REDWOOD CITY, Calif. -- More consumers may soon be shopping for dinner even before they leave the office -- or the classroom -- as institutional food-service providers increasingly try to address the question about what's for dinner.
For Bon Appetit Management Co., the latest strategy is to pursue the workers and students in the academic world with on-site operations catering to various meal occasions.
One good example is the food-service provider's project at the Oracle Systems Corp. campus here, where it has added complete dinner for two to the menu of the popular 300 Market Cafe.
"We simply expanded lunchtime offerings to include a dinner for two offered out of the campus 300 Market Cafe," said Patrick Garnier, general manager at the Oracle campus installation.
Bon Appetit Management Co., headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif., sprang from a small catering company that started in the 1980s. By the end of the decade the company had moved into corporate food service. Now producing over $100 million in revenue, the company has grown tenfold in an eight-year time span.
The main thrust of its business philosophy is to have fun and treat customers as family, officials told SN. Products are freshly made from scratch. No frozen or canned ingredients are used. Exhibition kitchens make up most of the installations, where customers can see chefs rolling dough and making foods like those they would find in a regular fine dining restaurant.
The corporate facilities offer items priced one-third to one-quarter lower than comparable cafes and restaurants. Bon Appetit has built up a market stronghold in northern California with high tech firms including Cisco Systems and Netscape.
Outside California, Bon Appetit is the corporate food-service provider for Atlanta-based Home Depot and Houston's Applied Materials. Other installations can be found in museums such as the Getty Museum and the Minnesota History Center. Most recently Bon Appetit has expanded into education, claiming food-service operations at colleges and universities across the country.
Convenience is also a common thread. At the 300 Market Cafe here, customers can call or e-mail ahead, before 2 p.m., and pick up dinner between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Customers ordering through Oracle's e-mail system have their orders processed by acknowledged receipt. Through the e-mail system, Bon Appetit asks for approval and the payment form to be used.
Each meal includes an entree, a starch, a vegetable or a salad and dessert.
Customers even can specify the stage of preparation that meets their needs. The meal comes ready to pop in the oven, seasoned ready to cook, or anywhere in between, said Garnier.
Meals are generally priced at $5.95 per person, although some of the more costly center of the plate items such as swordfish may be priced at $7.50 per person.
People can also special order, Garnier said. "If they would prefer a salad in place of the vegetable that is offered, we will do that."
Other dinner grazers can simply come into the Market Cafe between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., when luncheon items are prepacked and placed in the cooler. A display of each available soup, sandwich or salad is placed in the bakery station's display case.
Meats and seafood, along with produce, are also available by the pound for take-home.
Dinner items include wild mixed baby greens with chili vinaigrette complimenting papaya with shrimp or grilled chicken. Potato pumpkin soup may start out a meal. Wild berry vinaigrette with string beans could be the side vegetable.
Monthly shifts of the dinner menu revolve around seasonal specials. In the autumn, for example, a squash soup is offered. Theme days also dictate the daily menu. On a recently held Hawaiian Day, swordfish was combined with a spicy pineapple salsa.
Other traditional items are given a typical northern California spin within the 300 Market Cafe menu. Gyros were combined with a sundried-tomato sauce. The main course was complimented with other Mediterranean foods, such as pita and Greek salad.
Employees also use the services of Bon Appetit to cater in-office gatherings and in-home parties, according to Garnier.
On the Oracle campus, Bon Appetit operates seven cafes, a commissary kitchen and a prepared-food area in the company's fitness center. Another cafe is expected to open at a site off the main campus shortly.
"We are seeing a new age executive driving the direction of corporate cafeterias," said Garnier. "They spend a lot of money on food service and consider food service as an employee benefit. They want to offer more than just basic food."
"What these executives are seeking, particularly in California, is fresh food that is better food for the employee," Garnier said.
The 300 Market Cafe was installed for $2 million. This cafe contains both bar and table seating, indoors and outside. It is decorated in a modern Italian motif with marble floors and halogen light fixtures. The exhibition kitchen at each station site brings the sights and smells or food production immediately to the customers. To speed customers on their way home or back to their desk, each station has a dedicated register.
"Concepts shift," said Garnier. "Our customers are here every day. This makes it 10 times as challenging. There are other places to go to."
At the 300 Market Cafe, stations include the bakery, a pasta and pizza station, produce market and the grill. Deli fresh salads are offered in the produce station, in addition to fresh fruit smoothies. At the bakery, fresh baked goods are produced in an open kitchen, coffee beverages are made and gelato and ice cream is offered. At the pasta and pizza station a hearth-style oven is in use and at the grill meats, seafood and sausages sizzle.
"There are so many places to eat," he said. "We have the time and desire to make special orders and teach our customers about food. We give the customer customized service. It is such a little thing to grant a request and be special. To people who have just come from work, getting food how they like it is greatly appreciated."
Cafes and food bars are located throughout the Oracle campus in each building. Each site offers specialized menus. The Cafe 200, for example, specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine including sushi and rice bowls. The Cafe 400 offers traditional cafe fare with flair. On the day SN visited the site, New England Clam Chowder was being served in a sourdough bread bowl. Beef Stroganoff, teriyaki mushroom burgers and shrimp and egg-salad sandwiches were also offered.
The commissary kitchen is responsible for producing the bulk of the items offered throughout the Bon Appetit system at Oracle. Cooking the turkey, roast beef and ham in addition to cleaning produce and slicing and chopping produce are all done at the commissary. Grilling 100 pounds of chicken breasts every day is also on the production schedule of the commissary.
Other items, in addition to the prepared foods, are offered through Bon Appetit at Oracle.
"We have these items for convenience of the Oracle employees," said Kris Anne Gartmann, 300 Market Cafe chef. "We price produce by weight according to our purchase price and market value, generally taking a 30% mark-up."
Oils, vinegars and other specialty condiments are also available for retail sale within the Market. Again, a 30 percent mark-up is taken. These items are often combined with a featured prepared food to promote the retail sale.
"Selling these items gives us another opportunity to get the taste of these ingredients in the mouths of our customers," said Gartmann. "Mixing retail items with the specials of the day also promotes the sale of the retail items when customers taste them as ingredients in foods."
Selling and merchandising are efforts taken on by the entire staff, Gartmann said. Every employee is cross trained at the various departments.
"When an employee is out unexpectedly, we have others who can fill in," she said. "With the knowledge our staff has of all the positions, they are also better prepared to answer customer questions."