Workplace dining has been undergoing an evolution before—and certainly after—the COVID experience as employers find that a quality onsite foodservice is an attractive perk that can help facilitate the transition back to offices from two-plus years of remote work. For companies like the ones ensconced in the UCI Research Park complex next to the campus of the University of California Irvine (UCI), a premium dining amenity also serves as a symbol of management’s commitment to employees’ comfort and well-being.
To that end, UCI Research Park manager Irvine Company engaged celebrity chef Brian Malarkey to create a multi-concept dining venue on the campus grounds that combines the allure of a destination commercial restaurant with the convenience and menu diversity of an onsite foodservice. The result is Herb & Ranch, which offers four food stations plus a combination coffee shop/bar and a small snack shop.
Malarkey is a veteran restaurateur whose concepts include Herb & Wood, Herb & Sea and Aminae, and who is familiar to culinary TV show fans from his appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars” and “Top Chef” (where he was a finalist) and as a judge on “Chopped All-Stars” and “Cutthroat Kitchen”. He says he took on designing a dining amenity for a workplace environment because it presented a challenge to do something different, for instance noting that Herb & Ranch is the only lunch restaurant he has.
“High-end campuses like Irvine are really pulling out all the stops these days,” he says of the restaurant’s operating environment. “They want to have very nice amenities [because of] the competition for talent, so they want to put them in great environments with everything from a gym to beautiful buildings and great food. It’s a very competitive job market and [companies] want to offer their employees the best.”
For Irvine Company, that “best” includes food that feeds not only the body but the mind and promotes creativity, health, wellness and happiness, Malarkey says.
“They did a phenomenal job in giving us the facilities to exceed our vision,” he offers. “I don’t hate hamburgers and pizza, but that’s not what we’re offering here. Instead, we’re offering brain food—poke, grilled chicken breast with fresh vegetables, big salads, ancient grains. We want people to be healthy and charged so they can give their best performance day in and day out.”
Because it’s in a workplace location where customers can be expected to eat frequently, meaning menu exhaustion is an issue, Malarkey designed Herb & Ranch with multiple and diverse station concepts that offer a variety of dining choices that are further augmented by having the menus change seasonally for even more variety over the course of a year. He describes the venue as “a revolutionary style food hall in that we are all the vendors,” which he says allows more consistency, efficiency and predictability.
The four food concepts at Herb & Ranch are…
• Farmhouse, which specializes in proteins with dishes like seared sustainable salmon, herb roasted chicken, sweet chili marinated tofu, shiso breadcrumb crusted tuna and braised short rib, along with sides like
charred broccoli, kale & freekeh salad and creamy polenta;
• The Press, a soup and sandwich outlet serving dishes like a Caprese panini, a prosciutto baguette and Tuscan tomato soup;
• Grains & Greens is a bowl concept where the bowls are served with a choice of mixed greens or a brown rice/quinoa duo and which offers selections like roasted chicken curry (apples, currants, peanuts, cilantro and a curry dressing), Insalata Tricolore (radicchio, arugula, Castelvetrano olives, cherry tomato, shallot, artichoke, chickpeas, pepperoncini, crispy prosciutto, ricotta salata and creamy Italian dressing) and Roasted & Raw (beets, fennel, Korean pear, hazelnut, tarragon, sherry vinaigrette, parmesan).
• Mahalo, a Hawaiian cuisine concept offering chicken katsu, beef bulgogi or tuna, salmon or fried tofu poke with the choice of either an Ohana Plate (furikake rice, mac salad, cabbage slaw) or an Aloha Bowl (furikake rice, greens, sesame dressing).
In addition, there is also The Bar, an espresso bar that serves a variety of specialty coffees, and The Outpost is a grab and go snack station.
Malarkey says he was approached by Irvine Company to put together the onsite restaurant at UCI Research Park because he already had some restaurants in the area and “they were big fans of ours.”
Herb & Ranch originally opened about six months before the COVID pandemic hit, but like many foodservice establishments, it has been on an open-and-close roller coaster for much of the past couple years. However, it has now reopened—hopefully for good—and is ready to serve customers looking for premium but convenient dining choices in a relaxing, casual setting.
That includes not only UCI Research Park employees and their guests but also UCI students and people from the nearby community. In fact, Malarkey estimates that a fair amount of Herb & Ranch’s business is from “moms and kids from around Orange County who have found us and come to hang out on the beautiful grounds while enjoying the affordable, high-quality food.”
The venue optimizes those aspects of a workplace dining location that Malarkey considers most important—quality food, of course, but also convenience, atmosphere, aesthetics and a hospitality approach.
One thing he says he wanted to avoid after studying food halls was “the mess” and unattractive kitchens visible behind serving stations.
“Ovens and [other back of the house equipment] are not attractive,” he remarks. “We wanted to make a very clean environment that is very efficient and very quality driven, so literally 95% of the cooking happens behind a nice clean wall and the food comes out in these beautiful cassoulet dishes. The only things we cook up front are panini sandwiches—everything else comes cooked and ready to go so it’s very instantaneous—fresh food right now!”
Service is not only attractive but quick. Other than the paninis, which take about a minute-and-a-half to prepare, he says everything is delivered in about 35 seconds. There’s also a pre-order option.
Along with the quality of the food and the speed of service, customers also experience something often missing in high-speed foodservice—the human touch.
“I don’t like people paying at the station because then you tend to look at the computer rather than the person right in front of you,” Malarkey offers. “It’s so much better to be able to say hello, to look somebody in the eye and tell them what you want, they give it to you, and you go to a register to pay. Restaurants and foodservice are some of the last places now where it’s still very important to have some of that human contact.”
Herb & Ranch is open for breakfast and lunch weekdays, with morning offerings including a breakfast burrito, avocado toast, veggie hash, short rib chilaquiles and croissant breakfast sandwich. Of course, The Bar is open mornings to serve coffee and pastries.
The venue is also gearing up to host more catered events, including corporate functions for Research Park tenant companies and social events like weddings and bar mitzvahs for outside customers. “We have a beautiful landscape that’s completely empty on weekends, plus a great venue with a covered patio and a beer and wine license,” Malarkey observes.
Meanwhile, for his regular customers, Malarkey says his approach comes down to the basics…
“People want great food, they want it fast, they want a variety of things to choose from, and they want it at a good price—and preferably served with a smile on somebody’s face!”
Photos courtesy of Herb & Ranch