Corporate dining may be undergoing challenges but that doesn’t mean some employers don’t continue to value it as an amenity and benefit for their employees. For instance, Herman Miller, the manufacturer of high-quality office furniture based in Michigan, recently made a significant commitment to onsite dining at its sites by deciding to operate the service itself, employing a number of talented culinarians who have been displaced by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the restaurant industry.
Herman Miller currently has five onsite cafes of which three are currently open—along with a satellite location—with each under an experienced chef with an extensive background in the commercial foodservice world. The company is headquartered in Zeeland and also operates two location in Holland and two others in Spring Lake. All are located within a short distance of each other in Western Michigan.
Currently, with most employees in the main location working remotely, the café there is closed but the other sites all have some manufacturing component and are open as employees engaged in tasks at these facilities can’t do it from home and have been onsite since April 2020. In all, the onsite dining operations are serving about 2,400 employees a day as compared to the some 4,000 pre-pandemic.
Four of the cafes are full-service, including the one in Zeeland that currently isn’t operating.
“They are like mini-restaurants,” explains Shannon Bell, facilities services manager for Herman Miller. “They serve breakfast and lunch daily and we also have a pretty robust grab and go program because we do run all shifts at our locations. They are 24-hour operations at several of the locations as we want to make sure that we have food available for all of our employees.”
The cafes at the 24-hour sites switch to self-service in the off hours and “we supply all of the food made fresh daily for the grab and go coolers at those locations,” Bell adds.
Herman Miller had offered onsite foodservice since 1970, initially self-operated and then contracted out for the past 23 years, most recently to Aramark. With COVID basically halting onsite catering, the traditional financial bulwark of a B&I dining program, it became difficult for the management company to maintain café operations at the level the company wanted, so the decision was made to bring it in-house.
“We just came to a realization that the vendor was not happy with the finances, so it was a good time to part ways, and we were able to implement our own program that fits our employees needs and also aligns with our corporate culture,” Bell explains. “The whole thing about the dining program at Herman Miller is that it’s an employee experience, an employee benefit and we want to make sure that employees have the best experience we can serve them. [With the conversion to self-op,] we are now also able to ensure that the people who are serving the food have a similar employee experience. With a third-party vendor that was always something we struggled with.”
Photo credit: Herman Miller
Photo: The newly self-operated onsite dining program at Herman Miller emphasizes the use of fresh—often locally sourced—ingredients along with from-scratch preparation.
The cafes offer a daily menu for breakfast and lunch that includes an entree, salads and some grill items.
“Everything is made fresh in-house, including things like salad dressings that are made from scratch,” Bell notes. “The chefs create the menus. As we have the same audience five days a week, we have to have different menus and seasonal menus to keep them excited. We use lots of seasonal product and local products. We even meat we get from a supplier in Traverse City [about 150 miles to the north]. Really being able to trace back food sources is very important for us.”
Among the local products is a Herman Miller Coffee that comes from an area roaster as well as a couple of traditional company favorites like Herman Miller Bacon, which is rubbed with the company coffee blend and some brown sugar.
“There are a lot of those kinds of things across the board going on,” Bell suggests, “but the chefs at each location are in charge of their menus. We do have a recipe database, but it’s all in-house as they’ve created all of these menus, so it’s really only limited to their imaginations and creativity. That makes the chefs really happy, and also the culinary teams, because they have a buy-in to what is made at their location daily.”
The employees at each location also tend to have their favorite menu items, which the chefs have been getting familiar with, which aids effective menu creation.
“We’ve been operating since December and the chefs have already learned their audience so the menu is based off those [preferences] while keeping in mind the program core values of from-scratch, sustainable and as much local as possible,” Bell says.
The menus tend to be a mix of healthy and somewhat less health items as a consequence, with everything made appealing.
“The chefs are all about creating from scratch recipes with a lot of veggies,” Bell notes. “We do try to make the healthy option more appealing, and we encourage employees to taste something they’re not sure they’ll like before they decide to buy.”
Basically, she says, the healthy-vs.-unhealthy choice debate is up to individual decisions and the company is not going to force things on employees they may not want.
“It all ties back into wanting to give the employees choices, though we do try to put healthier choices in the forefront,” she says. “We have our chicken tenders, our onion rings, our specialty hot sandwiches, but on the flip side we also offer a really nice stir fry or some great sweet potatoes. It’s all in how the chef puts everything together.”
Ultimately, though, given the limited choices in the restaurant world forced by pandemic lockdowns, “we really don’t have a lot of pushback on serving something new and different,” Bell adds.
Of course, with pandemic restrictions still in effect, mealtimes can’t take on the same traditional aspect as before, with crowds of hungry employees descending on the café during the break periods.
Photo credit: Herman Miller
Photo: Experienced restaurant chefs oversee the self-operated cafes for Herman Miller.
“With COVID, we worked with our plant managers to come up with a breakfast period—typically about three hours—and within that three hours the employees are spaced out in a safe way so we can maintain social distancing in our cafes,” Bell explains. Meanwhile, “our manufacturing employees have that condensed lunchtime, so it’s important that we have the timing down” so that not everyone goes to the cafeteria all at once. “It’s just about communication with our plant managers that we have all the timing down on the breaks, and that we then maintain social distancing.”
The system is designed to let teams remain together—with necessary distancing limits, of course—to take meal breaks while being separated from other teams.
The chefs have adjusted to the routine, Bell adds.
“It’s all about learning the cadence of your building,” she says. “The chefs have been onsite since December, and now it’s just a well-oiled machine.”
Of course, the food is served in pandemic-regulated ways—packaged rather than set out for self-service, though there are a few relative exceptions such as a weekly made-to-order omelet station for breakfast, but the meals are still served in closed containers. As for dining, seating is obviously limited in the cafes, but the locations have opened up additional unused areas like conference rooms, auditoriums and break rooms where employees can go sit and eat—again, with distancing policies in place. Of course, for those with offices or desks, they can always take food back there to eat, but in a way that defeats the social role of the meal break, Bell acknowledges.
Having some communal spaces where people can sit together to eat “is a big thing because sometimes you need that mental break from your work area,” she says. “Fortunately, with warm weather returning, we can start putting out the outdoor furniture, so we’ll also have those spaces.”
Hopefully, by the time that furniture has to be put away again with the return of cold weather, things will have returned to more of a normal mode, but in any case, Herman Miller remains committed to offering its employees a high-quality onsite dining service.
“The whole thing about the dining program at Herman Miller is that it’s an employee experience, an employee benefit. We want to make sure that employees have the best experience we can serve them,” Bell summarizes.