Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica has given priority to staff catering facilities in relocating 14,000 employees from 14 buildings scattered around Madrid to a shiny new office complex at La Moraleja on the city's outskirts. The 2,200-seat food service facility at the centre of the complex, close to a new underground station, expects to produce 6,000 meals a day and is being hailed as the largest in Europe.
The only European industrial food service facilities that feed more people are across multiple sites - for example, the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsberg, Germany, produces 32,000 meals daily across 25 outlets. Telefonica is a single site.
"Don't call it a canteen - we're all forbidden to use that term," comments Francisco Alomar, director general of Autogrill España, which won the 10-year contract to develop and run the new restaurant.
If the name Autogrill sounds familiar, you may well have seen it on the Continent when travelling on a motorway or passing through an airport or railway station. The group, which is controlled by Italy's Benetton family, has since the 1990s built up a dominant presence in travel catering in both Continental Europe and North America (with the HMSHost business it acquired from Marriott).
The 10-year Telefonica contract is, however, Autogrill's first and, so far, only foray into workplace feeding and, appropriately, it has a lot more in common with high-throughput travel catering than institutional feeding. The main restaurant at Telefonica even carries the same "Ciao" branding as seen at motorway restaurants, a reflection perhaps of their relatively higher perceived status on much of the Continent.
Another reflection of Autogrill's distancing of the new facility from "normal" staff feeding is the contract. Autogrill pays an agreed market rent for the space and has designed and installed all facilities. As its outlets come on stream this year, Autogrill takes standard margins from prices which, while lower than those at airports and motorways, are comparable to those in the Spanish high street.
The confidence that this nil-subsidy arrangement will work stems from the high footfall ensured by the site's 14,000 workers. This is backed by the fact that Telefonica encourages its staff to use the latest communications channels, including an internet site that provides detailed coverage of menus and facilitates preordering.
Meanwhile, no restrictions are imposed on Autogrill, which can attract business from the many other companies in the area, including arch competitor Vodafone. Autogrill is also free to pursue function business, and some of its meal production facilities at Telefonica can be used, if desired, to dovetail with supplies to Autogrill motorway services in the Madrid area.
Autogrill is, therefore, in a competitive position, but the company is also acutely conscious that the fast-developing hinterland around the new offices is already well provided with other facilities, including a large retail mall with several popular casual-dining and fast-food brands.
Telefonica employees are indirectly subsidised in receiving TR (Ticket Restauration) meal vouchers to a daily value averaging €8.50 (£5.77). These have been an accepted part of the remuneration package for workers at the company's previous office sites around Madrid. Continuing the scheme at the new offices is an important element in encouraging staff to undergo the upheaval associated with relocation.
So what can a big on-the-move concession caterer bring to staff feeding? Alomar says Autogrill believes it can reduce the menu fatigue of daily dining by capitalising on its experience of multi-outlet meal provision. Applying a combination of large-scale production and a high-specification of food merchandising from self-service counters, the company is attempting to offer cook-serve versions of most popular Spanish meal components: daily changing soups, stews, grilled meats and fish, paellas (with up to 15 giant pans sold daily), omelettes, pasta and pizza.
These are augmented by a big choice of side items, including breads, salads, vegetables and fruit, plus ancillary counters, such as a yogurt bar from which customers can ladle out their preferred choice.
The result is a varied pick-and-mix offering covering the dietary quirks of modern office workers - with, for example, special diet needs and vegetarian options flagged - and a wide range of price points from €3 (£2) to €12 (£8). Consistent with Spanish restaurant practice, a daily prix fixe menu, or menú del día, is offered with two choices in starter, main course and dessert at about €8.50 (£5.77).
In developing the free-flow restaurant, Autogrill has drawn on its knowledge of coping with the peaks and troughs of customer flow at busy motorways.
Design goes a long way to breaking up sight lines so that people are dining in sections with only 20-30 other people.
"That's very important," Alomar comments. "We visited a great many staff restaurants before designing the facility here, and we did not like what we saw. Too many gave the impression of feeding an army."
Consultancy in adapting to the staff-feeding market was provided by Bayer Gastronomie, a unit within the giant German pharmaceutical concern Bayer.
Aside from counter design, and colourful, retail-style blow-up photos of food, the biggest element in maintaining high-speed throughput at Telefonica lies in the use of information technology. Microchip payment cards, preloaded with amounts of up €100 (£68), must be used by all customers of the main restaurant, both Telefonica staff and anybody from outside. These cards make it possible for the 18 cash register points to handle each customer transaction within an average of less than 20 seconds.
A service bureau adjacent to the restaurant entrance deals with all account queries and the transfer of voucher values to cards, while a bank of four machines lets diners load cards with cash or funds from credit or debit cards.
Another key customer-flow element at Telefonica has been the installation of a large coffee lounge on the floor below. It is able to hold about 1,000 people and is equipped with no less than 14 espresso machines. Tickets for drinks in the lounge are obtained when customers pass through the tills in the free-flow restaurant. So it acts as a relief valve, encouraging diners to vacate their restaurant seats.
The coffee room is notable not just for its substantial capacity but also for the way it functions as a gallery where local artists can sell their work. Art shows change once a month. The area is also used for special events, such as staff discos.
Other facilities on the same floor include an executive dining restaurant with an average spend of €50-€70 (£34-£48), featuring fashionable giant lampshades, a wine tower and display cooking by chefs, plus three partitioned-off rooms with sufficient extraction facilities to permit smoking.
The floor below the main restaurant has been installed with four externally branded outlets untypical of most industrial catering environments. These include:
• A multi-scoop ice-cream parlour plus coffee shop franchised from the well-known Spanish producer brand, Farggi.
• A bookshop and luxury goods outlet offering gift items more consistent with a duty-free store at an airport - an area of Autogrill expertise.
• A tapas bar combining a traditional seated counter bar with all the trimmings, plus a new-style fast-food counter.
• A quick-service pan-Asian noodle bar.
Alomar expects the Telefonica development to have a big knock-on effect on other employers. "When they come here and see this place and the big choice of food, they will want the same thing," he believes.
In its last reported financial year (2005), Autogrill had group operating revenues of €3,625m (£2,462m) and profits before tax of €250m (£170m).
It operates in 30 countries, and its 4,500 outlets in 996 locations employ a total of 52,000 people in both food and beverage service (71% of the business) and retail/duty free (27%).
Autogrill runs on a concession model, operating branded units that it either creates in-house or franchises. Its portfolio numbers about 250 brands, 160 licensed from outside companies and 90 in-house.
The group is active mainly in:
• Airports (47% of business, spread across 25 countries, including the UK at London City Airport).
• Motorways (45% of business, spread over 10 countries).
• Railway stations and train catering (2%, spread over five countries).
• Shopping centres, trade fairs and prestigious city locations such as the Prado museum in Madrid and New York's Empire State Building (6% of business, spread over eight countries).