Financial firm Fifth Third Bank operates at several sites, including its headquarters in downtown Cincinnati, but its largest complex is in Madisonville, Ohio, where in ordinary times some 4,000 employees congregated on an average day. Today, the site still hosts a couple thousand each day, an impressive in-person attendance ratio compared to many other workplaces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of those onsite workers are essential personnel who can’t easily work from home—in fact, the Madisonville facility never closed completely even in the depths of the COVID crisis—and to help reward them, Fifth Third launched a free daily meal program this past spring through AVI Foodsystems Inc., the company that operates dining services at Madisonville and other Fifth Third sites where onsite dining is provided.
“We were able to adapt pretty quickly to the changing environment and guidelines and make sure our onsite employees were safe and able to be served, but we also wanted to do something a little different to have a positive impact for the employees who are reporting onsite every day,” says Assistant Vice President Laura Burns, who is Enterprise Workplace Services manager for Fifth Third, about thinking behind the free meal program.
The Madisonville complex includes two full-service bistros in adjoining buildings along with four unmanned micro markets and a Starbucks outlet. All remain open, with the free meals dispensed in the bistros between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for first shift staff and between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. for later shifts. The bistros and micro markets also offer additional grab-and-go pre-packaged meals and snacks for purchase and the bistros have also begun offering some freshly made dishes.
“Because the health department doesn’t allow a [self-serve] salad bar, in August we started to test run combining the salad bar and deli station to behind-the-line service where customers can get something beyond the pre-packaged and free meals,” explains Liz Kestermann, AVI’s district manager for Fifth Third. “So now people can wait in line—socially distanced six feet apart, of course—and order a salad or a sandwich to go.”
In addition to these free, grab-and-go and freshly made meals, hot breakfast with all the traditional offerings is available daily in the bistros, while the micro markets provide round-the-clock options ranging from packaged meals to snacks and beverages. Some socially distanced seating is available in common areas outside the bistros, but most employees take their food away back to their desks.
The free meal program offers a rotation of six-week seasonal menus that began with spring-themed choices back in March, then cycled through a summer menu and now is starting a fall menu.
“We’re trying to add as much variety to the meal program as we can in terms of menu offerings,” Kestermann says of the menu that provides two options each day, including one vegan choice. “We want to stay fresh and give them innovative, creative, seasonal things. We put barbecue back on the menu for the fall with wings and pizza for Football Fridays and we’ll introduce some more warm comfort foods as the weather gets colder.”
The free meals are prepared onsite and packaged in heat-safe containers. All shifts are eligible to receive them, and the program is also available in Fifth Third’s facility in Grand Rapids, Mich., where there is also a large contingent of essential personnel. Onsite cafes at some other Fifth Third facilities in Illinois remain closed for now, and stock on hand when COVID forced closure this past spring was donated to local social service agencies and food pantries. That’s also what happens to excess free meal production in Madisonville.
“We have to be careful with how we handle the free meals because we serve so many and have to keep them safe,” Kestermann explains. “Because we use heat-safe containers, we can cool the meals down and then put them out for third shift in designated refrigerators and they can use a microwave to heat it up.”
They have been quite popular, as might be expected. “We get significant participation and our employees have been excited and grateful that we are doing this for the team,” Burns offers.