) -- It was Napoleon Bonaparte most often attributed with the saying "an army travels on its stomach." Corporate America knows as well the power of a food-fueled workforce.
Credit the sprawling tech company campuses of the West Coast for bringing the same ingenuity and innovation that powers their success to the employee cafeteria. Quickly vanishing are the days of microwaved cheeseburgers and scoops of chicken a la king. Modern kitchens are built, and managed, with loftier goals.
The online auctioneer eBay might just have the best Indian food in Silicon Valley in its corporate cafe, but other tech giants have similarly lauded food programs for employees.
In trying to keep its workforce motivated, efficient, happy and productive -- as well as to recruit and retain talent -- an increasing number of companies are viewing high-quality employee meals as a crucial perk.
"The goal is to strip away everything that gets in our employees' way,"
former CEO Eric Schmidt had written on a recruitment page addressing company perks. "We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, car washes, dry cleaning, commuting buses -- just about anything a hardworking employee might want. Let's face it: Programmers want to program, they don't want to do their laundry. So we make it easy for them to do both."
While food perks can be expensive (in 2008
altered its offerings after determining it was spending $20 million a year on soda and bottled water alone) there can be tax incentives for companies that foot some or all of the cost. Companies traditionally get a 50% deduction for employee meals but can deduct the full value if, in broad terms, they can make a case the offering is a business imperative and not just a fringe benefit. (Employees can then also escape having to claim the meals as "compensation.")
What the companies offer and charge can vary. While most of the top tech companies on the West Coast offer 24/7 snack, sandwich and beverage service, mealtimes typically fall within normal business hours at onsite cafes. And while
and Google offer meals, snacks and beverages free for employees, others have food programs that are only partially subsidized, or not at all. At Cafe 17 and eBay Park, two restaurants at
San Jose Campus, meals typically cost employees $7 to $8. At
URL's Cafe, open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, breakfast runs about $3, with lunch in the $5 to $6 range.
In October, Glassdoor.com, a portal for job searches, looked through its database of 375,000 employee reviews to find the companies
for their employee meal programs. The top 10:
, Facebook, Google,
Susquehanna International Group
famous Cafe Mac failed to make the cut.
A leader in the realm of corporate cuisine is
Bon Appétit Management
Based in Palo Alto, Calif., Bon Appétit was founded by CEO Fedele Bauccio in 1987 with an ahead-of-its-time idea.
"In 1999 -- a full eight years before the term 'locavore' entered the dictionary -- Fedele launched the Farm to Fork purchasing program to source as much as possible from small local farms," explains a history of the company, owned by the publicly traded (on the London Stock Exchange) company
, which bought the company from Fedele in 2002 but still operates independently.
Don't expect the standard institutional fare that comes powdered and in big metal cans. The emphasis, for all involved, is on local and creative.
In addition to a wide range of colleges and specialty venues such as the Art Institute of Chicago and AT&T Park in San Francisco, it counts numerous top companies among its clients, including
, Cisco, eBay,
. For the fiscal year that ended in September, the company served more than 136.5 million meals in 29 states.
Cary Wheeland, the company's senior vice president, says the growing ranks of food-savvy employees have helped make his company's approach a successful one.
"All of the companies we work with are looking for creativity and, this day of the locavore, people want to know where their beef comes from," he says.
The Bon Appetit approach is to designate executive chefs and culinary specialists (from pastry to ethnic specialties) for each corporate client. Each chef has direct control over the multiple menus, working with small, local farms to stock kitchens. Rather than buy products to fit a menu item, most of the chefs flip the equation, developing daily specials built upon the freshest, seasonal ingredients available on a week-to-week basis.
"They are not given a menu saying what they have to do," Wheeland says. Instead, chefs tell local farmers, "Bring me whatever you have in your field, I'll take it.' ... Can you imagine, we've got all these units, these 400-plus cafes across America, and not one serves the same chili as the next one."
"One of the things our founder has been great about is to say that we are doing soup from bones, not from cans," Wheeland adds. "The mashed potatoes are coming from potatoes that came out of the ground, not from a tin can or as a powder."
The original strategy of buying local wasn't based merely on the miles food travels.
"It was about taste," Wheeland says. "What tastes better than lettuce that was picked in the Salinas Valley on Monday and is on a plate in Silicon Valley by Tuesday? We are supporting the neighborhoods we live in. In Minnesota, we saved a dairy farm
by buying products for Target's headquarters. But for us it all started as a quest for greater flavor."
"Back in the mid-'80s, potatoes were coming from powder and hamburgers were frozen in a box, the chef behind the line using a knife to pry them off of each other," he continues. "Who in their right mind would have been saying you should be using fresh ground chuck for hamburgers? That was revolutionary when we started doing it 25 years ago."
Today's corporate kitchens also have to be more sensitive to ethnic preferences, food allergies and intolerances and lifestyle choices.
"When we started the vegetarian programs, in corporate food services it was an afterthought for many. Now I would say that 40% to 50% of our programming right now has to do with vegetarian meals. It's not a matter of having one vegetarian meal option, now you have to have at least four or five."
Now there are even small farms on company property.
"We have partners that are able to highlight food in their cafe that came from their corporate garden," Wheeland says. "At
in Palo Alto we have a raised bed garden on top of a parking garage. Oracle is talking about giving us a whole patch of ground."
Companies appreciate the advantages from keeping employees satisfied when it comes to mealtimes, Wheeland says.
"People do build community around breaking bread," he says. "It is about keeping people on campus, giving them options so they don't have to drive two miles to get something for lunch. Our clients do want people to stay on campus, go to the cafe every day and look people in the eye and have a conversation. That's where community is built.
Served up here are five of the companies to which foodies (or gluttons) may want to ship a resume:
It might almost be fair to think of
as a city unto itself, not merely a company in Redmond, Wash.
With 50,000 employees, its corporate dining operation is one of the largest in the U.S, if not the world. There are 34 cafes, 37
kiosks. There is an Indian restaurant, Southeastern fare and a mini block of eateries, "Streets of Asia," that offers sushi and other regional dishes. A central area known as The Commons boasts 14 restaurants in addition to its own retail shops, post office and bank.
"One of the strategies we have is to keep our employees productive," says Mark Freeman, senior manager of global employee services for Microsoft. "So we did some research and tried to understand what they were doing when they weren't working. They were going to the post office, the bank, the hair salon ... that sort of thing. So we brought those things to the campus to try to help our employees be more productive, stay on campus and create the next greatest software."
Working with Compass Group, Microsoft doesn't just buy local ingredients; its "Local Brands" program allows about 30 local restaurants to set up shop and serve their own dishes.
"We survey our employees once a year around food service and try to understand what they are thinking," Freeman says. "One of the things that comes back is 'Variety, we want more variety.' In the past, the approach may have been, 'Oh well, that's more items on the salad bar,' or something like that. But we took a different approach about five years ago and started this Local Brands program. We started with just six and it went wild. The employees loved it." (Local restaurateurs must also greatly prefer it to knowing they are walled off from thousands of employees with no reason to venture off the Microsoft campus.)
Another initiative at Microsoft is what they are calling "Culinary Revolution," a back-to-basics approach in which selections at some cafes are made from scratch and under the direction of individual cooks and chefs.
"It has improved the food quality and the customers are just raving about it," Freeman says. "If you go into one cafe the soup may be just a bit different than if you go into the other cafe because the chef has adjusted the recipe. The employees really like that idea of variety."
The chefs themselves are "stoked," he says, about the ability to take more control of what they serve.
To serve approximately 35,000 meals a day, Microsoft relies on a team of 560 employees.
"Compass Group has brought in some fantastic people that make it all happen," Freeman says. "It isn't just one person that makes it happen, it's a whole team."
He says that Microsoft's cafes have been awarded three stars (out of four) in a rating by the Green Restaurant Association. An initiative is looking to grab at that final star by upping the use or organic and local food sources.
For a company as big as it is, however, that may be a challenge.
"When you are serving 35,000 meals a day, that's a lot of tomatoes," Freeman says. "We could wipe out a farmer in no time. So we have to gauge that a little bit."
Freeman says that while offering a greater diversity of healthy food options is a priority, nothing is being -- metaphorically speaking -- forced down anyone's throat.
"Our goal is to offer a huge variety and let the employees make a conscious decision to eat right or not," he says. "There are people out there who want the cheeseburgers and corndogs, and we have those, but we also promote the wellness piece."
Given the nature of the company, Microsoft has of course integrated technological solutions into its dining experiences. QR codes, used as Microsoft Tags, allow smartphones to photograph an image and get immediate information about various dishes, including nutritional information. Promotional codes on drink cups lead users to a game of "Scratch and Match" on their handheld, "scratching" off virtual lottery tickets to earn prizes and discounted food.
The best Indian food in Silicon Valley?
It might very well be found at Cafe 17 on the eBay campus in San Jose.
Executive Chef Bob Clark takes pride in the glowing reviews the cafe has garnered since it opened its doors a little more than three years ago.
Clark joined Bon Appetit in 2004 after a career in catering and working at resorts in Hawaii and Sun Valley.
The restaurant was a response to the large number of Indian employees working at eBay. Clark and his team went all out to design and equip a space custom-made for the style of cooking, including two tandoori ovens and dosa stations. Various chutneys and sauces are made using ingredients grown on eBay's own farm.
The recipes are carefully crafted. "I work with vendors to really get the true ingredients," Clark says. "There are like 57 different types of cinnamon, for example, but we get the specific cinnamon a recipe calls for. It's a pretty unique operation and it is truly 100% authentic. When I'm in there talking to the employees, these are recipes that their mothers, grandmothers and sisters made. If it wasn't right then they wouldn't come in and eat it. I get people bringing in their moms to try it and taking things home for them. That's a pretty good indication that we are hitting it."
Clark also oversees the
outpost about seven miles away and the company's "convention center," where meetings and corporate events are held. About 6,700 people work at the locations and, depending on what particular building they are based in (some are more sprawling than others) between 45% to 75% buy meals at the office. On any given day there are also as many as 30 separate catering jobs and the continual stocking of coffee bars and snack areas.
Following his company's philosophy of using fresh, local ingredients, Clark and his chefs plan menus two weeks in advance and consult with farmers, vendors and employees to ensure they happen right.
A point of pride is that as much as possible is made from scratch, even salad dressings. Chalkboards explain to diners which farms ingredients came from and cooks are encouraged to chat with patrons about the preparations and solicit feedback.
"When the customers come in they want to see what's new," Clark says. "They want to see what's exciting."
What better place to take your coffee breaks than the Seattle headquarters of Starbucks?
But the java giant's home base isn't all caffeine and Chai. Bon Appetit worked with the company to overhaul its Sodo Kitchen, a 400-seat restaurant serving the company's 4,000 employees at that location. It opened in October.
"It's the Starbucks of the world that challenge us to be on the frontlines to be doing new and unique things," Wheeland says. "It's pretty exciting."
Not as sprawling, extensive or multifaceted as other corporate dining options, the new cafe nevertheless fills a niche for the company. There's a rotisserie, tandoori oven and hearth oven. Entrees include comfort food staples (chicken and waffles) as well as Korean and Moroccan specialties, all served in a European bistro atmosphere.
But while we stress the perk (as in percolation) of having all that coffee at your command, the main reason Sodo Kitchen stands out is that it is advertised as open to the public -- rare for a corporate cafe.
The folks over at the soon-to-be-IPO darling Facebook declined to speak with us about their employee dining offerings (as did Starbucks), which is a shame given all the effort that appears to go into its constantly changing menus and the fact it has served more than 2.9 million meals since it was launched officially in 2008.
Roughly 4,600 meals a day are served at Cafe X, the main dining area, or the smaller Cafe 6, and all meals are free to employees. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all made from scratch using locally sourced ingredients.
Each day, the
posts its daily menus on -- where else -- Facebook.
Among the recent selections: a breakfast item called Sausage McFacebook; Filipino Pork Breakfast Sausage and Fried Eggs over Garlic Fried Rice; Eggplant Pasta Al Forno; the Peruvian, French fry-based dish
; Pumpkin Seed Crusted Sole With Tomato Yogurt Sauce; Guava Glazed Ribs; and Vegetarian Singapore Noodles with Char Su Style Mushrooms.
Guess it's important to keep those $100 billion employees well-fed and working hard.
In the world of corporate dining, poaching isn't always just about eggs.
Silicon Valley gossips and foodies found intrigue in how Josef Desimone was enticed away from Google and over to Facebook (where his title is now listed as "Culinary Overlord, Director").
Over the years, Google's food program (at its Mountain View, Calif., HQ) has been singled out as a legendary perk offered free to employees. Facebook's 2008 coveting of Desimone may have had more motivation than just acquiring a well-known, respected chef; it may very well have been the social media company's way of announcing to the world it was now playing with the "big boys" -- a salvo in the arms race to attract talent.
Google employees needn't shed too many tears (or pounds). It still has one of the most envied food offerings among its peers. In fact, there's even a term, "Google 15," to describe the weight gain many employees face suddenly finding themselves amid so many meal and snack options.
One of the main cafes, Charlie's Place, is named for Google's first chef, who once held a similar job for the munchies-prone Grateful Dead. Dozens of other cafes and snack stations are scattered throughout the sprawling grounds.
You don't even need to be indoors to find snacks at Google -- organic vegetables are planted throughout the Googleplex waiting to be picked and eaten.
-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.
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