, the client commences a bid process.
  9. Consider Time and Resources: An RFP is an investment in time and resources. If management does not have the time to focus on the selection process it will not have a good outcome. Be honest with regards to your firm’s capacities at the moment.
  10. Identify Goals: If a bid process is elected, be clear about the goals of the process. A well-crafted RFP will garner the proposals you want while one that is poorly thought out may not result in significant change.

These ten points are worthy of consideration as contract expiration looms. We recommend clients start focusing on next steps a minimum of one year before contract expiration. If you have any questions on where your company stands, reach out to JGL for a complimentary consultation.

18- Jan2023
Posted By: Tracy Lawler

JGL’s Roots – A Tribute to Our Founder

Most people who meet me and learn what I do for a living ask “how did you get into this”? My answer is in a very circular (yet organic) way. It all started with my dad James Gates Lawler (yes – JGL… I know – not very creative). Jim worked for two of the “big three” in his career and was instrumental in developing cultural business for Restaurant Associates in the 1970’s and 80’s. As a teenager I used to love going into Manhattan and eating at all the great restaurants he had access to. In 1983, he ventured out on his own and started JGL Management Services. Although his first clients were city clubs, he quickly decided to adjust course and started working with museums and performing arts centers. A lifelong cultural aficionado, Jim had a unique understanding of both the cultural institution guest experience and the way in which food service providers viewed these accounts. Jim and my mother Barbara were always going to museums, symphonies, and operas; as his business flourished, I would hear about the food service experience as often as the cultural experience. He started his business in an era when many museum directors still did not understand the value of visitor food service; to his great frustration many a client still wanted to relegate their eateries to the basement or some other out of the way location.

I worked in restaurants all through high school and college and loved the business. I graduated from college, went through a restaurant management training program, and after several years managing restaurants reluctantly decided the lifestyle did not suit my needs. Although my dad and I had talked about working together, it seemed unlikely as I exited the restaurant business and moved on to publishing. I loved my magazine publishing career; I rose to General Manager of several national publications and got my MBA from NYU along the way. A funny thing happened though – after the birth of my second child I was visiting my dad and offered to help him with some financial projections for one of his clients. After a few months of doing this, I think a lightbulb went off for both of us. He needed help because his business was growing, I was looking for a new challenge, still loved the food service business, no longer wanted to commute into NYC from Princeton, and voila – we found a way to work together!

Along the way Jim taught me everything he knew. He was patient and always so generous with his time and experience. I use my maiden name professionally, so over the years I have run into many people who say “Lawler”? are you related to Jim Lawler? I heard many great stories about Jim over the years.  He was so well respected and admired in the community and I always loved hearing stories about the early days of the business.

I had the good fortune to work with my dad from 1998 until 2010 when he retired. After he retired, we still spoke frequently about industry matters, and he loved following the growth of the business. He was always the first person to respond to our email blasts! He was thrilled when my son Connor started interning for JGL; Connor has been a full-time employee since October of 2019.

Jim died peacefully in his sleep on August 12, 2021. I miss him daily but know how proud he was of the business JGL has grown into and more importantly how his legacy has allowed his daughter, grandson, and five other employees to work daily in a profession and business that is incredibly rewarding on so many levels.

18- Jan2023

Cheers to 40 Years!

It’s JGL’s 40th Birthday!! We want to celebrate by giving back to the community and honoring the memory of our founder, Jim Lawler. Jim loved the arts, education, travel and of course, the food service industry.

Share your recommendations via the comments on our LinkedIn post by January 31, 2023 to have your suggestion considered for the first donation.

Read more about JGL’s Roots and our founder, Jim Lawler here.

19- Dec2022

Team Retreat 2022

In November of 2022, the JGL team had the opportunity to come together in person for the first time since 2019! Some of us flew, others drove, but we all met in Manchester, Vermont for an epic three-day company retreat. We ate delicious food, had an all-day meeting where we were able to share ideas, experiences, and best practices. We risked our lives during two team building activities and got to enjoy being with one another. The value in bringing people together for collaborative experiences is priceless. As food service and retail consultants, we are big proponents of helping our clients find ways to deepen customer and/or employee engagement – it was incredibly satisfying to practice what we preach!!

If a picture is worth a thousand words…check out these photos to get the whole story! We had a blast!!


Team JGL stayed at the beautiful Equinox Golf Resort & Spa

Resort in Manchester Village | The Equinox Golf Resort & Spa (

We spent one full day sharing ideas, discussing new strategies, and collaborating on how we can better serve our clients. Our brainstorming sessions were energizing and productive – we can’t wait to roll out some of our new ideas in 2023!

After our day-long strategy session, we scheduled one full day for fun and team building! Some of us started our day with a beautiful hike just steps away from our hotel.

Next, we visited Hildene, the Lincoln family home (Hildene Farm & Goat Dairy | Hildene). It was incredible to tour the house and property and learn more about the Lincoln family lineage. Team JGL was obviously enthralled by the equipment shown in the kitchen images below.

Following Hildene, we had a delicious Burmese lunch at Moonwink! ((2) MOONWINK | Manchester Center VT | Facebook) It was the first time many of the team members had tried Burmese cuisine – so delicious! We highly recommend Moonwink if you are in the Manchester area. It was packed around lunch time so clearly the word is out about this little gem of a restaurant.

After lunch, we made our way to Manchester Hot Glass (Manchester Hot Glass). What an experience!! Tracy and Brooke were terrified for their lives, but everyone else seemed to be relaxed. Andrew (owner and artist) was amazing and led us through the glass blowing process with a ton of humor and education. We thought it was pretty incredible to learn that just a few weeks prior to our visit, Andrew led Paul McCartney through a one-on-one glass blowing session!!

After we played with fire, it was on to axe throwing!!!! JGL is all about testing the limits and pushing ourselves! We discovered that some of the team members were natural-born axe throwers!! Colleen threw the winning ‘bull’s eye at the end of our tournament, which secured the championship title for the ladies team!

All in all, the JGL 2022 retreat was an outstanding success. We bonded around a fire pit under the stars, did some incredible work, and have some wacky inside jokes that will forever be funny to only us. We are all looking forward to the 2023 retreat!!

19- Dec2022

JGL Competes with Llamas in the Library

Frequently, when JGL is working with a higher education account on an RFP process, we recommend hosting a Town Hall to solicit student feedback. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions and share thoughts about campus dining services. JGL always suggests gathering a variety of viewpoints to ensure a fair and equitable process.

While working with Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the JGL team (Tracy, Ryan and Connor) were getting ready to start a Town Hall presentation when they found out that another popular event was happening at the exact same time – Llamas in the Library!

Team JGL crossed their fingers that a lively food service discussion would be just as compelling as livestock in the Library – and it was! Shout out to MCAD students – we had more than 30 students attend. The Town Hall was a success! The MCAD RFP process is off to a solid start. However, as soon as the meeting concluded, Tracy, Ryan and Connor all quickly made their way to the library – they realized they had neglected to interview a group of stakeholders….the Llamas!!!

Happy holidays from the JGL team and our new furry friends!