Putting Stock in Sustainability

By Jessica Goldman Foung | October 01, 2013
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According to The Jetsons, food of the 21st century was automated and artificial. Robotic maids and vending machines produced meals at the press of a button—often packing multiple courses into a pea-sized pill— painting a picture of efficiency as well as a society too busy to eat, if not totally disconnected from the food system. But in the heart of Silicon Valley— where many futuristic predictions do come true—Google and its first executive chef, Charlie Ayers, helped proved Hannah-Barbera wrong by putting slow food at the center of the company’s fast-paced culture. And making the corporate cafeteria one of the company’s greatest assets.

Today, Google serves over 60,000 meals a day in 150 cafés and 700 micro-kitchens around the world. The many dining rooms act as a catalyst for spontaneous collaborations and creativity. They attract media attention as well as talent. And they continue to operate around a framework of health, community and sustainability started some 15 years ago in its very first kitchen.

In 1998, Chef Charlie Ayers was the last of 25 chefs to try out for Larry Page, Sergey Brin and the fledgling Google team. While still in Palo Alto, Page and Brin planned to move their company to a more remote location, without easy access to lunch options. They needed to provide meals on campus and were on the hunt for someone to simply keep employees fed, on property and productive.

With a background as a private chef, Chef Ayers knew how to cater to a client’s preferences. And in planning his trial menu, he made sure to serve the founders’ favorites: a mix of sushi, salads, vegetarian fare and Mexican cuisine. A cohesive menu that spanned healthy dishes to the decadent. But that day, values proved more impressive than the meal. And before he even took out a knife, Ayers set aside two hours to clean the kitchen, a scene he describes as a “biology project,” covered in leftovers from previous auditionees.

“They realized that I was someone willing to take initiative,” Ayers says. A trait that not only won him the job but proved essential for the position, as Brin and Page never told him what to cook.

The founders did, however, share with Ayers a loftier company goal.

“Larry explained to me that they wanted to change the world through search,” Ayers says. “The revenues they generated would allow them to address issues like poverty, health care, obesity and hunger.” And while Ayers’s past as a store developer with Whole Foods exposed him to the power of consumer choices, he credits his experience at Google for showing him the impact of his own kitchen.

Ayers says Brin and Page initially asked him to use e-commerce sites like Webvan.com to source ingredients. But when delivery timelines could not meet the size and demand of his orders, Ayers turned back to a more traditional route and tapped vendors he knew from his time opening restaurants in the Bay Area.

“I didn’t use Sysco,” he says. “I partnered with small, local places like BiRite Foodservice, GreenLeaf, Bassian Farms and Michael the Milkman. I wanted to support the little guy.”

He also wanted to reduce waste and chose to do so through thoughtful portions and purchasing rather than rely on shipping the surplus to food banks.

“I support Second Harvest,” he says, “but I still consider it wasteful in many ways. I’ve wasted time with vendors. I’ve wasted energy in preparation. I’ve wasted product. It piles up.”

So in the early days, Ayers and his sous-chef, Jim Glass, operated under the rule that product is only good when it’s fresh. He says they cooked as if competing in a mini “Iron Chef” competition, announcing lunch menus only at 10 minutes to noon. “By Friday,” he adds, “we often had nothing left.”

The element of surprise became a staple of his kitchen. It also invited a deeper interaction with employees. Ayers happily welcomed all levels of participation, from sharing family recipes to making pies during the holidays.

“A lot of people volunteered to work in the kitchen because they wanted to learn.” He adds that the early Googlers loved menu items than came with a story. Emails with the day’s menu included background on unfamiliar ingredients and the people who grew them. He encouraged dialogue by bringing the vendors into the office for live talks or demos. And when he
restructured the junk-filled break rooms into micro-kitchens (with a range of healthier options), he posted what he calls “propaganda” throughout the cafés to explain the changes.

“Any and all content was appreciated and talked about on an internal lists called Google Food Discuss.”

This is when Google’s corporate and kitchen cultures began to influence one another. And while Google wasn’t the only company to provide high-quality, seasonal and local food—others include Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO), which launched its own Farm to Fork to program in 1999—they certainly became well known for it.

“Department heads realized they had something downstairs that was a huge asset to the company,” Ayers says. And as the workplace transformed, food became the epicenter of it all.

“Everyone eats,” he says. “And if you want to create the ideal working environment, the least you can do is feed them well with whole food and not empty calories.”

Chef Ayers officially left Google in 2005, to open the Calafia Café and Market A-Go-Go in Palo Alto, author his first cookbook and consult for other start-ups and their food service programs. And while Google’s growth now demands the use of larger vendors, such as BAMCO, to provide the food service for its global kitchens, they still carry out the sustainable code instituted in those early years.

“It’s about transparency,” says Scott Giambastiani, Google’s current global food program chef. No matter the country or the Google campus, he expects chefs to follow the formula of staying local and in season; knowing the farmers as well as their farming and labor practices; and focusing on finding the best product.

“There isn’t a day when a chef does not communicate with a farmer,” says Giambastiani, “and not many ventures can do that.”

The more striking legacy, however, may be the changes occurring beyond the kitchen. As in the early days of recipe sharing and pie making, Giambastiani says the culinary program continues to invite participation from employees, to improve food literacy and to bring the experience to families and communities outside the Google walls. With office gardens, CSA pickups, on-campus farmers markets, and teaching kitchens in the works, these initiatives break down the food cycle from production to consumption, helping people understand that, even when meals are free, food choices still have costs.

Many corporate cafeterias and micro-kitchens remain a place to simply refuel or foster collaboration. But other companies continue in Google and Chef Ayers’s tradition by using the dining room as a classroom.

“Food programs create avenues that enable employees to become more knowledgeable about the food they eat and good nutrition habits,” says Joe Peterson, LinkedIn’s food and beverage program manager and former general manager of the food team at Google. And while it may not be industry standard yet, an awareness of eco- friendly, healthy food continues to affect corporate culture.

“Today, people bring their values and the way they eat outside of the workplace into the workplace,” says Maisie Greenawalt, VP of strategy for BAMCO. “And for the past five years, every request for proposal we get has a section on sustainability.” Their client list includes DreamWorks SKG, Adobe Systems, Yahoo!, eBay, and Twitter. She says the questions range from basic (do you purchase locally?) to the sophisticated (what certifications do you accept?).

“But every single corporation making a decision about food service is asking questions about sustainability. It went from nobody to everybody in five years. That’s a pretty rapid change. And companies like Google showed what was possible and that employees appreciated it.”

An increased consumer awareness has also led to venture and institutional investors putting stake in sustainable businesses, like Good Eggs, which brings farm-fresh ingredients directly to the consumer. Their focus is on the home for now, but with plans to include the corporate environment as well, recently launching a drop-off at Etsy in New York.

“The investor community is being attracted to opportunities that embrace sustainable practices because consumers are embracing these companies’ products and services,”
says Alexander Bernstein, principal at Arlon Group. Last year alone, the Valley invested almost $350 million in food tech, according to a recent report by the venture capital database CB Insights. And Bernstein says the sustainable companies are growing at rates that are faster than their non-sustainable peers.

“More and more consumers want to know exactly what they’re eating, where it came from, what’s in it and how it was made. Those questions are reverberating throughout the supply chain.”

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