Interview with Marriott International’s Angela Kuzma
March 20th, 2019
Mike Raven: Let’s let the readers get to know you a bit. Tell us how you got started in the restaurant & bar space of the hospitality industry.
Angela Kuzma: I believe like a lot of people in the hospitality industry, especially on the F&B side, we fall into or in love with the business and it finds us and never lets us go. It starts with the enjoyment of a sublime meal or rare bottle of wine and leads to a lifelong pursuit. One of my first jobs in a restaurant was as a hostess. One day the pastry chef quit and with the boldness or entitlement that only a young person can muster, I told the exec chef that I could do the job. He had me show up at 4 a.m. the next morning to make eight desserts and two specials as my trial. I was offered the job and thereafter would get to work at 4 a.m., attend my university classes at noon and come back at 5 p.m. to work the front of house or garde manger.
I remember the first day of this new routine, I was working the floor and a table stopped me to say that they wanted to meet the pastry chef. They were visiting from East Hampton for Jazz Fest and throughout their world travels, had never had a better crème brûlée than the one they were eating. I was blown away by the compliment after realizing that I had made that. They offered me a glass of Louis XIII as a thank you and that experience pretty much solidified my career in hospitality.
MR: It has been fun to do my research on you – you’re quite the traveler! According to what I’ve read, you have visited over 44 countries. Those travels included a midlife self-discovery backpacking trek for more than a year through Central and South America and Europe; you even worked two wine harvests during that stint. I also read that to this day, your proudest work experience was time spent interning at Emiliana, a biodynamic winery in Chile.
AK: Whenever I tell people that I took over a year off to travel, I can see a look of wonder and curiosity in their eyes. Sometimes they think I must have been crazy or lonely as a female traveling solo through countries they think to be a little dangerous. What a lot of people don’t know is that by traveling alone, you sometimes/most times get to meet people you would normally not take the time to talk to because you already have company, and some of these people become lifelong friends. And in some of these countries or cities that are deemed dangerous, you encounter the friendliest people willing and eager to share their homes, customs and hospitality with you.
Emiliana holds an extra special place in my heart especially today. My mentor, Patrick Leon, one of the greatest oenologists of all time, helped guide me through this journey. He recently passed this year after a long battle with cancer but I will be forever grateful and humbled by what he taught me about wine and the pursuit of a good life. He shared a story once about going to a wine tasting and when they broke for lunch, there were sandwiches being served. He asked the team to instead provide a lunch where they could sit down and eat a proper lunch with a knife and fork, explaining that making fine wine deserved a fine meal along with utensils and a seat. I have always loved that story.
MR: You have had over two decades of hospitality experience in some of the nation’s top restaurants and hotels, including your own 5oz. Factory – a grilled cheese and custard shop in the West Village that drew high acclaim from The New York Times and other periodicals. How was being an entrepreneur different than working for a company?
AK: 5oz. Factory was such a crazy time in my life. My business partner and I both had families that hailed from Wisconsin and we felt passionately about Wisconsin dairy. We won the “Big Cheesy” award, a Time Out competition, and we also were named Breakout Brand of the Year by Nation’s Restaurant News. Having our food photographed and providing recipes to Florence Fabricant for the Food Section is something that anyone in the culinary business dreams about. However, the lessons learned in running a small shop in a city full of high rents and institutional brands can be heartbreaking and the challenges enormous. I have always done well working for established restaurant and hotel groups and find an immense satisfaction from using my business acumen and a life worth of hard knocks to help others succeed. You miss working and collaborating with teams when you’re running around trying to survive every day and pay rent. Running businesses for others is hard but running a business for yourself is even harder.
MR: What ultimately led you to your current role with Marriott International?
AK: Marriott as a hotel group has always been intriguing to me. When I worked in New York City, I met with a few people in different departments to discuss opportunities in new business development and sales but never for F&B. I had set up a solid network and impressive list of clients that were very enticing for larger brands but it was a challenge to get their meeting planners to explore opportunities with them. Granted, I worked for very trendy/lifestyle hotels, but my relationships were strong. When the opportunity came along to lead the restaurant and bar center of expertise for Marriott International, it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Not only is this department brand agnostic with global reach, it is discipline-focused on an immense scale that incorporates enterprise and platform initiatives. This is not an everyday opportunity and I recognized that quickly. While Marriott is the largest travel company in the world, it is also the most innovative. The resources and talent are immeasurable, and the passion and commitment are unwavering and I know this because I see it everyday in the work the team and I do.
MR: How many hotels does Marriott currently have in its portfolio? How many brands?
AK: Marriott International will have close to 7,000 hotels at the end of this year and has just launched its combined loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy. Currently there are 30 brands in the portfolio ranging from select service/limited service to ultra-premium and luxury hotels. So many people I talk to don’t realize that Marriott International’s portfolio of brands includes Autograph, Design Hotels, Edition, St. Regis and Moxy. I often remind people about all of the amazing brands that became part of Marriott in the Starwood acquisition as well. Marriott International really is a company of brands, not hotels, which is why it is quickly becoming everyone’s favorite travel company and I don’t see brand or hotel development slowing down anytime soon.
MR: Is the focus more brand-specific when it comes to the work to your team does, or is the focus more broadly the restaurant and bar concepts across Marriott International’s whole portfolio? How does the team divide and conquer?
AK: The work the team does equally covers brand segment initiatives, concept/design development for luxury brands, activations and training across continents to include R&B and meetings and events, internal and external conferences, enterprise and platform work within our own restaurant and bar discipline. The work is so involved and broad reaching into innovation, tech, loyalty and digital spaces across our company. The scope, breadth and depth of the work we entrench ourselves in on a daily basis is what defines how enterprising and innovative we really are as a company. At this point, no one should be surprised that Marriott hits on all fronts when it comes to innovation and relevancy.
MR: There has lately been a lot of talk and focus around new and innovative ingredients in cocktails and food – everything from a push for healthier, less-sugary drinks, to alcohol-free cocktails. How are you approaching ongoing and emerging trends in this space?
AK: Food and beverage will always emerge as leaders in the forefront of creating and following trends, whether it be color schemes, plating styles or flavors. I think so many bars and restaurants get caught up on chasing or creating trends with the fear that they will become irrelevant if they don’t. Where we see a lot of success is in the restaurants that really understand their concept, what they are good at and what their neighborhood needs from them. They don’t necessarily look at the market as much as they look at their local neighborhood. They stick to what they know and there is no confusion as to what they are making and what they are offering.
I read a great article recently on “authenticity” – a word that gets thrown out a lot and can be confusing for many. What makes a place authentic is really how it makes the guest feel, so that they can be their most authentic selves. This is about the person, not the place and I think that’s the right way to approach all the trends. That’s not to say that we don’t recognize trends evolve and we certainly need to actively participate in the process.
MR: What does your team look for when testing out and identifying liquor, beer and wine selections or programs for the hotels?
AK: The team has such a passion for all things food and beverage. But like any expert in their field, they are most interested in what is made with outstanding ingredients, has integrity in production and, of course, a good story. They want to choose items that our guests will have a positive emotional and physical response to. They also like some of the more esoteric items as well as the rare gems, to provide variety and opportunity. And finally, value always plays an important role in making solid selections for our programs. We like to work with partners who share the same value system as well.
Our department is well fortified with a base of knowledge that is enviable for most companies. Dan Hoffman, our longtime Director of Food & Wine programs in Global Operations, is a walking encyclopedia of not just past and current products but also keeps us all up to speed on trends and innovations across other companies. He is such a huge asset to our organization and I know our beverage programs would not be as comprehensive or well-rounded if not for his expertise.
MR: How does your team inspire you?
AK: I believe that anyone who has worked with any member of my team will understand me when I say what an honor it is to be surrounded by their passion, tenacity, skills and creativity. Their own values resonate with my core values, so as a team, we’re able to take the F&B vision provided by our leader Matthew Von Ertfelda, understand it holistically and then divide and conquer. Each member brings their own unique qualities to the table and their relentless pursuit of excellence has helped to bring Marriott Restaurant and Bar discipline to the forefront. Gary Gruver and Kyle Hall have such clarity when it comes to points of view for beverage activations, programming and brand positioning. Their ability to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary can be very profound.
MR: What is one of the most important things you are currently focused on?
AK: Our “Hire Artisans” Platform cross-focuses on recruiting and retaining talent. Our vision to “FIND, HIRE and GROW” F&B talent is a huge initiative and priority for us as we continue to grow our portfolio around the globe. Creating a sustainable platform that incorporates technology, shared databases, training platforms and a viable network/pipeline of talent is tantamount to our success and the success of our properties. Our internal and external storytelling around our talent and our digital and social media efforts around our talent have gained such great traction with both our associates and the guests who are served by them – you can follow us at #DiaryoftheCraft.
Masters of the Craft, an internal cocktail and cooking competition led by our America’s team, with international competitions in our other continents as well, received over 6.5 million hits on social media, which proves that talent and their value are important parts of the conversation and landscape within hospitality, especially within food and beverage.
MR: What are your thoughts about the use of local state and city products in your hotels? I’m including regional wines and spirits that probably don’t get as much attention as local beers.
AK: Hotels and restaurants more than ever are trying to stay as local and authentic as they can. This is no longer a trend but the norm and the expectation from the local community, and the global guests visiting have made this even more visible. We have valuable partners that have international and national reach, and their presence and brand strength will always be represented and wanted from the buyers and the consumers. There is always strength in diversity and having a well-rounded list that showcases well-known favorites as well as local products to include wine, beer and spirits, should complement each other, not be a detractor from a great beverage program.
MR: What’s your choice of elixir? What drink do you enjoy the most, whether at home or out on the town?
AK: There’s not one thing I enjoy more than the other because drinking has a lot more to do with the experience, place and people than the drink itself. I like to drink what feels right for the mood although I rarely turn down a vintage Champagne. I love to see drinks fit for the season, and if I see a hot buttered Rum or eggnog on the menu in winter, it’s almost a guarantee that I will be drinking that.