Amelia Levin Originally published on April 02, 2012
Psychiatric social worker. Wine and cheese class teacher. Cooking school and catering company owner. Vice president of foodservice and product development for a high-end supermarket chain and marketing director for a natural foods company. Food and beverage director for Starbucks. Restaurant chain menu development director. And now, MAS consultant and principal of her own firm, Culinary Options, Inc.
A familiar face in the industry, there seems to be little Karen Malody has not done. Throughout her 35-year career in the foodservice industry, she has received numerous awards including MAS Consultant of the Year from FCSI, Foodservice Industry Service Award, FCSI Service Award, written dozens of articles, served in a variety of active roles within FCSI, and has consulted hundreds of restaurant and operator clients on concept and menu development, operational flow, sustainable food and vendor sourcing, product development and more.
The interesting aspects of Malody’s life go on and on. For example, she once traveled to Mexico to cook with the legendary Diana Kennedy, the “Julia Child of Mexican Cuisine” in her Michoacán home. She makes jewelry as a hobby, practices yoga and works out regularly with a trainer. She is also a self-declared “fanatical” gardener, having grown up on a farm.
“Few people know that about me — that I grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington in a little town called Chewelah,” Malody says. “I rode a horse to a one-room school house, but nobody really knows that. We grew and raised everything we ate, even butchered our own meat. We fished for trout and hunted for venison and had tons of fresh vegetables and canned them so nothing went to waste. Talk about farm to table.”
Talk about it. Malody’s natural inclination toward wholesome food and cooking makes sense then, as does her known expertise in local food sourcing and sustainability consulting. “Having grown up that way, it’s amazing to me how foreign the idea of growing and raising your own food has become to so many people because of the supply chain mechanism in larger cities and the way food production changed so much in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I’m very proud of how I was raised; it’s where my roots are, so it makes me very passionate about what I eat and where I buy my food.”
Malody’s diverse background seems just that on the surface. But, each career and position has contributed to the perfect blend of experiences and skills that serve her well as a consultant. Malody earned her master’s from the University of Washington in Seattle and served as a social sciences instructor at a local community college. She even co-founded The Ark, a social service agency in Washington state. Although she left the field of social work for foodservice in the mid-seventies, Malody still draws on the skills she honed as a social worker.
“First and foremost I’m able to bring something to consulting that I hold in high regard, which is listening to others and understanding that what we’re doing with people in our relationships is counseling them,” Malody says. “In a sense, it very much is a therapeutic relationship. Often we find ourselves in a counseling role with our clients but not aware that’s the case.”
Being aware, active listening and question-asking, and coaxing people to find what’s inside them rather than impose your own ideas on them — these are the skills both social work counselors and foodservice consultant-counselors need to use in their work. “I try to let my clients go through their own internal process of discovery,” she says. “Just because we’re experts doesn’t mean we should go around telling people what to do.”
Malody uses these skills throughout all facets of consulting, but particularly during initial “ideation,” or brainstorming sessions with clients who want to open a restaurant and those already in the business that want to re-concept or rebrand. “It takes a minimum of one day, maybe two very hard mental work days for us to map out every thought, every idea, every innuendo,” she says. “I try to help people get grounded and be able to articulate their concepts and work through every detail before they do anything or go anywhere.” Ideation is so important to Malody that the original name of her company was Culinary Counsel and Ideation.
For restaurant startups, this can be an invaluable practice. In fact, the detailed nature of the ideation sessions have led some wannabe restaurant owners to rethink and cancel their initial plans. “Unfortunately, people think running a restaurant is easy,” Malody continues. “When in fact, it is one of the most complex businesses you could ever be in with very little net profit and sometimes 16- to 18-hour work days that can wreak havoc on health and home life.” That being the case, when done right and with preparation and proper planning, the restaurant business works, Malody adds.
A passion for the business and for serving others doesn’t hurt either. This, combined with a passion for food and the culinary aspects of the business has also helped Malody find success. In fact, her first jobs in the industry centered primarily on the food side of the business. A lifelong, self-taught cook and curious culinarian, Malody followed her heart when leaving social work for a job in the food business.
For her first job in foodservice, Malody went to work in 1976 at The Cheese Shop, then a leading store in the field. After a few months learning about the cheeses of the world, she began teaching wine and cheese classes at the shop. This led to a desire to start her own cooking school, opening the Gregorakis School of Cooking and Catering in Seattle, which Bon Appetit magazine featured in 1978. (Gregorakis is Malody’s former husband’s name).
The school soon became popular among restaurateurs in the area and as a result her first consulting job was born when one multi-unit restaurant operator, Restaurant Services Inc., recruited her as menu development director. After a six-year run with Restaurant Services, Larry’s Markets, an upscale, nationally known grocery store chain, recruited Malody to oversee culinary-focused, high-end foodservice and product development for its seven stores.
While at Larry’s Markets, Starbucks found Malody. Right at the peak of the coffee giant’s expansion, Malody served as food and beverage director, recruited to help ramp up the food program nationwide. From 1993 to 1997, Malody traveled the country and the world, assisting the rapidly growing Starbucks stores with their food programs, training and implementation.
“In 1994 alone, Starbucks expanded to 17 new markets,” she says. “I was constantly traveling to new cities to find bakeries that could bake to our specs, standards and price points and deliver in the middle of the night, 363 days of the year. I will say it was a fabulous opportunity to not only meet so many wonderful people with whom I’m still in contact, but to learn about cultural differences and eating preferences in our own cities.” She quickly fell in love with the restaurants and bakeries in New York and Philadelphia, the sweet tea in Atlanta, Cuban coffee in Miami, and the neighborhood dining in Chicago.
After leaving Starbucks, Malody says it did not take more than three days before another restaurant group reached out to her in search of product and menu development assistance, including the development of a sustainable fish program. “I never stopped consulting from that day.” She founded her company in 1997.
“I’ve learned so much from touching so many arenas of the foodservice industry, from distribution, to marketing, wholesale, retail, and working with high-end supermarkets and fast-casual to high-end restaurants,” Malody says. The day-to-day variety and excitement of the job keeps her going year-after-year.
So how does one become successful in this business? “You have to have a clear set of ethics and ideals as well as a lot of business sense,” she says. “You have to understand all aspects of business from P&L management to managing people.” A devotion to helping others succeed seals the deal.
The role of the consultant has changed in the last few years, just as the restaurant industry has changed in light of economic shifts. “I think the casualization and customization phenomena, coupled with the growth of the fast-casual segment and with the times being what they are economically and culturally has caused a lot of changes in our industry,” she says. “People are busy — we don’t eat three square meals a day anymore. I find my work has shifted far more to fast causal and integrating fabulous food into a service style that is more casual, but not sloppy.”
Change is inevitable in this industry, and Malody has certainly gone through her share of changes given her diverse background. But those who succeed are those who can also adapt.
- Name: Karen Malody
- Title: Owner and Principal, Culinary Options, Inc.
- Homebase: Seattle, Wash.
- Years in Foodservice Industry: 35
- Number of Industry Awards: 6
- First Job: Psychiatric social worker
- First Foodservice Jobs: Specialty cheese shop worker and server in high school at a truck stop in Chewelah, Wash.
- Favorite Restaurants: Marea in NYC and Topolobombo in Chicago
- Best Dining Experience: In general, impeccable sushi, which I adore
- Favorite Foods: Pasta and stinky cheeses (in moderation), regional Mexican cuisine
- Favorite Cities for Food (other than Seattle): New York City,
- San Francisco, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago
- Maximum Deadlift Weight: 155 and counting