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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 2 months ago

New COO of restaurant group brings lessons from entertainment giant

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Michelle Schlingmann has also brought an eye for details to her role at American Dreams Restaurant Group.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

For many, Thanksgiving means enjoying a combination of turkey, family, cranberry sauce, football, stuffing and a post-meal nap.

For Michelle Schlingmann, COO of Sarasota-based American Dreams Restaurant Group, last Thanksgiving involved something entirely different.

That day, she showed up ready to work at the restaurants the company operates, including Duval’s Fresh Local Seafood, Element Modern Grill and Plaza Bistro 'n' Tavern. She told staff, “I’m here to do whatever you need.” Schlingmann folded napkins, did dishes, bussed tables, polished silverware, vacuumed and carried linens. She also watched the company’s restaurants in action on a busy, high-pressure day.

‘First and foremost is customer experience,’ — Michelle Schlingmann, American Dreams Restaurant Group

The last few months have had a lot of watch-and-learn moments for Schlingmann, who comes to her hospitality management role from another side of hospitality: entertainment. She previously worked at Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, in operations and other roles. “I’m still learning,” she says. “I don’t come from the restaurant industry.” When she started at American Dreams, she bought several hundred dollars worth of books, from textbooks to stories of people in the industry. “I came with book knowledge,” Schlingmann says. “Now I’m gaining street cred.”

Schlingmann was hired to help fine-tune and grow the restaurant company. She's brought some lessons learned from Feld, along with a keen sense of details that could translate to any business where top-notch customer service is paramount. 

Schlingmann worked at Feld, which produces live shows ranging from Monster Jam and Disney On Ice to Marvel Universe Live! and Sesame Street Live, for six years. She worked on systems and operations and assisted with processes and procedures that affected the company’s touring units and employees around the globe. She worked on computer back-end systems, in the consumer products division and with the human resources department as a business partner.

One project she worked on at Feld was to develop a better system for a paper-based process that involved employee transfer forms and several departments. She changed it to an all-electronic process, streamlining it from start to finish.

A major lesson Schlingmann has brought to American Dreams, since starting in September 2019, is the power of a small, cohesive army of people. “It takes that to produce a show,” she says. It also takes that to run a restaurant. Everyone has to be, as she puts it, properly informed and well practiced so they can perform.

Another top lesson from Feld that translates at American Dreams is to keep a high level of focus on the guest experience. At the restaurants, she says, it’s important to genuinely care for guests who walk in the door.

At Feld, Schlingmann also learned the importance of investing in the needs of the business. If an item is needed to better service guests, it’s purchased. Now she’s carried that approach into American Dreams. A grill was recently purchased for Duval’s, for example, because Schlingmann learned chefs could only use part of their prior grill because of warping. A new grill, she says, allows employees to offer guests better service.

Schlingmann brought her impeccable eye for details to the restaurant group, too. She’s studied each employee and physical aspects of the restaurants, noticing where improvements might be made. Her focus is on staff needs and the guest experience.

Schlingmann, for one, examines the drinking glasses on the tables to make sure they’re spotless. If a glass isn’t gleaming, she turns it upside down as an indication it needs to be replaced. Every detail is important to her — and important to guests — down to a single glass. “First and foremost is customer experience,” she says.

Schlingmann’s approach also involves an incredible work ethic. Every morning, seven days a week, she looks at customer reviews on websites such as Yelp and OpenTable. She typically sleeps four hours a night, she says, and arrives at work at 5:30 or 6 a.m. She does a walk around and examines internal metrics from the night before to see how the restaurants did. If, say, something was sent back because it was overcooked, Schlingmann will have a conversation with employees in the kitchen.

Her biggest challenge? Cost control. “We will not compromise on the grass-fed meats we buy,” she says, or the delivery frequency of meat, seafood and produce. It’s important to the company to get fresh items delivered regularly. With that in mind, Schlingmann is trying to find an answer to the question, “How do we get it more cost effectively?” Growing the restaurants’ volume will help them get better pricing, and Schlingmann is also having conversations with vendors now, asking them, “Is there a way to buy better?”

American Dreams has ambitions to grow beyond Sarasota, but first it’s focusing on growing its current establishments. “They need to consistently show performance every night, in and out of season,” she says. 

At Feld and now at American Dreams Schlingmann, in general, takes what she calls a “solutions-driven approach” to whatever the challenge of the moment is, from cost control to drinking glasses. “My philosophy is you can talk until you’re purple in the face about what’s wrong,” she says. Instead, “Talk about the solution.”

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