Twenty or so years ago, you’d walk with trepidation into a college, museum or corporate cafeteria for what often would be a dreadful meal of last resort.
It was likely to be mystery meat, limp green beans floating in water, dried-out cheeseburgers stacked under heat lamps, soup straight out of a can, vegetables from the deep-freeze, and everything cooked way ahead of time.
Thanks to industry pioneers such as Bon Appétit Management of Palo Alto, Calif., institutional food service is not so institutional anymore.
The 19-year-old company has brought the lofty standards of high-end restaurants to the more than 400 university, corporate and other food service operations it runs nationwide, including at Oracle in Redwood Shores; the Stanford University Graduate School of Business; Adidas America in Portland, Ore.; and the Getty Villa in Malibu. Its food is not only gourmet, but also increasingly politically correct.
So much so that Bon Appétit is loath to characterize what it runs in any way, shape or form as "cafeterias.”
"That word is banned in our company,” founder and chief executive Fedele Bauccio says half in jest. "We approach our cafes as restaurants.”
Or as Marc Zammit, the company’s director of culinary support and development, adds with a laugh, "We’re not just slinging hash.”
Far from it.
At Bon Appétit’s cafes, there are no set corporate recipes that must be followed. Chefs have free rein to devise their own menus daily. All sauces and stocks are made from scratch. Only sustainable seafood, milk without growth hormones, antibiotic-free chicken, eggs from cage-free chickens and cooking oils without trans fats are used.
Fresh fish and steaks are cooked to order in front of your eyes, and custom salads of baby greens, heirloom tomatoes and organic strawberry-sage vinaigrette are tossed to your specifications. Burgers are made from grass-fed beef at many Bon Appétit cafes, sandwiched between buns baked daily on the premises.
The food is fresh and flavorful. And it has amassed such a following that employees at such Silicon Valley giants as Oracle and Yahoo have friends begging for an invitation to lunch at their Bon Appétit-operated cafes.
High standards for food quality always have been stressed, ever since Bauccio bought Bon Appétit, which was then a San Francisco catering company, in 1987. A longtime executive of the former college and corporate food service provider Saga, Bauccio had been impressed with the catering company’s food and wanted to translate those same principles of quality to institutional dining. Just how good was the food? Back then, one of the cooks there was a young Mario Batali.
Bon Appétit still attracts high-caliber chefs. Its director of special culinary programs, who does training videos and brings in celebrity chefs for cooking demos and book signings, is pastry chef extraordinaire Jim Dodge. And many diners at Acme Chophouse are surprised to learn that Managing Chef Traci Des Jardins is a partner in that San Francisco restaurant with Bon Appétit.
"I’d never been involved in any institutional food company and probably never eaten any institutional food except maybe when I was at a ski lodge,” Des Jardins says. "But before I opened Acme, I toured the cafes at Oracle and other high-tech companies. I was really impressed with the quality of the food and what they were doing.”
Seven years ago, Bon Appétit Management took that notion even further. It took the bold step of emphasizing not only food flavor but also food geography. Its cafes nationwide now strive to obtain 20 percent of all ingredients from no more than 150 miles away, a distance considered a reasonable day’s drive.
"We saw a crisis of flavor happening on the plate,” says Maisie Ganzler, the company’s director of communications and strategic initiatives. "Food wasn’t tasting like it should. It wasn’t being bred for flavor, but for transportation.”
As a result, the company touts local over organic, preferring to buy an apple that’s conventionally grown locally rather than one that’s organic and flown in from New Zealand.
Its cafes in the Pacific Northwest are among its leaders, with about 80 percent of their dairy, produce, meat and baked goods meeting that distance goal. In places like Minnesota, where the local growing season isn’t as long, Bon Appétit chefs try to make up the difference by buying more locally made products, such as pasta and charcuterie.
To celebrate that commitment to locally produced food, Bon Appétit last year hosted an "Eat Local Challenge,” in which for one day its cafes all served a lunch made entirely from foods grown or produced within a 150-mile radius. This year, it will do the same on Oct. 3.
In preparation for that meal, every ingredient is scrutinized. If apple cider is served, it can’t contain any cinnamon, since the spice is not grown locally. If cheese is used, not only must it be made locally, but also the milk must come from animals that graze locally. If there’s pepper in the cheese, it also must be local. The one exemption chefs get is salt. But last year, a team of cooks in Portland, Ore., went so far as to actually harvest their own.
"When big companies like this see the light and start buying locally, rather than having stuff shipped in from Mexico or China, it will help a lot of local farms for sure,” says Guillermo Payet, founder of LocalHarvest in Santa Cruz, an informational source for the "Buy Local” movement.
Indeed it might when 1.2 million acres of farmland are lost annually in this country, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American Farmland Trust, which works with governments to help keep farmers on their land. From 1997 to 2002, California alone lost more than 1 million acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bon Appétit chefs, who work with hundreds of farmers nationwide, spend $30 million annually on locally grown produce, Ganzler says. Weekly and biweekly farmers markets, where diners can buy produce to take home, also have been established at about 30 of the cafes. Anything unsold at the end of the day is often purchased by the cafe chefs for use in the next day’s menu.
Pam Towner-Pottol, co-owner of Morganic Hilltop Crops, a small honey producer in the Los Gatos mountains, sells at the Yahoo farmers market. Her specialty honeys, such as orange blossom, sage and raspberry, also are used in sauces and dishes made by Yahoo Executive Chef Bob Hart.
"At Yahoo, we get to introduce our honeys to a whole group of people who have never seen them,” Towner-Pottol says. “It’s great that they’re bringing stuff like this to their people.”
In Southern California, Bon Appétit recently began partnering with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which fosters family-scale sustainable agriculture. Bon Appétit helped the non-profit organization purchase a refrigerated truck so that 38 farmers could deliver their fresh produce to Bon Appétit cafes. With a large enough delivery route now, Ganzler says, the farmers also have been able to start delivery of locally grown produce to Compton schools.
Bon Appétit also uses the theme of sustainability to inspire its chefs. This year, it challenged all its chefs to prepare a meal using one of 10 heirloom beans indigenous to the Americas and now deemed endangered by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Project, an organization dedicated to preserving food traditions. (One of its founding partners is Slow Food USA.)
Each chef met with local farmers to explore the possibility of growing such beans, then wrote an essay about what they learned. Five regional winners were chosen. Their prize? A three-day culinary tour of Charleston, S.C., with founder Bauccio.
Although white-tablecloth restaurants like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse have emphasized local, organic and sustainable food for decades, it’s rare that a food service or restaurant management chain with so many locations has such a philosophy corporatewide. In fact, Jon Schallert — president of the Schallert Group, a Florida marketing and management consultant firm specializing in retail and restaurants — can’t think of another that does to this extent.
"Most franchises try to figure out a way to replicate themselves by packaging things at one corporate office and then doling them out. What Bon Appétit is doing takes a lot more effort to set up,” Schallert says. "But the model of using local resources makes economic sense. Local producers can deliver their products at less cost and using less energy. It’s actually a cost savings to Bon Appétit, as well as a huge public relations boon for it.”
Even Bon Appétit’s annual holiday gifts to clients are a little out of the norm. In 2001, the company was about to order barbecue gift sets for all its clients at the end of the year. But when Sept. 11 hit, the company decided to donate the money it would have spent on those gifts instead to Windows of Hope, the relief effort for food workers affected by the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Ever since, that has been the tradition. Last year, Bon Appétit donated $50,000 to help pay for an outdoor kitchen for the Collective Roots Garden Project at East Palo Alto Charter School. This year, it will donate $50,000 to EarthWorks Urban Farm in South El Monte, in the Los Angeles area. That money will fund yearlong subscriptions to a community-supported agriculture program for needy families, allowing them to receive regular deliveries of farm-fresh produce.
To Bon Appétit, it all just makes sense.
"We want to be a catalyst in reinventing the food supply,” Ganzler says, "to ensure great-tasting food is available in the future.”