Microsoft’s main campus, located outside Seattle, is usually a hub for more than 60,000 workers. Their foodservice partner, Compass Group USA, typically serves about 40,000 meals a day at more than 90 dining destinations on its 500 acres, including cafés, pubs, espresso stands, self-service stores and two full-service restaurants. They usually cater more than 23,000 events annually.
But, like other tech campuses around the world, Microsoft’s Puget Sound campus went quiet last March. When coronavirus swept through, they shuttered almost all of it.
The company’s 24-hour cashier-less markets remain open for snack and meal options and they continue to supply free sparkling waters, juices, sodas and other beverages for the few essential Microsoft employees who remain at their desks. Microsoft is continuing to pay all hourly workers their regular wages, including 1,300 Compass employees, throughout the pandemic.
Jodi Smith Westwater, senior services manager with dining operations at Microsoft, says when the campus emptied, the company used some of its resources to an immediate need in order to help the community: school lunches. Between mid-March and the end of May, they donated 328,000 boxed lunches to school-aged children in the Seattle area through 12 community partners: four school districts, two Boys & Girls Clubs, a YMCA branch and five local nonprofit service organizations.
The company used food from its own stores, repurposing the would-be menus from 25 campus cafés. A dietitian ensured that lunches met guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. Each day, up to 65 employees showed up to pack and deliver more than 6,400 lunches.
“Many students on free or reduced meal programs weren’t going to be able to get meals with schools being closed,” Westwater says. Using their resources to help “was a bright spot for us.”
As for serving their own, Microsoft is focusing on remote employee engagement and designing its reopening plans.
To help remote employee teams bond, Microsoft created a menu of opt-in events that includes snack boxes and live culinary classes. They use part of the budget typically reserved for catering to run cooking and mixology courses. When a team signs on, they assemble and ship recipe boxes to employees’ homes. On the day of the event, a Compass chef teaches live from one of the Microsoft kitchens. They’ve hosted 25 culinary events and sent out about 1,000 boxes so far.
The program has been a hit. “It’s just a different way for teams to show their appreciation and connect to one another and have those morale-building moments,” Westwater says.
On the preparation side, culinary leadership is working in a phased plan for feeding employees as they slowly return to campus. At first, they’ll offer cold, boxed meals through a program called The Box, offering meals packed in tamper-resistant packaging to help ensure that they’re safe. Later, they’ll add upgraded reheatable options. After the boxed meal program, they’ll slowly start to reopen cafes.
Initially, employees will be able to choose from three sandwiches, three salads and a snack. They’ll offer vegetarian and vegan options. Full meals will include sides and dessert.
Reheatable meals (standard or vegetarian) will fall into five categories: Adobe Mexican, Himalaya Indian, Mangia Pasta, Teriyaki and Comfort Food. All boxed menus will follow a two-week rotating schedule.
When employees return, the culinary team will be able to deliver meals placed online directly to lobbies, an option they didn’t offer prior to the pandemic. Employees order through MyHub, a point-of-sale app.
They’re also assessing foodservice norms and making changes that will ensure safety for everyone once in-person restaurant service is safe again. So far, they’ve decided to eliminate communal-sized beverages in favor of individual drinks and switched to individually wrapped, compostable stir sticks and cutlery. They also adopted anti-bacterial coverings on high-touch surfaces, such as shared touch screens. Self-serve salad bars will become made-to-order stations for the foreseeable future.
Westwater says the pandemic is already affecting future design. The company has already altered plans for new buildings to ensure that large-scale food halls have adjustable service stations, proper sneeze guards and other safety equipment. Every element needs to be reimagined.
“The key to success right now is flexibility and agility. We need to be able to pivot quickly and we need to be able to be open-minded. So many things are changing right now and the way things have always been done, it’s very clear that’s not going to continue in the future,” Westwater says. “Being comfortable with ambiguity is really, really critical for us right now.”