REAL VALUE MEALS. Executive Chef Byron Newman with some of the lunch entrees prepared for employees at company headquarters. Customers have a choice of 10 entrees daily, plus another 10 or so from the permanent a la carte menu—all for $2.50 or less a meal.
NICE PLACE TO WORK... Employees at 1-800-CONTACTS can take advantage of a number of employerprovided benefits, including (top to bottom) free cereal all day (just come in and pour a bowlful), a free fullyequipped onsite health club (Executive Chef Byron Newton is pictured with club manager Misty Paxton) and free hot and cold beverages anytime.
The majestic Rocky Mountains form a stunning visual backdrop to the town of Draper, UT, an otherwise Anywhere-USA collection of housing developments, strip malls and industrial parks clustered around I-15 just south of Salt Lake City. The mountains in the nottoofar distance also dominate the view from the big picture windows that line one wall of the 20/20 Grille. 20/20 is the cafèteria for the 1-800 CONTACTS call center, located in a standard-corporate-park-issue glass-and-concrete structure on an access road just off I-15.
But inside that nondescript building hides what in many ways is as eye-turning as the mountains rising in the distance: a B&I foodservice operation with an 85 percent subsidy dispensing hundreds of gourmet-quality dishes each day for some 350 in-house customers, most of them hourly workers.
Those workers spend their days taking orders for contact lenses and troubleshooting optometric prescription snafus. However, they spend their lunch hours feasting on the likes of Moroccan-Spiced Pork Chop...or Sindhi Curry Chicken...or Veal Schnitzel with Lemon Caper Sauce...or Spinach & Feta Salad With Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Red Onions, Pine Nuts and Fresh Oregano Vinaigrette...or, well, you get the idea. Each day offers 10 different such entrèe choices, each at a very modest $2.50 per meal.
And should 1-800 CONTACTS employees tire of those 10 entrèe choices, there's the always-available pasta bar, sandwich bar, salad bar, assorted wraps, gyros, nachos, grilled sandwiches, hot dogs, veggie burgers, soups and other standard menu items. Including these, 1-800 CONTACTS employees have at least 20 different lunch options every day.
"Our management is committed to the principle that if we take care of the employees, they'll take care of the customers," explains Executive Chef Byron Newton. Newton is responsible for formulating the menus and making sure they're prepared properly and in good time each day.
"Amenities like the subsidized food help keep turnover down, which in turn keeps things like retraining expenses down." (The company's turnover rate of 40-45 percent is about a third of that of the typical call center, Newton says.)
Keeping more experienced employees also reduces costs by providing better and more knowledgeable service, leading to quicker results with fewer mistakes. That means greater customer satisfaction, which leads to repeat business and word-of-mouth endorsement, Newton adds.
The Not-So-Frugal Gourmet
If the employees and customers are satisfied, they have nothing on Newton, who is absolutely tickled to be where he is, doing what he is doing. Born near Draper, Newton spent a good portion of his early career working in area restaurants and clubs. In early 1998 he was hired by 1-800 CONTACTS to run the cafeteria operation in the firm's new building.
The 20/20 Grille (which expanded last year to 120 seats from 50) provides daylong foodservice five days a week, plus limited service on weekends. During the week, the cafeteria opens at 6 in the morning, dispensing free fruit, beverages, breads and hot and cold cereals. Employees simply come in and pour themselves a bowlful from among a couple dozen boxes of brand-name cereals sitting on the food counter. The free cereal remains available all day to provide employees—who get 15-minute scheduled breaks—something to grab quickly anytime. Also free are all beverages, including juices, soft drinks, teas and coffees.
Formal lunch service begins at 10:30 and goes until 2:30 in the afternoon, when the cafeteria scales down to the short order menu until it closes down at 7 in the evening. On weekends, it's open from 10:30 in the morning until 2:30 (Saturday) or 1:30 (Sunday), with a limited a la carte selection.
It is lunch during the week that forms the core of Newton's operation. He averages between 300 and 350 lunch covers a day—in a building with only about 350 employees onsite at any given time (the company actually has more than 600 employees total).
In addition, Newton's kitchen produces 15-20 meals a day for workers at the company's distribution center near the Salt Lake airport. These are transported on the company's shuttle truck when it heads out in mid-morning
As at many onsite feeding operations, handling the lunch rush is Newton's biggest operational challenge. "From about 11:15 to 12:45, this place is packed," he says. Since he has only eight employees, Newton has to plan carefully.
To streamline the operation—especially necessary since all lunch meals are made to order—Newton has automated as much as possible in order to leave himself and his team free to prepare and serve food. His solutions include an automated preordering system based on time windows and universal payroll deduction to eliminate a checkout line.
Wednesday to Wednesday
Newton works on a weekly menu that changes each Wednesday, except for the shortorder selections that remain in place yearround.
"Every Wednesday, everything that was on the entrèe menu the week before becomes nonexistant," Newton explains.
Some items may resurface at some point; a couple of especially popular choices are on regular four-week cycles. "But outside of that it's whatever I want to throw into the mix," Newton says. His selections each week depend on a number of factors: what's fresh and available, what customers suggest and what fancy strikes him.
"I start planning my menu on Wednesday for the following week and usually have it all sewed up by Friday so I can have everything already ordered," Newton adds.
He is careful to have a balance of seafood, chicken, red meat and vegetarian choices every week, and in an arrangement with 1-800 CONTACTS's onsite health club ( another perk—it's free for employees and levies a minimal monthly charge for their families), two entrees each week are designated as "Heart Healthy."
"Even though the food costs less than you can get anywhere else, or even bring from home, this is still a place where people have to eat day after day," Newton notes. " Anything can get monotonous if you're not careful, no matter how good it is. I try to make sure that there is always variety and something to look forward to."
Almost everything is made from scratch, with some pre-prep done early. Most sauces are prepared by Newton himself beforehand. Meats are often marinated overnight. The ingredients, especially the proteins, come from high-end suppliers like Harris Ranch Beef (Newton uses their all Certified Angus top third choice products exclusively). The fish is fresh, mainly from prime purveyor Sysco Corp., and fresh produce is secured from specialty suppliers.
Newton has broad discretion in purchasing because his mandate is to provide an amenity that keeps employees happy and willing to stick around.
"Basically, the money the company saves from keeping experienced employees, and the customer satisfaction that grows from having satisfied employees, balances out the costs of subsidizing our dining operation, including the high-end ingredients." Newton says.
Name: 20/20 Grille
Here's a typical week's entrèe menu at the 20/20 Grille at 1-800-CONTACTS
Baby Back Pork Ribs with BBQ Sauce or Dry Rubbed with Blackening Spice
The 15-Minute Solution
In order to satisfy the demand for several hundred to-order meals during the daily lunch rush, the 20/20 Grille uses an intranet-based pre-order system, developed in-house, that sections order fulfillment into 15-minute increments.
To order lunch, 1-800 CONTACTS employees go to the Lunch Menu section of the company's internal website and make their selections. This can be done up to a week in advance, and the online form includes a "special requests" section where individual preferences can be detailed ("no tomatoes," "extra mayo," "light on the salt," etc.). When they place an order, employees also designate one of the 16 15-minute segments into which the four-hour lunch service time (10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) is divided as their pickup slot. Ordering for any particular 15-minute pickup window cuts off 15 minutes before the window "opens", explains Executive Chef Byron Newton. "So if you want lunch at noon, you have to order it by 11:45."
Once ordering for a particular time slot closes down, the system prints out the orders for that slot in the kitchen, giving the staff time to prepare and assemble the meals, plate or package them (customers indicate on the order forms whether they want to eat in the cafe or take the food back to their workstations) and set them out on the pickup counter. Each completed order is tagged with a ticket indicating the name of the recipient, a summary of the order and the cost.There is no payment in the servery and no registers or checkout lines.All meals are charged to each employee's debit account at the time of the preorder and deducted from their next paycheck.
The system gives the kitchen staff the luxury of predictability, especially at the busiest times, when there may be more than 30 orders for a single 15-minute pickup window. Twenty or so orders per window is more typical during rush periods, but that still puts great pressure on the kitchen to fill the requests on time. During these hyper-busy periods, Newton jumps into the breach himself if he's available, helping staff plate and assemble dishes.
However, he is just as often busy personally handling in-house lunch catering. "My staff is usually pretty tied up handling the employee lunches, so I often take care of the catering myself," Newton says. "That also helps me give these catered meals a personal touch."
Obviously, with such a scramble awaiting the kitchen each midday, pre-prep is crucial. Whatever can be prepared beforehand is, so the toorder cooking is mostly short order. There's also continuous bulk prep for especially popular dishes.