Aside from sports/recreation and convention/conference center concessions, no onsite dining market was hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than corporate dining…and no onsite dining market faces a more uncertain future.
While crowds are eventually expected to return to sports venues, students to schools and colleges and attendees to conventions and conferences—even if not quite in the numbers as before—the culture that traditionally nurtured corporate dining as a service and/or amenity underwent a major shift as a result of COVID-imposed policies over the past year, a shift that it likely won’t fully return from.
That shift involves reducing the number of employees physically present in offices at any given time as the pandemic’s remote work culture normalizes. What that likely means for corporate dining is an environment in which feeding staff, at least in the usual way with a full-service café, becomes less important—and more financially tenuous. At the same time, however, another role onsite dining has traditionally filled—as the facilitator of collaboration and socialization and the booster of team spirit and company culture—likely grows in importance as client employees get fewer opportunities to interact with each other face-to-face.
One example of how a dining program might meet the challenges of this changing environment is the onsite café in the new headquarters of online apparel marketing firm Wantable in Milwaukee. The company moved into the renovated industrial building in the city’s Walker’s Point neighborhood at the end of last year, and the café, located on the building’s ground floor, debuted in early February.
A whole new approach
Wantable Café is not a traditional company café as its food menu is limited, currently offering only a couple of salad choices, bakery items like brownies and muffins, a few small plate dishes like chilled crab and artichoke dip and shareables like a cheese board and a hummus plate. It also has a café-style hot and cold beverage selection of coffees and coffee drinks like espresso and lattés from local roaster Condor Coffee, various hot and iced teas, cocoa and branded bottled beverages like Red Bull, San Pellegrino, Naked Juice and Fiji Water.
However, whatever the menu lacks in breadth is made up for through its design to provide a social experience that is facilitated by food and drink, not centered around it.
“We’re not a cafeteria, we’re a café,” explains Jeffrey Reinbold, the successful local restaurateur who operates Wantable Cafe. “We focus more on small plates to get the employees down here during their breaks, have them share something and enjoy it. What we’re here for is to create an environment at Wantable that makes it one of the best places to work.”
Reinbold’s vision for Wantable Café takes into account the emerging role of dining venues in corporate environments as social rather than foodservice spaces.
“There are a lot of businesses that have cafeterias, a lot that have foodservice,” he notes. “We’re here for more than just getting people lunch. We’re here for the experience, the ability to create an environment that generates ideas.”
That environment means not only getting together over coffees or a cheese plate, but also for after-work drinks.
“We also have a full liquor license,” Reinbold explains, “so when people get done with their day, they can stop down and have a glass of wine, a cocktail or beer. It really fosters that community aspect of having that release with your co-workers—with your bosses even—and with people from other departments, something that really brings the Wantable family together and also creates a whole different environment for this café. A lot of people are going to be working remotely for the foreseeable future, so we can be a bit of their home away from home” when they come to the office.
The menu may be limited, but what is not minimal at Wantable Cafe is space—some 6,000 square feet of it that easily accommodates current social distancing requirements—along with a trendy atmosphere from the refurbished but still industrial-cool surroundings. Currently, the space can accommodate about 60 people while maintaining the six-plus feet of social distancing space required by COVID-mandated local policies, but once those restrictions are lifted, Reinbold is planning for events with up to 325 attendees as Wantable Café is also designed to be a catered event space. In fact, he already has a wedding booked for the fall.
In addition to company employees, Wantable Café is also open to the public, a strategy with a number of benefits. Most tangibly, it helps with finances as non-Wantable customers must pay for the food and drink they get while company employees get everything for free—even the alcoholic beverages—which is quite an incentive to get staff to come to the café and an impressive commitment to fostering staff morale and collaboration on the part of the company.
Being available to walk-ins also helps the café and the company become a community asset in the emerging surrounding neighborhood, and also a place where creativity can be nurtured.
“We want to be a place not only for Wantable but for the community that gets people to think, to be creative, to be around other people who are also creative,” Reinbold says. “Who knows, maybe the next great startup like Wantable will start in this café!”
From a practical standpoint for Wantable, 2,500 square feet of the café’s 6,000 square feet is reserved for use by company employees to ensure they “always have seats in their own café,” Reinbold laughs.
The relationship between Reinbold and Wantable “goes back almost as far as they have been around, over seven years now,” says Reinbold, who also owns two restaurants in Milwaukee—the celebrated 10-year-old Milwaukee Sail Loft on the city’s waterfront and the Great Lakes Gallery in the Great Lakes Distillery. “We’d done catering for them in the past and their founder/CEO [Jalem Getz] is familiar with our restaurant. We were one of his favorite places to stop and his favorite local bar—we got his martinis just right!”
So when the company was formulating plans to open a new headquarters facility and wanted a dining component, Reinbold was a natural choice. Plans for the café preceded the emergence of COVID and necessitated some changes, but the venue seems to be striking the right notes in a pandemic-influenced business world with its emphasis on getting people interacting informally in a safe way.
For Reinbold, the Wantable Café provides an extra employment opportunity for his staff and its large space fits with his experience.
“It lets us diversify our schedule and get more hours for our employees to keep them working,” he explains. “Also, we are no stranger to large events and that is our forte. We already have a very large event space at the Sail Loft and do large scale events there, so one of [the skill sets we bring] to this is our ability to handle a 325-person event space when those parties start to get booked.”
Granted, business has been slow in the first weeks with maybe 40 customers—about evenly split between in-house and street traffic—on a typical day, but Reinbold is not discouraged. In fact, he’s planning to expand hours and service.
The café’s current hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays but “we will be adding happy hours and will stay open until nine so employees can come down after work and linger,” he offers. “By summer, after everyone’s has been fully trained, we hope to be open from eight [a.m.] to nine [p.m.] every day except Sunday.”