Meet Robert Lofgren: Sodexo Live!’s New Beverage Program Director

Published on : 9/13/22
  • Robert Lofgren is no stranger to the hospitality business. After over 20 years of in-depth industry expertise spanning all aspects of the beverage world — from product development and merchandising to distribution and regulation, Robert has a unique ability to share his wealth of knowledge with guests, clients and team members. His dynamic and passionate teaching style and expertise make him the ideal person to serve as subject matter expert for all matters relating to beverage programs in airport lounges.

    We spoke to Lofgren about his background in hospitality, his passion for the beverage world and how his new role is a game-changer in the industry. 

    Interviewer: How did you get interested in the hospitality business?

    Robert Lofgren: I started working in restaurants the week after I turned 16. It was my first job and I just fell in love with the communal hospitality experience. In Texas, where I grew up, you’re not allowed to bartend before 18, so the day I turned 18, I started training to become a bartender at the restaurant I worked at. And it was a whole different world.

    Interviewer: So, you started focusing on the beverage world.

    Robert Lofgren: There is more storytelling than what you’ll get in the kitchen. The lettuce doesn’t have rich stories like wines do. I loved learning about where the wines, beers and spirits came from. There’s a place, there’s a person behind it. And that just got me curious. I wanted to know more about why and where and who. I started learning more about classic cocktails and different techniques and got really good at it.

    While I was studying restaurant and hotel management in college, I continued to work my way through the bartending world. I eventually grew as a corporate trainer. So, when I was done with my shifts, I would pass along my teachings. I loved sharing what worked and what didn’t work, what I learned along the way. It was cool to see people take on what I learned and collaborate. 

    Interviewer: How did you go from bartending to the next level in your career?

    Robert Lofgren: Lots of sales reps and managers came into the bar I was working at. One day, one of them said, “You've served alcohol for a long time. Have you ever thought about selling it?” And completely on a whim, I started my career at the distributor level. I started distributing wine to grocery stores, moved my way up to fine wines and spirits. Eventually, I left the distributor role and went to the supplier side, running the entire state of Texas for wines and beers. Throughout all of this, I was learning all aspects of the business.

    Interviewer: Tell us about your career at Sodexo Live!

    Robert Lofgren: I joined Sodexo in 2017, leading the beverage program for a major airline’s lounges. I’m a fifth-generation Navy brat and grew up around airplanes. So, when the position at Sodexo opened, I saw an opportunity to combine the two things that I loved more than anything in life: airplanes and hospitality.

    After 18 months, I joined the Hospitality Group — subject matter experts that provide content and training to the entire aviation segment in Sodexo. I had been doing that for four years before getting the promotion to National Client Executive (NCE) – Beverage Program Director. 

    Interviewer: What are your responsibilities in this new role?

    Robert Lofgren: My position as director of beverage programs is broad. If it's beverage, it's me. It doesn't matter if it's alcohol, soft drinks, coffee or tea. Everything from research and development or analysis, procurement, training, execution — everything along every step along the way pertaining to beverages — it's my responsibility. With alcohol, there's licensing and legalities that need to be understood to make sure that we're following the laws. That's also me.

    Interviewer: Can you break down what your days are like in a site visit?

    Robert Lofgren: My visits last around three days, including travel time. I get on-site and take about an hour to check in with management — get the lay of the land. What’s working? What are some concerns? I follow this with some time observing the front of house, looking for areas of improvement, but also giving kudos to the team where deserved. 

    Then, we usually have a classroom session. We run a whole gauntlet of things. We especially talk about their space, because every bar is different — different setups, different rules and regulations, etc. We talk about their guests. Who are the bar customers, what do they look like? Trying to give high-level checkpoints, things to look for. Getting to know your guests is important!

    Then, we go into the actual products. One of the things I noticed about the industry right now is that we lost focus on the product knowledge. We quit learning the why, focusing solely on the how. So, I reset these expectations. Let’s go back and learn because that is the fun part of this job. When the bartenders can tell the story behind the product, they become the teacher to the guest. It creates a bond between guest and bartender. It’s phenomenal!

    Interviewer: Your passion is contagious! The teams must really appreciate your wealth of knowledge.

    Robert Lofgren: One of the greatest compliments that I’ve received recently was that I was teaching like a TED Talk. I was like, “Wow! I’ll take that!” That, to me, is the validation of why I do what I do and why I’m so passionate. People can take something away that helps them become more successful. That’s the driving force.

    Interviewer: Are there any trends you’re noticing in the airport lounge world?

    Robert Lofgren: I spend a lot of time pulling data from every possible source, starting with our team members. They are directly in contact with the guests and can tell us a lot about what is being requested. 

    A major trend I notice is that people are much more nuanced than before. Whether for alcohol, coffee or tea, people want not just a drink but an experience. They want the loose-leaf tea in a copper vessel or the Kyoto-style cold brew coffee. Or the super Instagrammable cocktail. It’s all about premiumization: I want to drink less but I want to drink better.

    Interviewer: It’s like airport lounges have a speakeasy, a third wave coffee house and high-end tea shop all in one.

    Robert Lofgren: Absolutely! Consumers also have a more social responsibility lens. Where do the products come from and who is making them? Are they local?  

    Interviewer: Speaking of local brands, do you also work with local products or businesses?

    Robert Lofgren: Locality is important for engaging travelers. It gives them a sense of place, right? Whether it’s a business or a product, when you can inject that local item, they now feel connected to the story and the place.

    Interviewer: How do you integrate all this information in a beverage program?

    Robert Lofgren: When I work on a beverage program, it’s holistic. My first question to the client is, “Who is your clientele?” Once we get that, we can start building a program based on research — and price points, of course. So, I can say I’ve done the research, this is what fits best with your clientele. Here’s the story behind it. Here’s why it would work. We are making our clients more informed. That puts us in the position of subject matter experts.

    Interviewer: How do you work with the culinary team?

    Robert Lofgren: We've got so many talented chefs. Chef Mike Wurster is our culinary director who oversees our entire strategy. We are in constant communication about what flavor trends are showing up in the kitchen. It’s always a yin and yang with food and beverage, and then certainly we make educated and well-thought-out pairings. We want our guests to have an experience, not just a good meal. At the end of the day, you want your guest to walk out of the lounge with their senses rejuvenated.

    Interviewer: What do you think having a full-time national beverage director brings to the clients?

    Robert Lofgren: In this role, I oversee and analyze all our clients. I can help them make better decisions based on best practices from across our lounge portfolio. It really creates such great value to our client. Hospitality is all encompassing. It’s not just four walls and a roof. It’s not just the people, or just the food, or just the drinks. It’s everything together. We can tie all of it together to create the best guest experience.

    Interviewer: What is the most rewarding aspect of your role?

    Robert Lofgren: The most rewarding thing to me is seeing the impact I’m making on the frontline team members and personal and professional journeys. When I give those trainings, I love seeing them engaged and asking questions. I know I got them excited. They then get to pass that excitement to the guests, which creates an amazing guest experience. The clients are happy, we’re happy, and it all comes back full circle.

    Learn more about how you can elevate your airport lounge experience.