The trend for bringing in outside caterers is banishing the traditional image of the workplace canteen. So if it’s lunchtime and sausage, chips and beans are on the menu then your staff might be thinking they are working for the wrong company
We know, as individuals, that we are what we eat – but is the same true collectively? Can the soul of a company be gauged by the quality of eating experience it offers its workforce? Judging by the opulence of some of the latest openings, religiously reported in the style press, there appears to be a growing trend in this direction.
You might be reading this at your desk, sadly contemplating the latest in a long line of dog-eared sandwiches. But elsewhere, others are tucking into imaginative, fresh food in surroundings so convivial they might easily find themselves swapping life stories with the managing director. No wonder the biggest faux pas you can make in such circles is to mention the word canteen.
For ultimate snob value, companies need to have a chef and kitchen in situ. But a growing number are taking advantage of a new wave of catering organisation whose staff are as well versed in theme days and corporate jollies as they are in local market produce.
Most important of all, however, is the swank-appeal of the restaurant itself. Unsurprisingly, organisations specialising in glamour like Conde Nast have pushed out the boat to invent the ultimate experience in eating in. According to the New York Times, the publisher’s new Times Square cafe, designed by architect of the moment Frank Gehry, “creates the impression of a small city park that has become unexpectedly lodged on the fourth floor of a Midtown skyscraper”. There is even a wall of rippling mirrors to ensure that replete diners continue to look super-slim on leaving. In terms of chic Manhattan lunch-time venues, the café is reported to be eclipsing Le Cirque and the Four Seasons.
While Conde Nast is clearly an extreme example of the genre, there is plenty of evidence to suggest many less glossily presented companies are following suit. And although proponents argue that the gains wrought by improved morale, closer company cohesion and weaning employees away from the pub are self-evident, the drivers extend way beyond any internal HR benefit.
What this is just as much about, in fact, is external image. Why bother to impress clients, media commentators and financial analysts with the quality of your board-level entertainment, when you can beguile them instead with an intimate glimpse of the company at play?
In the current environment, in which market values are as influenced by intangibles as they are by the actual state of the ledger, staff restaurants have become important symbols of transparency and self-confidence. Take us as you find us – we’ve got nothing to hide, they seem to shout. Pull up a chair and join in the fun.
Such is the impact of this trend, that any operation taking the reverse direction is likely to find itself the subject of raised eyebrows: Don’t they care about their people? Where’s their sense of corporate worth? No wonder the recent closure of the Telegraph Group’s Brasserie – replaced by a smaller facility with a greater emphasis on take-away food – was deemed such a potentially controversial event that all inquiries were referred directly to proprietor Conrad Black’s second in command.
We slide our tray along the counter of five very different organisations to check out their cuisine and their canteen cultures.
Dibb Lupton Allsop
• With a strong reputation for its work in employment law, Dibb Lupton Allsop has seven offices across the country. Although each takes a different approach to staff catering, both the Birmingham and Leeds offices recently followed the example of the London practice and opened their own distinctive “café bars”. Here we take a look at the London flagship.
Number to feed 300 lawyers and 300 support staff. The café seats around 60.
Menu Classic café fare prepared on site by caterers Houston and Church. Mediterranean dishes are a staple, with occasional forays into Japanese cuisine, but City office managing partner Paul Nichols rates the modern British classics on offer and is particularly fond of the bangers and mash. The café also serves breakfast and soup, sandwiches and coffee are available on a 24-hour basis.
“Houston and Church are a very interesting new start-up,” he says. “They realised that the big boys weren’t delivering on quality and thought they could find a niche delivering café-style food.”
Menus are posted daily on the firm’s intranet, and special occasions marked – the most recent being American Independence Day.
Design Designed by architects Marshall Cummings Marsh, also responsible for the whole building. The brief was for a bright, open space bearing no resemblance to the dreaded canteen – and imbued with a completely different ambience to the rest of the firm. This has been achieved via a decorative scheme incorporating abstract blues, oranges and reds and a trendy “Lloyds Building-ish” exposed ceiling.
“We wanted people to imagine they were walking into the café from the street. There’s nothing about [the firm] inside it,” explains Nichols.
Culture True to the firm’s determination to maintain the facility’s integrity as a café, the atmosphere is decidedly informal. A large plasma TV screen is usually switched to Sky News in the morning but lunchers are frequently entertained by Sky Sports and “MTV is usually playing later in the evening”, Nichols says.
Although the café is unlicensed, the firm supplies free booze on special occasions. “Younger lawyers tend to eat there in the evening – especially if they’re single – and so do sad, old lawyers like me.” So has it become a place of romantic trysts? “You’ve been watching too much This Life.”
Although the firm retains separate upstairs dining rooms for entertaining clients in more formal surroundings, partners are increasingly shipping them downstairs to enjoy a spot of café atmosphere as well.
Conclusion The staff café is a completely new departure for the firm and is already an important symbol of corporate pride. “Our aspiration is to be the in the top 10 firms in the City and the café has to fit that vision – it is essential to it,” says Nichols. He is convinced the restaurant pays for itself in terms of staff morale “as long as the quality is kept up”. If times got tight, it would be the last thing to be cut. “I’d rather increase productivity by offering free bacon sarnies at breakfast.”
• The Rotherham-based Garnett Dickinson Group has two separate arms: it is a local newspaper publisher and also a commercial printing operation. The group contracts out its catering to Consultant, which has a representative on site from 8am to 1pm.
Number to feed 350 people throughout the group. Many of these are shift workers.
Menu Ready meals and sandwiches are dispensed by a fearsome-sounding vending machine with glass displays so punters get to see exactly what they are paying for. The concept is not unlike the New York automats of the 1920s – except that hot dishes can be magicked up in the ultra-modern microwaves.
There are comforting egg and crispy bacon warm sandwiches, vegetable pies, burgers, pasta bakes and (for body conscious printers) a “slimmers’ platter” nostalgically based on Ryvita.
Managing director Nick Alexander goes a bomb on the cream cheese and salmon sandwiches, although he notes there has recently been a run on doner kebabs. Sweet teeth are also well catered for with apple pies and other puddings. But a recent jam roly-poly and custard concoction received a surprising thumbs down.
Design The previously grotty canteen was recently “tarted up”, according to Alexander, based on a design provided by Consultant. He describes the outcome as modernish. A series of round tables seat two, four or eight people, but there is also a curved bar area with stools – perfect for those who’d rather read the paper.
Culture What the canteen loses in intimacy is more than matched by the warmth of the smartly turned-out resident Consultant rep, Kim Bradley, whose main responsibility is to keep the machine well-stocked. She keeps a sharp eye on who’s eating what: “each shift is different”. A step ahead of Alexander, she notes the craze for doner kebabs is on the wane.
Conclusion While noting that many staff continue to use the revamped canteen as a takeaway centre, Alexander is keen to promote it as a meeting place for everyone in the company from senior management down. Although clients are usually served sandwiches in meeting rooms, he is keen to introduce more to the canteen. “It’s very good for internal dos and is used for union meetings. But I would prefer to see many more people eating in it. Personally, I’m a little disappointed that more don’t. I use it – maybe that’s why no-one else does.” That said, he is not entirely disapproving of those who prefer to spend their breaks elsewhere. “It’s healthy to want to go out.”
• In its heyday the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall served members famously delicious potato chips with their cocktails. The motoring organisation has clearly changed dramatically since then, but the tradition of providing good food has been revived in its three architecturally-striking bases located by motorways outside Bristol, Birmingham and Heathrow. Here we check out the Bristol HQ, which opened in 1994-95.
Numbers to feed 400 staff on site. On average 40-50 in the restaurant, at any one time. Service patrols occasionally pop in – but they have facilities elsewhere.
Menu “A complete mixture of really quality food”. Old-fashioned meat and two veg still goes down well and the curries are highly recommended (although RAC cognoscenti` rate those served in Birmingham still higher). There’s always a vegetarian dish, soup, a salad bar and sandwiches.
The cooks, supplied by a local catering company, Aramark, are particularly keen on theme days – Caribbean, Chinese and Thai cuisine have all been featured. “Basically, if you’re not exercising regularly it’s very easy to put on weight,” says one contented regular.
Design The whole building, including the staff restaurant, was designed by architects Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners and won a regional award. The restaurant opens out from an atrium and fronts on to gardens. A large outside patio with tables is a welcome feature in the summer.
Culture Determinedly egalitarian – directors mingle with the throng. The restaurant’s matey atmosphere ensures that RAC staff visiting the Bristol office invariably run into someone they know. But there is a purposeful atmosphere about the place. “A lot of business is done in the space outside the restaurant – it’s constantly used for meetings,” says Alan Allcock, head of HR relations and planning. “It’s a major benefit – it’s all about relaxing and being part of a team.”
Conclusion Allcock considers the restaurant an important factor in the RAC’s ability to recruit. And given that the Bristol base is wedged between a motorway and an industrial park, staff are restricted in terms of alternative options. “Although we’re a motoring organisation we’re very conscious of the green machine. We prefer people not to have to rush out. Even when the restaurants not open [a couple of hours between breakfast and lunch], there’s a constant supply of food.”
• The eating arrangements at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant operate many of the same values as its production line – precision, control, attention to logistic detail are all considered critical components of quality output. Last year the plant re-jigged its facilities in line with revised working arrangements that saw the lunch-break cut to 30 minutes, making the lengthy walk to the central cafeteria an impracticable option for many on the shop-floor. Consequently Vauxhall introduced eight new satellite cafeterias catering for shift workers across the site.
Numbers to feed Most of the 4,800 staff on site use the satellite operations – though they can choose to eat in the central cafeteria if they like. Because Vauxhall runs a 24-hour production line, satellites are open at different times of the day. “We can get 150 people through in 10 minutes,” explains Bernie Voller, manager of personnel services.
Menu “It’s good stuff and I’m not just saying that because it’s my responsibility,” says Voller. There are hearty portions of chops and roasts, salads, sandwiches and the now ubiquitous “theme foods” including Chinese, Indian and Thai. The syrup pudding, says one old hand, “is everything you wish to dream of”.
Food is prepared in a centralised production unit “like a mini factory”, according to Voller. “It comes fresh into the preparation unit, then it’s prepared, portioned and almost fully cooked before being blast-chilled and then delivered to the satellite areas. It has to be regenerated within 48 hours.”
Design The satellite cafeterias were designed by R&G Design. “They’re attractive to look at, painted in the corporate colours of red and grey. They stand out like something you might see on the High Street.” Décor is functional and features much chrome. Catering staff are smartly dressed in uniforms designed by Vauxhall. The facility concentrates on serving food: shop floor workers actually eat their meals in nearby rest areas which are equipped with tables, chairs and microwave ovens.
Conclusion The new arrangements run like clockwork and the food has met with a favourable response from employees. Voller claims that uptake has improved substantially since the satellite cafeterias were introduced – some 40 per cent of staff now use the facility. “They may miss the opportunity to sit down at the table,” he concedes. But the “hidden agenda” of eating with fellow shift workers is that it helps foster team spirit.
The on-site food production system at Ellesmere Port is so slick that Vauxhall is considering extending supply to other plants in the country still catering centrally. “Theoretically if Luton went down this route, we could supply them.”
• The Wolff Olins corporate identity consultancy is responsible for many of the most memorable brand launches and revamps over the past decade, including those of BA’s low cost airline Go, BT, Clickmango and Merrill Lynch. In addition to its London base, it has offices in Tokyo, Madrid, Lisbon and New York.
Numbers to feed The on-site kitchen produces some 90 covers daily and also serves some 60-65 sandwiches.
Menu Standards are high – compared by envious outsiders to the best that Conran has to offer. The consultancy’s two chefs (one devoted entirely to pastry and salads) are veterans of the London restaurant scene and are encouraged to travel to extend their culinary knowledge. The three-course menu changes daily. There is always soup (bouillabaisse, corn chowder with bacon, fennel etc), and a choice of mains that wouldn’t look out of place on a Masterchef set.
“We like to challenge people,” says Jane Houghton, who heads up entertainment and oversees the running of the kitchen. If the roast salmon with dill and lemon mayo doesn’t grab you, you could always take pot luck with the pork chop with apple and a lemon thyme jus, or maybe play it simple with the asparagus-filled pasta with ricotta, pine nuts and basil.
In celebration of a recent Scandinavian project, staff were offered Swedish meatballs with frozen vodka shots.
Ingredients are sourced from local markets. Cheeses come from Neal’s Yard. As for puddings, there are cobblers, mousses, cakes and tarts of every conceivable variety which slip down very nicely with frozen Greek yoghurt or home-made ice-cream.
Design Done in-house by Wolff Olins 3D designers, although Terence Conran is rumoured to have helped out. Universally known simply as the kitchen, the space incorporates a dining room, an adjoining walk way set with tables and conference rooms, which are often hired by clients running internal workshops. All front on to the Regents Canal. Houghton, a born perfectionist, apologises because the white tulip arrangements on the tables are out of season. Similarly she arranges for any graffiti appearing on the opposite bank of the canal to be removed on a monthly basis.
Culture The kitchen has become the de facto heart of the company. “The food draws people in – it’s the hook.” Wolff Olins capitalises on this by using the space outside the dining room as an informal exhibition site for recent projects. Staff are encouraged to invite friends as well as clients, there is a family lunch party every Christmas Eve, and 12 staff parties are held throughout the year. Large tables encourage a gregarious atmosphere that can be daunting to new recruits, although they’re eased in gently by mentors. If all else fails, they can always coo at the ducks.
The kitchen serves an average of 10 client lunches a day. “We try and encourage clients to see themselves as part of Wolff Olins while they’re here. They get the same as everyone else and they can’t jump the queue.”
Conclusion Wolff Olins sees its kitchen as “a real point of difference” from competing organisations. “It’s a very obvious symbol of the way we want to treat people,” says managing director Charles Wright.
Given its ability to beguile clients, the kitchen is clearly a corporate asset in its own right and an important facet of Wolff Olins’ own brand. Neither, he contends, is such good living an over-expensive luxury. “We pick up the salaries of the chefs but the food pays for itself” (each course is charged at £1 to £2).
“When we ran into financial trouble in the last recession, the kitchen wasn’t touched. Although we did stop sending out for croissants by taxi.”