There are so many rituals, practices, and beliefs that are petering out in our post-pandemic working lives. The handshake. The necktie. The notion that workers can’t be trusted to be productive when they work at home, or in a cafe, or anywhere else they can land a laptop. (This text was drafted on an Airbus A321.)
In the next few years many employers will be delegating another decades-old amenity to the dustbin: the company cafeteria. Instead of one sprawling (and likely pretty empty) destination, there will be many smaller ones designed to entice workers to gather at any hour to connect and collaborate.
This prediction comes from Fedele Bauccio, chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Company, the food-service provider that shook up company cafeterias across the country by partnering with the likes of Oracle and Google and collaboratively pioneering new concepts like ethnically diverse food and free meals. Bon Appétit’s clientele swiftly grew to include organizations like Best Buy, Starbucks, and MIT; while its fortunes, unsurprisingly, took a significant hit in the pandemic, it remains a billion-dollar enterprise whose 1,000 locations cooked and served 200 million meals last year.
Some takeaways from our recent conversation with Bauccio:
The traditional cafeteria is a thing of the past.
“Those days are gone,” he says. In its place: “smaller, unique concepts placed throughout the campuses. There are pods of places where they can experience different concepts and different kinds of seating.”
Taking action on corporate values, which includes issues like climate change and animal welfare, has never been more critical for companies looking to recruit and retain younger workers.
“How do we support community? How do we support farmers? If you go on our website, you'll see a lot of messaging going on. Young people care about those messages,” Bauccio says. “They care about where their food comes from. They want us to support community within 150 miles of our kitchens all over the United States. That's a big, big deal.”
Companies are using food not only to lure workers to offices, but to encourage them to collaborate once there.
“Clients and employees have told us that, although it's nice to be able to be at home, they miss the collaboration and miss coming together. Part of that is food because that’s when they come together to share their ideas, collaborate, and create innovative solutions.”
Workers, particularly those in the food-service industry, are worn out from the pandemic.
“All over the country, people are struggling to get enough employees, and we pay more than a living wage and full benefits for everybody. People are exhausted and burnt out, and they want to do something different.”
We’re getting bored with burgers.
“There’s been a huge change in terms of more authentic cultural foods, whether Indian food or Filipino food, other than the hamburgers and deli sandwiches,” he says. “People want to experiment with their food, and they seem to experiment at work more than they do at home.”
Plant-centric meals are healthier…and easier to procure in a supply-chain crunch.
Supply-chain issues are “why we try to stay away from animal protein and try to do more produce and grains,” Bauccio says. “They're not only healthier and better for you, but they're also easier to source.”
As companies around the country struggle to figure out how to convince workers to head back to headquarters and how to reconnect them once they’re there, food—with its ages-old power to motivate and to build community—is becoming an increasingly valuable tool. A recent event at Microsoft with food trucks offering fried chicken and Korean barbecue for free was reportedly packed. Ford said its workers, which just started a new hybrid-work program, are praising its beefed-up cafeteria and bean-to-cup fresh coffee. JPMorgan Chase, which recently, and rather reluctantly, announced that many of its workers will work a hybrid schedule, unveiled plans for its new headquarters that includes a state-of-the-art food hall.
On the other end, cutting back on the provisions can spark a swift—and surprisingly sharp—backlash. Former Dropbox workers griped to Business Insider that the company decision to axe the gourmet cafeteria damaged company culture. Meta got publicly slapped for its decision to start its free dinner meal at 6:30pm rather than at 6:00pm. And most recently, Goldman Sachs—known for taking a particularly hard line on its stance that all workers should return to working in offices five days a week—generated headlines when it scrapped the free breakfasts and lunches it began offering during the pandemic. (The bank upped its “out of hours” meal stipend by $5 and said it was replacing the free meals with other “new experiences and offerings.”)
Here is a full transcript our conversation with Bauccio, edited for clarity:
Are you originally from California?
I was born in New York, but when I was a small child, my folks moved out here. I grew up in Southern California, went to college up in Portland, Oregon, and then moved to San Francisco. I started Bon Appétit some 34 years ago, when Silicon Valley was just beginning to blossom. Now we have locations all over the United States and do a lot of different things. We feed corporate America in so many different ways. We do about 150 private colleges and universities. We do a number of museum restaurants and performing arts centers. We're very labor intensive, but we feed a lot of young people—over 200 million meals last year.
The reason I reached out to you in this moment is I've been doing a number of future-of-work stories and return-to-office stories, and food kept coming up in articles and conversations. So I was hoping you could talk to me a little bit about the role of food in the return to the office.
Food is very, very important, and it's a way that companies have retained employees and attracted new talent. The thing that changed over the years was the fact that we felt strongly that we needed to create food that was authentic and real. It was also a way for us to think about the cultural differences we have in the workplace. It wasn't just hamburgers and that kind of thing.
If you were to go to some of [our] locations, you would see all kinds of different ethnic kinds of foods. It's very important. Indian food is very popular with engineers and people who come from Asia, especially Southern Indian food. Now it's become more than that, because we've done a lot of messaging in terms of our sustainability initiatives. Animal welfare is a big issue with young people. Climate change is a big issue, with soil, the environment, and all of that. We're now including more plant-rich offerings versus animal protein. That's what customers want today, but they also want to know where that food comes from.
How do we support community? How do we support farmers? If you go on our website, you'll see a lot of messaging going on. Young people care about those messages. They care about where their food comes from. They want us to support community within 150 miles of our kitchens all over the United States. That's a big, big deal. And so there's an education part of food. It's not just serving people at lunch or in micro kitchens during their breaks. We're probably the largest company in terms of feeding corporate America, with close to 2000 locations overall and hundreds of locations on the corporate side.
We serve companies located from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Northwest to Southern California. Clients and employees have told us that, although it's nice to be able to work from home, they miss the collaboration and coming together. Part of that is food because that's when they come together and share their ideas, collaborate, and create innovative solutions for their company. Even though some companies are now hybrid, we still have to provide unique experiences in terms of food and coming together.
It's not only about the food. It's about coming together. We miss that. We're tired of Zoom calls, and we're tired of staying at home. I'm hopeful that people will start to gravitate more to the office than they ever have before in the next six months. Long term, we're going to have this hybrid situation because you can't force people to return to the office. Companies have found out that while we can still be effective in developing products and services even though people are not in the office, it's not the same.
So I don't see the food part of it going away. It's still a huge attraction. Our clients and companies have told us that it's part of enticing employees to come back into the office by creating a unique environment that helps both culture and collaboration. We want to make sure that we give them the very best products ad the very best service. That includes talking more about climate change, animal welfare, and the broken model of agriculture we have in this country. I do a lot of speaking about this, the more I talk about the environment, the soil, where the food comes from, and supporting community farmers and local artisans, the better off we are.
We've also reached out to restaurants to bring them in one a week because restaurants are in trouble. We give them a place so that they can have some income coming off of what we're doing. There's a whole myriad of things that we can do to get people excited again about this wonderful benefit that started in Silicon Valley but took off across around the country.
Have you seen any changes in the kind of food people want, how much companies are spending per meal, what kind of meals they want?
In the last few years, we've seen more plant-based foods than ever before and less animal protein as the center of the plate. We start with plants, and then we augment with animal protein, which is a big, big deal for consumers. That's everything from Impossible burger to all the plant-rich foods. That's been a big change. There's been a huge change in terms of more authentic cultural foods, whether they're Indian food or Filipino food, other than the hamburgers and deli sandwiches we had before. People want to experiment with their food, and they seem to experiment at work more than they do at home.
Do you see any small changes or the beginning of changes in what kinds of things, how much companies are spending, as we open this new era of work?
I don't see a big change in what companies are offering. In fact, I think more of them are going to start going towards free food. I do see one change. As we build out headquarter buildings, things are changing and I don't see big cafeterias anymore. I think those days are gone. I see smaller, unique concepts that are placed throughout the campuses. There are pods of places where they can experience different concepts and different kinds of seating. From an affordability standpoint, these big cafeterias are going to go by the wayside. There's still going to be great food, but you're going to be able to eat whenever you want to. There's not gonna be a typical lunch hour. It's all day long kind of a thing, with smaller plates and grazing. That's what I see happening. That's what customers seem to want.
When you're meeting with people, it's probably easier to meet and talk to someone in a smaller setting than in some gigantic cafeteria.
That's correct. Yes, that's correct.
Do you see any changes in the kind of food people want?
The trends start on the West Coast, and then they move east. So I don't see a lot of changes on the West Coast, because we've always looked at unique kinds of foods and we've been able to experiment. This is a very liberal area that we live in, with many young people who come out of college campuses who want experiment. It's different as you move towards the East Coast. In the Midwest, they're probably not as plant-rich. There's a different makeup of customers. So I think it changes, but we start the trends here and it starts to move across the country. That's what I find in my company.
Are there other things you've noticed as we come out of this crazy period?
Companies want to support community as part of their purpose, and we bring community to those campuses. If you dig into the way we source our food, everything's within a hundred to 150 miles, no matter where we are in the country. We seek out the farmers, the artisans, the cheesemakers, and the ranchers that are doing the right thing for the environment, climate change, the soil, and animal welfare. Companies are more concerned about climate change than ever before. They want to get to zero emissions. We can be part of that solution. Food can be part of that solution. We start to really become an incredible partner for them because food is family. It's part of their culture. I don't see that changing over time. If nothing else, it's gonna be more important than ever before
Do you see being mission-driven becoming more important as we come out of this?
Absolutely. It's more important than ever before. Health and wellness, in terms of food, is very, very important. We're not the food police, but what we can do is give them an array of healthful foods, which is important especially in light of Covid. But health and wellness is less important than the mission of the environment, animal welfare, and climate change. If you talk to CEOs, they'll tell you that people come to work for companies because they want to help change the world. So how do we change the world? How do we deal with climate change? How do we make sure farmers earn a living wage to produce the food? All of those things are critical. The more we message that, the more we are there as not just a provider of food, but a provider of education to people and to employees.
Can you give me a datapoint to buttress the point that this is more important to companies than ever before?
One of the reasons companies choose Bon Appétit is because of our sustainability initiatives. We've been doing this a long, long time, before many of our competitors. That's why they hire us. What's built this company is our sustainability initiatives, what we stand, an our purpose. From the beginning, it was my dream for the company, and people thought I was crazy when I started talking about this stuff in 1986. Can you imagine me talking about animal welfare and factory farms and what a mess we have in agriculture? They thought I was crazy, but that kind of messaging drove us and fueled a company with no salespeople. This is not going away. In fact, it's stronger than ever today than it was 34 years ago.
At colleges, that's the first thing on their mind. That's what students want. We feed five generations, but that generation is who's going change the world in the future. I just did a commencement speech for USF, and I can tell you that I am hopeful. This next generation will help us change the world in the right way. We have a broken world today, and food is part of coming together. It's part of family and it's part of culture. It's part of how we connect with one another
Does your Italian background play a part?
My mother lived to 104, and I was lucky to have her that long. I'll tell you I was in the kitchen with her all the time, and you know what Italians do on Sunday. It's a ritual of so many neighbors and people coming to a family dinner that lasted four hours. So food is important.
Can you give me a sense how much of a premium it is for your services versus your standard food service?
It's not the cost of the food. It's the cost of the labor today. We spend more money on labor than we do on food because we cook everything from scratch. As we think about not doing huge cafeterias and pivot to smaller, individual kinds of concepts and kiosks, the labor comes down a little bit. It takes people to do that. We don't buy it. If you go into one of my freezers, you don't see anything but ice cream because everything is fresh. Also, when we buy from local people, we eliminate the middle person.
We typically cost about 5-10% more than other companies because we bring something that no one else can bring to the marketplace. We have a different level of quality because we do everything from scratch. That's why we have as many companies as we do. Cost is not important to them. It's important that their people feel really great about quality, authenticity, and knowing where the food comes from.
You are a large employer. Obviously we are experiencing a worker shortage, and we're experiencing inflation. Tell me as an employer: How you see things in terms of the job market?
People are burnt out and exhausted, especially in the hospitality business. All over the country, people are struggling to get enough employees, and we pay more than a living wage and full benefits for everybody. People are exhausted and burnt out, and they want to do something different. I think it'll come back, but we are struggling to bring staff back because they don't want to do these jobs. Working in the restaurant business and the food service business is a very, very difficult business. It takes a lot of people. The supply chain is getting better, but now we're facing inflation.
It's 7-10% in food—go to the grocery store and you'll see. That's why we try to stay away from animal protein and try to do more produce and grains. They're not only healthier and better for you, but they're also easier to source. That changes the variety a little bit. In the short term, we won't have the same variety as before, but what we can do is continue to have quality, authentic food that's made from scratch. I was very lucky. We have a really good balance sheet and we're able to survive this situation.
It's important. Not only for companies, but for the world, we we've gotta do the right thing for the animals, for the soil, for climate change, for all of this. And I really believe that companies, even startup companies, I work with a lot of entrepreneurs. I keep telling 'em, what's your purpose? You know, don't tell me you want to get the best employees. I want to know what your purpose and your vision, what your dreams are, and you gotta have a purpose. That's gonna create differentiation. That's how you're gonna win in the marketplace. That's how you're going to attract consumers. So we've done it. And that's what I think is going to happen in the future.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive briefings like this by email.