Foodie Friday with Rochelle Rizzi

Today on Foodie Friday, meet Rochelle Rizzi, director of marketing and communications for the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS). Like many of us, she wears many hats: mom to four beautiful boys, board member of the International Foodservice Editorial Council (IFEC) and running her side business, Le Vrai Nord.

What is your role in the food industry?

As the director of marketing and communications for NACUFS, a large part of my role is managing relationships with industry members and their agencies when I am wearing my hat of “editor in chief” of Campus Dining Today. I have always had a great love of food and the hospitality industry. I have been employed with NACUFS for almost three years and have enjoyed being surrounded with so many incredible foodies, especially in my privilege to have a seat on the International Foodservice Editorial Council (IFEC) where I’m hobnobbing and strategizing with some amazing media professionals and publicists.

In a past life, NACUFS was a client of my marketing agency. For twelve years, I surrounded myself with clients who were like-minded, curious entrepreneurs. As we grew, we took on bigger and bigger clients, like government agencies, hospitals, and tier three automotive clients. Yet, some of my favorite clients were those in the hospitality industry. I helped launch restaurants, promote foodie events, brand food products, and plan events. Ten years into my entrepreneurial career, I purchased an event venue in Old Town Lansing. Now, that was fun! In two short years, I rebranded the business, developed new sales strategies, hired a new team, set new goals, and sold it for a nice profit. The secret was branding beyond the logo to include a complete focus on service.

Today, as a mother of four young men, I love to teach them those skills in the kitchen. They help me host parties and they see a little of what I do in my side hustle as I manage a few clients through Le Vrai Nord (French for “The True North”). Like branding, for me food is an experience. Beyond the presentation, it’s the emotion that follows.

How did you first get involved in the food industry?

My first job was hosting, waitressing, and scooping ice cream at Friendly’s in Beavercreek, Ohio. I would grow to hold several waitressing positions, including at TGI Fridays, during the time when we wore hats and pieces of flare (you remember the suspenders with the buttons)! What an amazing experience. I worked so hard to earn every one of my “WOW” buttons at Fridays.

During college, I had a wonderful serving experience at Paesano’s, a beautiful Italian restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The owner would spend hours explaining the wine selection as he shared stories of how he procured the best ingredients. Being a part of this niche industry really lights a fire in me. I’m truly passionate about food, but again, it’s more about the process and experience for me. Food is a centerpiece of conversation and draws people together. Isn’t that amazing? We gather around the kitchen and at tables. Every milestone moment in our lives seems to have food and people. It’s a lovely thing.

What/who inspired your current role in the food industry?

I find that those who are as passionate about food as I, also really appreciate the complexity and importance of customer service, presentation, and education. For example, when a chef comes to the table, I’d be shocked if anyone felt they were being interrupted. Instead, we feel valued. When the chef takes a moment to share his or her passion, while explaining how something is made--maybe mentioning a unique ingredient or cooking process--that’s a “wow” moment. Those are the pinnacle moments of a food event for me. And, well… it makes for a delicious experience all around.

Today, I’m lucky to have so many entrepreneurial friends in the hospitality industry including the owners of Tasty Catering, Zingerman’s, Red Haven (a past client and featured on a couple of network shows), Nick’s Pizza & Pub, Freshyfare, Old Town Marquee (my previous event venue, under great new ownership), and so many others. What do they have in common? People. They care about people--they serve their employees as well as they serve their customers. These are some of the greatest minds in the hospitality industry. And, I’m proud to know them. I’ve learned so much from my experiences with them.

What food trends are most influential in what you do?

I am constantly on a watch for healthy, unique foods that are easy to make (remember, I’m a mama of four)! I eat a low-to-no gluten diet (I enjoy bread, so I’d be lying if I said I never indulge)! I enjoy my bulletproof coffee, collagen-infused and high-protein snacks, and anything with cheese. In my line of work, I enjoy tasting so many amazing food and beverage samples at our regional and national conferences, which influence content for the association. For me personally, my life influences what I eat. I’m always on the go and truly enjoy a night to cook and sip wine. Truth be told, I’m on the run most days: airplanes, baseball games, and quick lunches to meet deadlines! Creativity continues to be my stronghold in just about everything I do – and eat!

What is the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the food industry?

I love that there is an increase in transparency and that the conversations continue to develop around what’s in our food and how it’s processed. I enjoy how companies and commodity boards provide recipes, but I really appreciate the stories behind the foods I’m eating.

Tell us about an industry professional who influenced you most?

One of the most influential professionals to me is Tom Walter, founder and Chief Culture Officer of Tasty Catering and many other businesses. I share his love of open book management to help engage and motivate his team. In doing this, his team stays innovative with their recipes and processes and he continues to showcase growth and encourage entrepreneurship with his employees. His people have a safe place to create and experiment, while having a mentor who exemplifies love in everything he does. And, oh, by the way, he had his start with a hot dog stand. He’s amazing.

What's your big splurge food item? Any particular brand you're willing to pay more for?

Dark chocolate, wine, and cheese. These are my favorite menu items; and while I don’t have a specific brand, I do pay attention to quality, origin, and of course the taste.

What keeps you going as a food professional?

Knowing that as a business strategist and marketer in the food industry, I’m helping to create beautiful experiences for my clients and those whom they serve. Meetings over food and about food? I’m a lucky girl!

What’s your favorite food to make at home?

Pizza with the kids - I love to see what they come up with. Without the kids, I’m known to curl up with a glass of wine, a strong cheese, and some prosciutto. During this time of my life, I need simple; but I don’t like to skimp on quality, flavor, and style.

Tell us about a memorable meal you’ve had.

I will never forget eating horse meat in Paris at the age of seven. It was divine and daring. I felt like my own hero for a moment and couldn’t wait to tell my friends all about it. I remember the white linen, the waiter, the dim golden lights, and my parents’ hands. I remember the presentation of food on the table and how it felt like there was course after course after course. I felt so special.

What food or meal makes you happiest?

My father’s chicken marsala. Number one, it tastes amazing. And, two, I know it is labor-intensive and he makes it for me anyway. It’s served with love, classic rock, lots of laughs, and a big glass of red wine.

What cookbooks or cooking classes are most important to you and why?

I love everything about Julia Child. I’m obsessed with everything French, and I would love to master French cooking. Additionally, I’ve made a concerted effort to stay engaged in an adult French immersion class at Aux Petits Soins, which not only helps me to build my language skills, but also helps me stay connected in my local French community. I have enjoyed a beautiful cooking lesson at Le Chat Gourmet, another local gem. If it’s French, I’ll find it! And to honor Julia, “The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit!”

Connect with Rochelle:

Twitter: @rochellerizzi

LinkedIn: @rochellerizzi-mba

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