Building Better Corporate Meals

04 July 2006
Building Better Corporate Meals

Health-minded menu options at B&I dining facilities match ongoing lifestyle changes.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor

Yet the age-old idea that, as a captive audience, they are easy marks no longer fits. Whether from brown bags, skipped meals or restaurants right outside company doors, workplace customers have many options to exercise if cafeteria fare doesn't suit their style. As more employees pursue healthy lifestyles or have diet mandates that influence meal choices, it has stirred the need for B&I facilities to meet these new dining mandates.

Hallmark Cards Inc., the Kansas City, Mo.-based greeting-card company, sensed changes on the horizon 30 years ago when it instituted a healthful-dining program. Sally Luck, director of corporate services, says the program initially involved dietary point-counting. It since has evolved to be more encompassing so that the company's 5,000 employees can find cafeteria fare that helps them achieve their goals. Today, turkey tacos, grilled vegetable manicotti and baked chicken strips are part of its Healthworks branded menu.

There are no logos or decals on station windows in the Crown Room-the company's largest dining facility-as people pass through the "healthy" serving line. Workers just know that once in the line they're guaranteed a lower-calorie lunch. The offer is part of the company culture-and more popular than ever, Luck explains.

"We recently doubled the size of the healthier food line because that area was backed up," she says.

At Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., spinach frittatas prepared with egg whites, spinach and low-fat cheese are served for breakfast; salmon steaks with fresh vegetables show up on the lunch menu. Director of Foodservices Ron Ehrhardt covertly substitutes fat-free sprays for oil when making eggs and doesn't use butter on steamed vegetables. He also freely dispenses suggestions to guests-a turkey burger instead of ground beef or baked chips instead of fried. Coming from him, such counsel has extra meaning; Ehrhardt is serious about bodybuilding, a truth easily seen in his fit, sturdy stance.

Snack items at Prudential, which in many companies rarely go beyond candy bars, chips and cookies from a vending machine, include smoothies, yogurt parfaits and vegetable crudités packaged to go in the lunch line.

"People want to eat healthier, but they don't want to go to extremes," Ehrhardt says. They also appreciate a full range of choices that equally accommodates their prerogative to indulge. Employees equate small changes with healthful dining at the company's 16 dining centers, he says.

Fresh and Healthful

As chain-restaurant operators know, not all customers are inclined to try low-calorie or low-fat fare. But like No. 1 McDonald's-whose sales have been boosted by salads and grilled-chicken sandwiches-there is growing urgency to build health-minded solutions into regular offerings.

One of Compass Group's current initiatives involves reducing trans fats, according to Deanne Brandstetter, the Charlotte, N.C.-based contractor's director of nutrition. Based on recommended dietary guidelines, the company is cutting back on items with trans fat, providing more whole-grain choices and adding more vegetable sides as accompaniments. With a larger variety of healthy choices, she says, there's a higher probability consumers will take something that's good for them, especially if it is widely appealing.

Vegetable sides such as Egyptian tomato salad with lemon juice, cilantro and feta cheese, and arugula salad with caramelized white peaches are daily menu items at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, where foodservice is handled by Compass' Flik International unit. Lavash pinwheel skewers with barbecue-rubbed pork loin also are available. The sous-chef-one of 11 team members charged with new menu items-may also dress salmon with chestnut foam made using soymilk, sugar substitute and grated chestnuts.

From exotic salads and finishing touches to fresh fruit salsas and chicken spiced with Southwest or teriyaki seasoning, the bank's chefs are encouraged to get creative.

"We offer a teriyaki ginger ground chicken burger," says Michael Giletto, the bank's executive chef. "We buy fresh chicken and fold in chopped onions, cilantro and ginger and serve it on a brioche bun." To further advance its nutritional profile, guests have the option of a low-fat multigrain roll. Giletto also cites fresh grilled tuna steak with papaya relish as a strong seller.

Take a Message

Salad bars, long a popular staple in B&I settings, are a subtle yet highly effective means of satisfying diners with disparate tastes and dietary requirements. Basic components of greens, vegetables and lean proteins can be composed in ways that satisfy nearly any preference.

"We show them a finished salad and tag ingredients in the salad line and say, 'Follow this path and pick these ingredients and dressing specific to a Mediterranean salad,' for example," says Scott Werner, director of marketing, innovative dining solutions, at Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp.

Aramark's Fresh & Healthy program also helps take the edge off making decisions about how to eat healthier with "picks of the week," says Aramark spokesman Doug Warner.

"We recently focused on sandwiches with under 10 grams of fat and provided materials that called out specific sandwich types [such as Turkey Salsa Ciabatta] and provided recipes," Werner says.

"Edumarketing-or educating and marketing healthier options at the same time-is how we appeal to diners with limited time," Warner adds.

Computing the Benefits

In the high-stakes world of computer-software development, foodservice is not just a corporate perk; it's an important bargaining chip in the continuous battle to hire and keep top talent.

Eager to stem the brain drain of executives leaving for competitors such as Google Inc., Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. last month announced plans to improve employee benefits. On-site laundry, dry-cleaning and grocery-delivery services are parts of the package; so is a promised upgrade of the company's cafeteria, including making available take-home dinners prepared by Los Angeles-based Wolfgang Puck Catering, an affiliate of Compass Group, which already handles Microsoft's corporate foodservice.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google's corporate benefits are extensive, befitting a company that reported net income of $592 million for the three months ended March 3, 2006. It not only offers dry-cleaning and laundry services, but employees on maternity or paternity leave are able to expense up to $500 for takeout meals while caring for their newborns.

Google's foodservice facilities are extensive and legendary. Cafe 150, which opened at the company's headquarters campus earlier this year, gets its name from Chef Nate Keller's determination to source ingredients from within a 150-mile radius. Employees dine without charge on fare that includes clams sautéed with Chinese sausage and basil, tofu slaw and a sandwich bar with nine house-made condiments, according to The San Francisco Examiner.

Last month, Google announced its intention to buy eggs only from uncaged chickens. A similar stand was announced last year by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management, the Compass Group division that handles corporate foodservice for several computer-industry companies, including San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems; Waltham, Mass.-based Novell Inc.; Redwood City, Calif.-based Oracle Corp.; and Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo! Inc.

Healthy Habits

Aramark's 2005 Nutritional DiningStyles survey of more than 5,000 adults across the country finds that 20% are "health focused" based on their dining habits and attitudes about eating when not at home. That is the largest of six categories that the Philadelphia-based contractor follows. Here are some of the characteristics of this most-health-conscious demographic:

  • 64% are female;

  • 77% attempt to limit fat intake;

  • 66% monitor sugar consumption;

  • 64% try to limit trans-fat intake;

  • 62% indicate that they are not on a diet;

  • 61% limit calorie intake.

Daypart Diets

Lunch hour-the main meal in most B&I settings-is not exactly prime time for health, according to results of Restaurants & Institutions' exclusive 2003 Obesity in America consumer research.

Just 17.6% of respondents indicated that the day's healthiest food was eaten at the midday meal. Just over a quarter gave the nod to breakfast and 44% to dinner; 12% say they practice the same healthful-eating standards throughout the day.

Hispanics are the most inclined to chow down a balanced lunch, with 30% citing that meal as their most healthy. Least likely? Those with household incomes of $25,000 to $34,999, with just 8.6% naming lunch their personal-best meal occasion as far as nutrition is concerned.

Price It Right

The decision to make sound meal choices is not always as simple as selecting a grilled chicken salad over a fried chicken dinner. For many consumers, cost is a motivating factor. The conundrum plagues B&I operators who compete with $1.99 value meals at local quick-service restaurants.

"We find that some operators will subsidize healthier bundled meals and look at costing structures in terms of healthful versus less healthful items," says Deanne Brandstetter, director of nutrition for Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group.

"The difference between our healthful dining program and others is that we subsidize the healthier items so they cost less," says Patty Guist, director of associate programs and services at Louisville, Ky.-based Humana Inc., an Aramark client. For example, baked chips are 50 cents and fried chips are 70 cents. "Getting staffers to eat healthy is about what they're spending and not what they're eating."

Its Check Your Choices program started almost two years ago when the company decided that rather than subsidize snack foods such as soda, the money would be better spent allowing employees to purchase juice, water, baked chips and animal crackers at a discount. Since implementing the program, which is supplemented by Aramark Just4You programming in vending and cafeteria service, sales of such snack items have increased as much as 32%, Guist says.

"We're working out a program with our internal health and wellness group to subsidize healthier food items [to increase consumption]," says Ron Ehrhardt, director of foodservices at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., a Compass account. The group plays a prominent role in menu development at the company because "it's a good thing for the firm," he says.

Pricing is an easy way to sway people to buy salads rather than fries or fruit instead of potato chips, Ehrhardt says. Prudential bundles healthful items so the price is the same whether guests select a side of fried potatoes or fresh fruit.

Employees at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia can sample anything on the Flik International-managed menu before committing to it. It's one of the ways the foodservice team sells healthful items to non-believers.

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