Irene Sax - July/August 2000
Food Arts presents the July/August 2000 Silver Spoon Award for Sterling performance to Nick Valenti, Restaurant Associates' (RA) president and CEO, in recognition of his ability to keep a giant foodservice company charging ahead of the times.
In an industry that has its share of big egos, Valenti is known as a quietly confident man who prefers to let his work speak for him. In an era of super-specialists, he has shown a rare combination of vision, management ability, and financial savvy. And in a time when people change jobs as easily as they change channels, he has spent his entire working life with one company, rising steadily from management trainee to president and CEO of an enterprise that feeds 75,000 people a day.
It's been an eventful period. When Valenti took over in 1994, a majority of stock in the once-thriving business was owned by Kyotaru, the Japanese sushi take-out company. In 1996 he led a management group that bought back control and in 1998 negotiated RA's acquisition by Compass Group, the world's largest foodservice organization. With the capital provided, Valenti put RA into a period of growth that reminded some observers of its glory days, when the late Joe Baum was opening La Fonda del Sol, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and The Four Seasons. In short, he's credited with the rebirth of Restaurant Associates.
Valenti's financial moves have been so impressive that it's easy to overlook the fact that he's also a master of innovative concepts. There were Naples 45, Café Centro, Cucina and Co., and Tropica in the MetLife Building. There was the five-year and $5 million reinvention of the 41-year-old Brasserie as a "Midtown downtown restaurant" and the reopening of the lighter, brighter Sea Grill and Rock Center Cafe in Rockefeller Center. There was fine dining at the U.S. Tennis Open. But these attention-getting locations are just a small part of a diverse foodservice company, one that generates $300 million a year by feeding everyone from investment bankers to school children visiting the American Museum of Natural History, from United Nations delegates to students at Harvard Business School.
Valenti, who came to this country from Italy when he was three, grew up on Long Island and went through the hospitality program at New York City Community College. Married, with two grown children, he laughed off the attention he got when the Brasserie reopened. When he was asked if he wanted to be known as the person who made Restaurant Associates trendy again, he said, "I'd rather be seen as someone who created things that met the test of time."