The New Power Lunch

Urbane and glittering Hearst Tower, the publishing empire’s 46-story glass and steel headquarters on West 57th Street, might seem an unlikely setting for a farm stand, but every Wednesday employees can be found in the sleek and airy Café 57 shopping for produce grown on Long Island and in New Jersey.

“The executives come down and say ‘Are we running a company or a grocery store?'” laughs Brian Schwagerl, vice president of facilities planning at Hearst Corporation and the man responsible for both the farm stand and the real-food-focused cafeteria at the city’s first green building to win Gold LEED certification. “But I’m a great believer that work can also be fun and that food brings people together. By providing this chance to shop for healthy food we are investing in our employees’ health and happiness.”

Once the domain of shrink-wrapped tuna sandwiches and Jell-O cups, the corporate cafeteria has been undergoing a quiet real-food revolution as some companies embrace fresh food as a boon for both employees and the earth. Google raised the stakes in 2006 when they opened a mouthwatering, envy-inducing cafeteria in their Port Authority area offices, serving dishes like braised Mangalore salmon in coconut milk, hanger steak with sauce bordelaise, beet-marinated tofu with chile scallion glaze and made-to-order sushi—all for free.

While most companies maintain the adage that there is no free lunch, Midtown’s noontime nosh hour is seeing a growth cycle upturn.

Hearst employees feast on grassfed beef from the Hearst ranch, sample tastings from the Barefoot Contessa herself and can order local produce to be delivered each week. At Condé Nast, the swirling glass Frank Gehry–designed cafe serves sushi and beef satay, while at NBC it’s not unusual to come across Top Chef season 1 winner Harold Dieterle cooking Thai-inspired mussel soup. His appearance in the media company’s kitchen has little to do with his reality-TV star status and more to do with his friendship with chef Joey Campanaro of the Little Owl restaurant, who also oversees the corporate cafeterias at the media company.

Early in his career Campanaro redesigned the dining programs at Universal Studios in California and two years ago he was asked to perform similar magic at 30 Rock. “It’s been a fun project,” says Campanaro of his work with the NBC cafeteria. “We are doing really seasonal, quality cuisine, with a focus on healthy eating for 1,800 customers a day.”

When Campanaro stops by the kitchen, employees get a taste of the meatball sliders he made famous at the Little Owl, and other chefs like Dieterle, Jimmy Bradley of the Red Cat and Mikey Price of Market Table also make regular appearances.

But increasingly, corporate food service directors are looking past sushi and celebrities to ecological responsibility. Perhaps the most dramatic changes in Manhattan’s office towers have been at Random House and Hearst, which participated in a pilot program for the new Green Dining Best Practices—a comprehensive set of science-based recommendations for eco-friendly food service developed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Restaurant
Associates (RA). The guidelines examine food purchasing, transportation, energy use, packaging and even cleaning methods.

“At the EDF we partner with big companies to reduce their environmental impact,” says Gwen Ruta, VP of corporate partnerships. “And we’ve done a lot of work with food services companies,” noting that one of their earlier partnerships led to McDonald’s to stop serving hamburgers in foam containers.

“A lot of companies would like to do the right thing but each issue—food, transportation, energy—has other issues attached to it,” which can lead to confusion, bad practices or companies just throwing in the towel on the efforts all together. “Like biodegradable trays. They seem like an easy choice, but if they’re thrown into the regular garbage system they aren’t able to biodegrade, and, in a landfill, because they are organic matter, they will actually give off methane. Reusable and washable plastic trays are best here. These guidelines are comprehensive, science-based and deal with every issue in the kitchen.”

EDF doesn’t take payment from its corporate partners because they want the information to be public, for the most people to have access and benefit from their recommendations. (Send your own corporate overlords to

“The test programs at Hearst and Random House were very successful,” says Gina Zimmer, vice president of marketing and communication for Restaurant Associates, adding that her company is planning to roll out these practices in all 110 of its facilities by 2011. “And some of the changes were surprisingly easy. There were extra refrigerators that weren’t being used that could be unplugged, ovens being left on that didn’t need to be. Coffee makers are a huge drain on energy—they don’t need to be kept on 24 hours a day.”

The pilot program at the two cafeterias cut waste going to landfills by 60 tons, reduced red meat and upped sustainable seafood. A little surprisingly, it resulted in a combined savings of $85,000. And Zimmer notes what she calls “the halo effect. Our employees are genuinely excited to be part of something like this.”

These eco-initatives aren’t necessarily innovative. Caterer and restaurateur Mary Cleaver, whose Cleaver Company has been at the helm of the farm-to-table movement for 30 years, worked with Gourmet magazine to green its Condé Nast cafeteria, and says today her regular corporate clients include some very ecologically aware outfits, including Eileen Fisher, Origins, the Earth Institute and Jeff Sachs. But her so-called farm-to-boardroom efforts haven’t always borne fruit.

“We do get lots of calls from companies saying that they are going green and want us to cater the launch. But often they can’t think of green past the lightbulbs,” she says. “I see a lot of greenwashing. We recently got a call from a company that wanted to launch its green efforts with a lunch for employees. They wanted lunch for 200 people to take back to their desks, but when I talked to them about how those meals were going to be transported to the desks they hadn’t thought about compostable containers or plates. Our job a lot of the time is to educate people.”

“In a way it almost doesn’t even matter why they are doing it,” says Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of Great Performances, a catering company which, like the Cleaver Company, recently won Slow Food NYC’s Snail of Approval. “Whether it is because of a trend or because of political correctness, as long as it happens it’s important because it trickles down. Even symbolic changes can be important. And just to be having the conversation means that
they’ve traveled toward a greater consciousness.”

Great Performances has its own 60-acre organic farm in the Hudson Valley which grows many of the ingredients for the 100- mile menus the caterer serves at corporate and social events at venues like the Plaza. “More and more clients are interested in sustainable menus,” says Neumark, noting that “law firms and financial services companies are currently at the edge of corporate responsibility. They are meeting client needs and wants.”

But some corporations are putting eco-initiatives on hold because of concerns about another kind of green: money. While Eileen Fisher’s offices always have local organic fruit on offer, use sustainable-organic-local caterers for events and host “lunch and learns” during which nutritionists and farmers meet with employees, a green café for staff has been pushed back until next year, and a Cleaver project to bring a green café and retail CSA into a building on the Upper East Side has slowed to a crawl.

Still, Hearst’s green program is going full steam ahead. “I didn’t want a traditional cafeteria in this building,” Schwagerl
says. “We look at the headquarters as home, and the café is part of the urban living room. Café 57 encourages people to share ideas, like at a kitchen table at home or a great café.”

He points to the recently launched Café 57 Twitter feed: “We want people to be excited and have this be a sense of pride for the company. We were committed to tapping into the green movement. And the amazing thing is that these green dining practices really work. We are saving money, being environmentally responsible and making our people happier and hopefully healthier.”

Now that’s good business.

Photo credit: Blake Sinclair