Companies & Industries

The Most Innovative Corporate Cafeterias


Good eating—on the clock. Lunch is far more than just a turkey sandwich at some companies focused on offering fresh, tasty, and healthy dining options

For many workers, the company cafeteria offers all the appeal of airline or hospital food—assuming, of course, you're not left dining from a vending machine. However, even in this era of rigorous corporate penny-pinching and wolf-a-sandwich-at-your-desk deadlines, some worker-diners enjoy a different mealtime experience.

Think organic produce, locally sourced foods, thoughtful chefs. In fact, some companies now consider lunch a crucial component of employee recruitment, reward, and quality of life. Moreover, healthful food can help keep employees healthy, which not only boosts productivity but may help curb a company's health-care expenses.

Quality On-Site Options

There's Google (GOOG), of course. Sometimes it seems every story about the Internet behemoth has an obligatory reference to the free meals it feeds its workforce. Google's Mountain View (Calif.) headquarters—dubbed the Googleplex—boasts 15 cafeterias, each with its own theme and menu. Options range from regional American cuisine to tapas to dishes emphasizing locally grown ingredients. The food is so tasty, and the service so innovative, that Food Management magazine, a trade journal, awarded the company its "Best of Show" distinction for 2007.

Google is far from alone among tech firms in offering employees innovative dining options. Microsoft (MSFT) boasts 26 cafés at its main Redmond (Wash.) campus, with several more slated to open this year and next—and that's not counting the pantries scattered throughout the buildings and the more than two dozen coffee stands.

But it's not just workers in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs who enjoy the benefits of good grub on the job. Plenty of companies in a variety of businesses in every corner of the country offer meals on site. The menus are diverse, and so are the reasons for offering food service. Some employers cite productivity as their prime consideration; when employees eat in the company's cafeteria, they save time they would have spent foraging at nearby fast-food chains and delis. "I want people to be well-fed and satisfied," Michael Bloomberg, the current New York mayor and former chief executive of Bloomberg, the financial data business he founded in 1981, told Fast Company magazine in a 1995 interview. "I want them to be able to grab a cup of coffee with a colleague and hash things out. But most of all I want them to stay here. I don't want them leaving."

Over to the Outsourcers

Still, no matter what business justification a company cites, there's no way to spin quality. "The old cafeteria model doesn't work anymore," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based consulting firm that serves the food industry. Employees expect their company's café to be at least as good as what they'd get at an independent eatery. "The bottom line is, you're in the restaurant business," Paul says.

To be sure, feeding employees can be expensive, and that's especially true for companies wanting to surpass typical cafeteria fare. The vast majority of employers offer little more than a vending machine, preferring to spend their money elsewhere: salaries and benefits, capital investment, dividends, and the like. And there are other challenges beyond footing the bill. Feeding the same group of people day after day for years on end can challenge even the most talented chef, for example, and some employees are bound to get bored with their company's menu, no matter how innovative it may be.

Seeking to take advantage of economies of scale, most companies that want to provide an in-house dining option look to outsource its operation to one of several food-service heavyweights, including the Compass Group (CPG), Sodexho, and Aramark. For example, when Cisco Systems (CSCO) started offering employee dining as a benefit in the mid-1990s, it turned to Bon Appetit Management, a division of Britain-based food-service giant Compass Group. One of the main factors behind the decision: Bon Appetit's focus on buying ingredients from local farmers who embrace environmentally sustainable practices. "One of the primary reasons we've chosen Bon Appetit is that it's in line with our commitment to corporate social responsibility," says Christi Cheng, program manager for Cisco's workplace resources group. "Also, they have really great food."

Promoting Wellness

Two interesting aspects of what Cisco is doing: You don't have to work at the tech giant's San Jose headquarters to enjoy the company's investment in a karma-boosting lunch. Eight Cisco campuses across the country feature cafeterias. At the company's offices in North Carolina's Research Triangle, for example, employees have options ranging from pizza and comfort foods (think meat loaf and fried chicken) to Hemispheres, a station featuring prepared-to-order world cuisine, and a fresh salad bar where "the beans are the only thing from a can," says Rich Backstrom, Bon Appetit's on-site manager.

And for employees at the headquarters or at satellite sites in suburban Boston or the Research Triangle, the company's "Health Connections" program combines nutritious meal options with access to fitness centers and health coaches tasked with keeping workers in top shape. (All Cisco employees can participate in the program, but in the U.S. only the San Jose, Boxborough (Mass.), and North Carolina offices have both cafeterias and gyms on site.) The effort received a top award from the National Business Group on Health earlier this year.

Cisco's program is part of a trend in business and industry food service. Driven by ever-rising health insurance costs, companies see a connection between the bottom line and their workers' waistlines. Minneapolis-based food manufacturer General Mills (GIS), which contracts with Sodexho to run its employee food service, has made a point of emphasizing healthy eating by heavily subsidizing the salad bar in its cafeteria. The company even took some of the junk food out of its vending machines, says Tim Crimmins, General Mills' vice-president of health, safety, and wellness. "We took the chocolate away," Crimmins says. "We wanted to just get their attention—and we did."

Part of the Business

As much as bringing lunch to workers may boost productivity and improve health, it can also be an opportunity for a company to promote its brands. At General Mills, that meant a "Heart Health Month" that featured free servings of the company's Cheerios and Wheaties breakfast cereals. Or it can be a place where a company can demonstrate its style and values to potential clients. That's a big deal to the Los Angeles office of TBWA Chiat Day, an advertising firm that also contracts with Bon Appetit. "Everything we do reflects on us," says Carol Madonna, the firm's director of operations. "Image is so important, and when we can wow the client with food, that's a big deal." The firm's chef even whipped up a batch of breakfast dishes that incorporated rice on the morning of a new-business pitch session with Uncle Ben's. One menu item: multigrain quiche.

Not all seek outside help running their cafeterias. Take Hallmark Cards, for example. The Kansas City (Mo.) company has been providing meals for its employees since 1923, says Sally Luck, director of corporate services. Between the Crown Room, a traditional cafeteria that Luck describes as "a place to be seen in the company," to a smaller, trendier, and less formal café full of takeaway options, there's seating for almost 600 diners. And those seats are in demand: Luck boasts of an 80% participation rate for Hallmark's employee cafeteria, meaning that four meals are dished up each day for every five workers in the building. "That's one of the indications for us that self-operating is still a good idea," she says. Healthy options are a hit, and a half-dozen Hallmark chefs are culinary school graduates with restaurant experience.

Holistic Health

Companies that offer meals as a benefit are acknowledging that there's more to their employees' lives than what happens during the workday, says Maisie Greenawalt, Bon Appetit's director of communications and strategic initiatives. "They are looking at their employees in a more holistic way and realizing that the success of the employee at work is related to a number of factors, [including] work/life balance, health, and connection to community," Greenawalt says.

And the focus on healthy choices is increasing, according to Ira Cohn, president of Aramark's business and industry group. Aramark operates about 1,400 cafés for 500 corporate clients, including "a large percentage of the Fortune 500," and employee health is at the forefront of many of those managers' minds. "They'd like us to be part of the process of helping their employees eat healthy and just be educated about better health," Cohn says.

Still, quality is king. That's especially true in New York City, where Hearst opened a café in its new state-of-the-art office tower last year. Not only are food options plentiful in the surrounding neighborhood, but there's a Whole Foods Market (WFMI) a few blocks away. So Hearst brought in Restaurant Associates, another Compass Group company, to run a cafeteria that would feature, among other things, an organic salad bar and a pair of sushi chefs. Says operations director Lou Nowikas, "We're a creative company, and we wanted our food service to be creative."

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