Forging her own legacy in F&B: Megan Gray Stromberg
Growing up in a restaurant family in the Colorado Rockies gave Megan an early entree into the F&B life. Though she considered studying to be a doctor, her father convinced her hospitality is also a rewarding way to care for people and to enroll in the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration instead. After graduating, Megan headed to New York City to join the legendary St. Regis Hotel. She worked her way up with St. Regis helping them open hotels around the US. From there, Megan returned to Colorado to rejoin her family's business, got married, and built and sold a craft beer concept with her new husband. Itching to try something different, Megan took on a private club position in California, only to return to her roots in Colorado during the pandemic to support hospitality operations at Vail Resorts. All of this seems to have perfectly prepared Megan for her latest post, head of F&B Strategy for the mission-minded NuovoRE, a growing hotel company based in Colorado. Here's herstory:
What was your first hospitality job?
I had a very unique upbringing, my sister and I grew up in a ski resort town in Breckenridge, Colorado and we were raised in restaurants and kitchens! My parents had nine restaurants, each had its own personality and vibe––from one of the oldest authentic saloons west of the Mississippi to the Breckenridge base ski lodge, to a family-friendly farm-to-table before farm-to-table was a thing. My childhood memories are filled with "working" holidays. I always gravitated to the front of the house, I was a host and then grew into being a server. And, I was always a pretty good dishwasher, I still am 😉!
Did all your practical experience growing up lead you to study at Cornell?
Sort of, I loved biology and I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I was accepted into Cornell’s Hotel School and I’ll never forget when I told my Dad (a "Cornell Hotelie," class of 1973) I might prefer to study to become a doctor. He said, "go to Cornell, you won’t regret it." He was right, the camaraderie and the entrepreneurial spirit of the school ignited a fire inside me. I have always wanted to take care of people, and a career in hospitality F&B has allowed me to do just that.
From Cornell you went to work at the legendary St. Regis New York, that is a big shift from the Rocky Mountains!
Resort living is incredible and rewarding, but I had the city itch. I was hired as an Outlet Manager at The St. Regis flagship on 5th and 55th in Manhattan and I left with the title of Director of Food and Beverage. It was an extraordinary time, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bloody Mary, opened Adour by Alain Ducasse, from afternoon tea to the ritual of sabrage, this hotel taught me that there can be such beauty and that comes with ceremony. The St. Regis showed me that a strong legacy paves the way for the future. I found one of my first mentors at The St. Regis New York, Scott Geraghty, he was the General Manager and one of the most remarkable leaders. He taught me to be methodical in my thinking and flexible in my approach.
But how much did you miss skiing while you were living in NYC? Or did you brave the icy slopes of the Northeast?
When you grow up in a resort environment, you have unique experiences, I've been doing all sorts of winter sports since I was two. I love skiing, being in nature, challenging yourself, and exploring the terrain––it brings me great joy. I also love team sports and this has greatly impacted my life and my perspective on working with others. As for skiing on the east coast, well...the only time was a weekend at Sugarbush and Killington in Vermont. It was the coldest I have ever been and the most ice I've ever seen...I think we spent more time in the lodge nursing hot chocolates than we did on the slopes!
Seems like The St. Regis was a great first director position, then you moved around with St. Regis to Atlanta. Puerto Rico and Florida? How did this shape your expertise in F&B?
I treasure the time I spent in New York, there is nothing like it. However, there is also nothing like opening a new hotel. I had the chance to be employee #1 for F&B for The St. Regis Atlanta, we opened this landmark property in 2009 in Buckhead and it was a gem. The team building, the creativity, the daily cascading of emotions, and the rewards of hard work were monumental at this property. It then opened up opportunities for task force and supporting roles in Puerto Rico and Bal Harbour.
These experiences sharpened my operational skills––I learned the ability to drop in and evaluate and prioritize where I could have the most impact. It taught me to be very purposeful and to follow my intuition. Keeping intention top of mind allowed me to focus on training to the why vs. encouraging teams to train on the how. Don’t get me wrong, we have to follow procedure, but bringing along teams with a deeper understanding of the why is much more rewarding for everyone.
Keeping intention top of mind allowed me to focus on training to the why vs. encouraging teams to train on the how.
Why did you move back home to Colorado?
I had spent about nine years with St. Regis and was looking to return to Colorado. I had spent time in cities and needed some time in the mountains. I am very close with my parents and family and was missing them.
Is that when you met your husband?
My husband Chris and I actually went to high school together. We reconnected at The Cherry Cricket here in Denver (they have the best burgers). We were in the same grade but never dated in high school though always were in each other's orbit. We sat down after not seeing each other for 15 or so years. He told me they had great cask beer. So I ordered one and then he ordered a water. I was like, "hmm he doesn’t drink," which of course didn’t bother me, but then he told me he couldn’t have alcohol because he had just donated a kidney. He did that simply because he wanted to help save someone’s life. That’s just the type of person Chris is. It was all heart eyes after that and I promptly pulled him into the hospitality industry.
Sounds like an amazing guy, how was working together?
Craft beer was seeing a rise and we worked together to develop The BARley, a Colorado Craft and Draft concept in Steamboat Springs. We focused on self-distributing smaller operations and we had a blast building that together. My parents were working on selling off their assets and Chris and I started managing some of the restaurants in Breckenridge, most notably The Gold Pan Saloon which was established in 1879.
Once you sold off some of the Colorado restaurants, you moved to California?
After we had sold The BARley and the other assets, I had the opportunity to be the General Manager of The Battery, a modern-era private membership club in San Francisco. We moved and spent two and half years there. The Battery is world-class and innovative, I cannot say enough good things about it and the members and staff were dedicated to making this one of the most desirable and memorable clubs in the country.
You moved back home again during the pandemic, was that coincidence or intentional because you realized you wanted to be closer to family?
Once again Colorado had its gravitational pull over me and we returned at the start of the pandemic and I started a role with Vail Resorts as Director of Hospitality Operations.
I cherish the time I spent at Vail Resorts, it allowed me to help support the reimagination of the hospitality industry during a very trying and challenging time. New SOPs, a new mindset, what was accomplished during those seasons was a testament to the General Managers at those 37 properties.
Then I met Mike Everett, the President of NuovoRE. Many of you reading this probably know Mike, his reputation in the hospitality industry is pretty special, he is both a visionary and a luminary. He shared his vision for how a hospitality group could think about social impact and then how we might measure social impact in the communities where these investments are made. Return on investment for NouvoRE is, in part, measured by ancillary social and economic benefits from catalytic development including adjacent follow on redevelopment and community engagement over a long-term hold.
I loved this mission and started with NuovoRE as Head of F&B Strategy. My role is to support teams, find operational efficiencies, unique tools, techniques, equipment, ingredients, etc that will allow us to prove the theory of social impact in our properties. It is our belief that you can nurture and foster an environment where the value proposition for working at a NuovoRE property outweighs any other location.
It is our belief that you can nurture and foster an environment where the value proposition for working at a NuovoRE property outweighs any other location.
Sounds like an amazing mission for a hotel company, what does that look like in real life?
So far, NuovoRE has completed four projects and five more are in the development pipeline. A great example is our Revival located in Baltimore, part of JDV Hotels by Hyatt. Nestled in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood and less than a mile from Penn Station, the newly renovated 107-room, 14-story boutique hotel has a rich history that is woven through the guest experiences, it now serves as a community gathering place and contributes to the renewal of the area through unique local partnerships and programs.
How do you make decisions differently with the NuovoRE mission in mind versus previous jobs?
It requires keeping a truly local perspective and we do this through significant research. We work hard to identify partners, farmers, and suppliers who share our mindset on how we can measure dollars reinvested in the local communities. From building relationships with councilmen and women, exploring workforce development organizations for recruitment, identifying local artists to feature, and encouraging our chefs to advocate for local businesses. NuovoRE is very collaborative, we are a work in progress and as a small team, everyone has a voice at the table during the brainstorming sessions.
Would you share an example or two of how this works in practice in F&B?
In terms of the F&B experience, we have two female bar managers who break down barriers and perceptions to inspire others every day. Anna Welker, who Manages Topside, the hotel's rooftop eatery, pioneered the Zero Proof Zero Judgement program for Hyatt. Through her sobriety, she influences and supports others. Activating this mentality of inclusivity for those behind the bar has been very powerful to observe and support, we could not be more proud of the leader she has become. The Zero Proof Zero Judgement menu has been a hit and ensures non-drinkers visiting the hotel, like herself, are met with understanding and a variety of delicious beverage options.
Wow, a sober bartender is quite forward-thinking, definitely, there is a trend toward more low-and-no alcohol options. Who is the other manager?
Another incredible leader at Revival is Kendra Copeland who manages B-Side, our speakeasy listening lounge concept that just opened up last month. Kendra was hired to manage this jewel box venue two years ago. She saw the potential in the project, and was inspired by Donte Johnson, the General Manager who fosters a culture of belonging and found ways to keep her engaged despite the pandemic putting everything on hold.
In true 2022 fashion, the phone eats first so the photography component was a gamechanger. By using professional photography incorporated into the menu, it tells an appealing story via the QRcode.
It was all worth the wait, as the result is Kendra’s Playlist, one of the most on-point beverage menus I have ever seen. Kendra was intentional about finding BIPOC owned beverage products and, in true 2022 fashion, the phone eats first so the photography component was a gamechanger. By using professional photography (shout out to our content creator, DJ Impulse) incorporated into the menu, it tells an appealing story via the QRcode. Kendra could have left, but she knew if she stayed she would have an impact and help us to tell a story of how supporting a community, can generate loyalty and deeply tether consumers, place, and culture. And that is what NuovoRE is all about.
What top trends do you see coming down the pike in F&B for hotels?
Here are my predictions:
More conscious consumption when it comes to food: plant-based menus, local sourcing, and less waste
Increase of regenerative agriculture (agricultural practices that actively restore soil quality, biodiversity, ecosystems health, water quality while producing sufficient food of high nutritional quality.)
Continued growth of the zero-proof movement
Innovative recruitment techniques: One area of success we are seeing is engagement via social channels, Instagram, TikTok. Revival even filmed interviews to share current staff’s stories to create appeal and speak to the culture, with DMs that led to positions…it’s a bit unconventional, but we have to be dynamic and nimble and respond quickly, it’s been hard to fill F&B positions
Visiting or consulting sommelier programs
Mental health training and support
Retooling of benefits that are more values aligned to the individual: sabbaticals for restoration, Uber credits to help with transportation and parking, subscriptions for apps that support mental health and wellbeing, and paying employees for volunteering in their municipalities.