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Sodexo Officer Looks to Practice 'Culinary Diplomacy'

Fimbres hopes to bring accountability to House cafeterias. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When Francisco "Frank" Fimbres was 10 years old, he began working in his family's grocery store chain in Mexico called "Calidad Maxima," or "Maximum in Quality" in English. Two decades later, he's working to ensure food in the House of Representatives embodies that maximum quality. Fimbres is the community relations officer for Sodexo, the international food service vendor taking over House cafeterias . The newly created position is unique to the House, and will give congressional staff and lawmakers a go-to person for comments and complaints.  

"My main job, for all intents and purposes, will be to listen, to engage, to conduct outreach, get feedback and to serve," Fimbres said in a recent interview. "It’s not that complicated. We want to make sure that we continue the Sodexo tradition of offering quality services, a quality customer experience, and also be available and engaged, be present."  

Fimbres joked he is looking forward to improving his personal health, since he'll constantly be making the rounds at the Capitol and the four House office buildings. He plans to practice "culinary diplomacy" while navigating the variety of customers Sodexo has to serve, including lawmakers, staffers and tourists.  

"Johanna Mendelson Forman, she has a whole class at American University, she started at [Johns] Hopkins, about conflict cuisine, of how food can unite folks who culturally may be different," Fimbres said, explaining his philosophy toward food.  

Fimbres said Mendelson Forman is his friend and mentor, though he did not take her course at AU. His pursuit of higher education is what first brought him from San Diego to D.C., and he has grown to love the District.  

"I don’t know what the statute is, but in two more years I would have spent more time in D.C. now than I would have in California," Fimbres said. "So will I be a D.C. native? I don’t know. But it’s a great city. I love it."  

Though Fimbres may consider D.C. his home now, with his wife Lorena, their 18-month-old daughter Lorenza, and a son on the way, his roots trace back to the West Coast.  

"I’m a border kid," Fimbres said, noting he was born in San Diego but spent the first part of his life in Tijuana, Mexico. At age 10, he went to work in Calidad Maxima, the chain of grocery stores his great-grandparents, along with his grandfather and his grandfather's six brothers, founded in 1939.  

From ages 10 to 21, Fimbres spent time after school, on the weekends and during the summers in the grocery store. He worked as a bag boy, a stock boy, in the butcher shop, and later in customer service, personnel management and marketing.  

“You want to watch cartoons on Saturday or you want to play with your friends. But [my grandfather] wanted to instill the importance of work and the dignity that work gives back to individuals, and also to make our own economic empowerment," Fimbres said. "Even if it was a dollar, we made a dollar. We worked for it so we knew the value of money.”  

After graduating from AU in 2000 with a degree in international studies, Fimbres worked for the National Association of Hispanic Publications and then Diversity Best Practices, which involved some advocacy work on Capitol Hill. He worked often with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and learned to work with congressional staff, a skill he will be reprising in his new role.  

Fimbres went into public service in 2009 to work for then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. He remained in the D.C. government to work for former Mayor Vincent C. Gray as the director of community relations. He described his role as a 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, on-call position, where constituents had his personal phone number and email address. Fimbres plans to apply a similar method of service to his new position at Sodexo, listing his personal phone number on his business card and encouraging customers to text, call or email him.  

"Building those relationships and being accountable to folks for things, and being transparent, has always worked for me in the city government before, and I’m sure it will work here," Fimbres said.  

Dave Cerbin, the resident district manager for Sodexo at the House, said in an interview that Fimbres' government experience stood out in the application process.  

"It’s very much what Sodexo was looking for: Somebody that would take responsibility and make sure that we’re communicating properly to the constituents, and could go from high level to low level to in between and have the same respect of person and situation," Cerbin said.  

Cerbin is overseeing the House transition to Sodexo, which will involve new food, new concepts and months of construction around the House side of the Capitol complex. Cerbin said the community relations officer is a new position designed for the House, following a survey the chief administrative officer conducted of House food services, which found that customers wanted a better feedback mechanism.  

And Fimbres is eager to gather that feedback, so staffers lunching in one of the cafeterias shouldn't be surprised if he approaches them to ask what they think of the changes.  

"We’re engaged. Our cashiers, our cooks, we’re all engaged in that gastro-diplomacy," Fimbres said. "We’re getting to people's minds and hearts — hearts and minds right? — through our food and our quality of service. Those are the two things that can never change: The quality of service and the quality of food. If we get those two things right, and Sodexo has gotten it right at other places, then we’re golden."

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