|(l. to r.) Tod Nissle, director of operations for the Microsoft account for Compass Group; Tom Visvikis, dining services manager for the Redmond site; and Mark Freeman, employee services senior manager pose in front of the Typhoon station, one of several dozen local independent restaurant outlets operating in Microsoft cafes (see p. 30).|
| Dining at the more than two dozen cafes on Microsoft’s main campus focuses on freshly prepared food and high-quality grab-and-go, such as the branded Wolfgang Puck selections above. |
When Mark Freeman took over as employee services senior manager for Microsoft Corp. in 2005, he set an ambitious goal for the in-house dining department: elevate satisfaction to the point where comments on the department’s online comment board would be 2-1 positive. At the time, the ratio was nowhere near that.
Today, the board comments run not just at 2-1 positive, but at 6-1 positive. The reversal is vivid proof of the dramatic turnaround the department has achieved in employee satisfaction over past two-plus years.
Behind what might be considered a complete rewrite of the dining program is a refocused dedication to the customer. That increased focus is at the heart of a larger company initiative called “My Microsoft” that seeks to maximize the workplace environment for the company’s employees. Employee dining was identified early on as a key component of the My Microsoft initiative.
“People work better when they’re happy and eating right,” says Freeman. “My job is to discover what Microsoft employees want in their dining program, and then find a way to deliver it.”
What Freeman and the department have delivered is a set of features—much like a major software upgrade—that has made Microsoft Dining more user-friendly, more “elegant” and enhanced with a series of new bells and whistles that have significantly increased its utility for users.
A Global Responsibility
A veteran of the college dining sector and the legendary Saga organization, Freeman worked most recently as a consultant with the Porter Consulting organization and served as head of dining operations for Hewlett-Packard before joining Microsoft in 2005. He is now responsible for Microsoft’s dining operations worldwide and, ultimately, the guy in the crosshairs of the in-house comment board’s pundits.
In North America, Microsoft offers onsite dining services in five locations outside the Puget Sound area, and at a dozen locations across Asia and Europe (two huge additional complexes are scheduled to open next year in China). Most of the sites are managed by Compass Group, with which Microsoft has a preferred supplier agreement (for more, see the sidebar on p. 34).
Name: Microsoft Dining Services Revenues: $30 million+ Worldwide Managed Volume: $50 million+ Main Campus: Redmond, WA Site Population: 50,000+ Transactions/day: 25,000+ Management: Compass Group Mgt. Team: Mark Freeman, employee services senior manager; Tom Visvikis, Redmond dining services manager; Tom Teves, vice president, Compass Group Microsoft account; Tod Nissle, operations director, Compass Group Microsoft account
The largest single site by far is the headquarters complex in Redmond, WA, which currently hosts 30 cafes as well as a number of free-standing c-stores and coffee kiosks. Redmond represents about 80 percent of Microsoft’s in-house dining business, Freeman estimates.
The Redmond site also houses a conference center complex that is the hub of an onsite catering operation that generates over $10 million annually just from routine meeting catering, exclusive of the conference center business. The conference center and an attached executive briefing center are both undergoing remodeling and expansion, promising even more business in the nottoo- distant future.
“It’s just getting bigger and will offer even more catering opportunities as they add rooms,” Freeman notes. “In fact, it’s so booked now that we may look into building yet another one.”
In terms of onsite dining, the Redmond campus represents the most comprehensive flowering of Freeman’s vision because of its sheer size. A key component of that vision is variety and individuality of café locations in order to best serve the immediate surrounding population.
So while each of the cafes have a core set of “must-have” stations (grill, pizza, deli, salad bar), many also offer a mix of other choices, either drawn from Microsoft Dining’s in-house palette of branded concepts, or outlets of local restaurants (see sidebar on p. 30) that serve their signature dishes to Microsoft associates.
“We did a major study on how many stations you need to deliver optimum choice in a given café without saturating it,” says Freeman. “We took every café and did a spreadsheet listing every potential customer as well as the sales metrics to determine how many brands to put into each one.”
The in-house selections include stations such as Culinary Cuisines (a rotation of Indian, Latino and Asian themes), Global Garden (meatless international dishes), Hot Entrees (traditional favorites), Exhibition Salad (entrée salads with protein toppings) and Exhibition Cooking. Drawing from this array of choices, most cafes offers a unique menu mix, just as a small city center would have different restaurant choices.
The menu mix for each depends in large part on the nearby population. Areas where older, more conservative associates work emphasize traditional favorites, while more trendy cuisines are highlighted near sections where the hip young techies who design Microsoft’s cutting-edge gaming programs are based.
Café Samm C (named for the complex it is in), for instance, is surrounded by buildings housing some 1,100 employees and sees about 650 covers a day, about 120 at the Typhoon branded station, one of the Local Brands program’s biggest success stories. It also has a bustling pizza station that goes through well over four dozen pies a day. Café Samm C is also a major catering venue.
By contrast, Café Eastpointe has a much smaller surrounding population, only about 350, but it handles about 250 covers daily thanks to a rotating selection of hot food concepts that augment the basic daily menu.
the big idea
For Menu Variety, Go Local
How do you offer menu variety and excitement and build local community ties at the same time? At Microsoft, the solution has been an innovative partnership program initiated by the company and its foodservice partner Compass Group and extended to several dozen independent restaurant operators from the communities in which Microsoft maintains operations.
The so-called Local Brands Program began as a way to increase menu variety. Under the program, local restaurants operate branded stations in Microsoft cafes, menuing their signature dishes to Microsoft associates.
“We looked for the kinds of foods that our customers on our surveys had indicated that they wanted—Indian, pizza, Mexican. We started out with six local brands and have grown from that,” says Mark Freeman, employee services senior manager for Microsoft. “We contracted with them, brought them in and gave them a station in the café.”
That original six has now swelled to 30 and will expand even further when the company’s planned West Campus Commons project (see p. 37) opens in April 2009 with a dozen more.
The approach is flexible to accommodate different needs and volumes, Freeman says. At the sprawling headquarters complex in Redmond, WA, most of the brands operate every day at the same station, while a few alternate to give daily variety and prevent menu fatigue. Several have sites in a couple cafes, such as the highly successful Typhoon, a celebrated Thai concept with a large following in the Northwest. Other participants include Ooba Tuba, Acapulco Fresh, Garlic Jim’s, Shamiana and Teapot.
While Typhoon can sustain business over the long haul, other concepts are more effective in smaller doses. It is a lesson Freeman learned early on in the program.
“We brought in a barbecue brand called Dixie’s Barbecue. It went just gangbusters for the first six weeks and then it started to decline. But instead of dropping it we began rotating it around from cafe to cafe so it’s new for everybody every six weeks.”
A similar approach is used in the more restricted environs of the cafes at Microsoft sites around the country. Typically, several different local restaurants with different types of menus occupy the same station on different days of the week to provide continuous menu variety. Because of equipment requirements, the rotation approach has some limitations, Freeman concedes. “We probably are not going to put an East Indian concept that requires a tandoor oven into a rotation. That would have to be one that is there every day.”
All the restaurants are local and exclusive to each site. They are generally highly rated and popular in their markets. No national chains are used. Freeman utilizes an employee preference survey that asks about food preferences to determine the kinds of cuisines he targets for the program. The most prominent local restaurants in those categories are then identified and vetted by Compass before any deal is finalized to ensure that they meet strict operational standards, especially in terms of food safety.
The Local Brands stations use each restaurant’s employees and do their own food purchasing to ensure authenticity. “Their product is their product and we want it to taste just like at the restaurant,” Freeman says. Some also use their own branded servingware, though this is not required. Microsoft provides the space, utilities, equipment, maintenance and cashier. The restaurants operate on a P&L underneath the percentage reserved by Microsoft and Compass.
Even with that constraint, Freeman says the program is a very desirable one for the restaurateurs, who promote their food to Microsoft employees as long as they are restrained about it (“they can put a business card out, but no big signs that say ‘Come to my restaurant downtown!’”) and also pick up incremental lunch business.
The Local Brands restaurants can also compete for onsite catering business.
Both those cafes located in fairly outlying areas. At the main complex, the some two dozen cafes are named simply for the building numbers in which they sit. They vary in size, participation levels and menu mix.
| Cafe 4, one of the campus’s older sites, overlooks “Lake Bill [Gates]” giving Executive Chef Joshua Scott (top a picturesque backdrop. Another unique Cafe 4 touch: the “twisty” light fixtures (bottom). |
Café 117 sees about 800 transactions daily, more than 100 of that from its freshly made sushi station. Café 34 serves almost 800 slices of pizza daily while the nine-station Café 36 has very popular pasta and Tandoori stations. Café 9 has 10 serving stations emphasizing international cuisine while Café 40/41 is heavier on comfort foods. Café 109 features six choices of soup daily and fresh-tossed salads, artisan panini and Tandoori selections. The two-story Café RedWest has 11 stations and a unique redwood construction while Café 4’s unique touch is its proximity to the complex’s “Lake Bill [Gates]”.
One of the more popular changes Freeman implemented in the course of the My Microsoft upgrades was to extend service hours for lunch from 2 to 3:30 at all sites. Several are also now open until 7 pm to give late-working associates a place to get some dinner.
At the entrance to each cafe is a quick-stop kiosk called Espresso Plus that features a coffee station with Starbucks branded beverages (this is Seattle, after all) surrounded by a mini convenience shop. In this area, associates can grab quick meals from a variety of grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and sweets.
The kiosks and mini shops offer extended hours and are also adaptable as standalone units for sites where servery footprint space is limited.
The choices include a variety of items sold under Compass’s Outtakes brand and made onsite in a central kitchen in the conference center complex. Also available are gourmetquality Wolfgang Puck branded meals, Organic-To-Go selections purchased from an outside vendor and Dream Steam meals (for more on Dream Steam, go to www.foodmanagement. com/article/16101), which are designed to emphasize vegetarian selections for the large population of non-meat-eaters among the customers.
“We piloted Dream Steam here because one of the things employees said they wanted under My Microsoft was take-home meals,” says Tom Teves, Compass’s regional vice president responsible for the Microsoft business. But not all of the sales are for take-home, he adds. “We brought them in as an HMR option, but people often buy them earlier in the day, so we think they are eating them at work. It adds incremental sales because it satisfies people who don’t have time for hot meal or can’t eat at lunch time.”
To ensure that the Dream Steam lunchers were getting the full benefit of the intricately designed product, Compass had technicians test every microwave on campus to make sure they were up to heating the meals properly. “After all, with Dream Steam, you are cooking raw food, so there are food safety issues,” Teves notes. He says the quick stops sell up to 600 Dream Steam meals a day.
Flexibility and Commitment
The mini cafe program illustrates a how the multiple-station campus offers Microsoft Dining the flexibility to try out new ideas in a few of the cafes, reducing the cost commitment while still getting a representative sample of customers to gage the viability of the initiative. Because they involve a significant remodel, they were piloted in a few selected sites and only rolled out campus-wide after the pilot had proved how popular they were.
The facilities commitment made to accommodate the cafes at so many sites is indeed impressive. As one tours the Microsoft campus dining venues, one can’t help but be struck by the impressive level of corporate commitment to dining, a commitment that stands in rather stark contrast to the prevailing trend in the B&I segment.
Not only are most of the cafes of generous size but they are liberally spaced so that no employee is too far from at least one. On a campus that is “busting out at the seams,” in Freeman’s phrase, that is not a small consideration. In all, across Puget Sound, Microsoft Dining operates some 400,000 sq.ft. in cafe space.
Some cafes are almost literally a few steps from each other. A company looking to maximize real estate usage would surely have done something about that, much less been steadily adding to the number. But just in the last six months of 2007, six new cafes opened on the Redmond campus, and the company’s new West Campus Commons project (see sidebar on p. 37) makes the commitment to extensive and expansive foodservice space even more explicit.
While they don’t offer nearly the scope that Redmond does, Microsoft’s other sites—including the quickly expanding presence in other locations around Seattle—get the same commitment for quality, convenient dining services, Freeman emphasizes. Microsoft’s new operation in Bellevue, WA, for instance, has a spacious Espresso Plus kiosk with the same range of high-end grab-and-go options as grace the Redmond campus cafes, even though it sits in the middle of the city’s downtown with all its commercial dining options (including a Tully’s coffee shop right on the ground floor!).
At the other North American dining sites, smaller café footprints and building populations restrict the flexibility but Freeman uses the Local Brands program to increase menu variety. Also, the recently introduced LunchDirect program, which delivers cafe meals directly to customers’ desks for a dollar surcharge, has been most popular with populations without convenient access to a café.
|(top to bottom) Anita Lapierre manages the Espresso Plus kiosk outside Cafe 9, Manager Mauro Grijalva Luna of the Eastpointe Cafe and Manager Miguel Avila and Executive Chef Jeffrey Cox at Cafe 121.|
“Actually, LunchDirect is finding greater success in smaller units,” Freeman notes. “Sometimes, the companies we’re acquiring don’t have a café, so this is an opportunity to bring food directly to their desks without them having to drive to the main campus.”
Let Them Drink Gourmet
Another sign of company commitment is the free beverage program in the campus’s 475 kitchenettes. At these break stations, associates can grab any of almost three dozen kinds of canned beverages—including national favorites like Coke and Pepsi products as well as local and niche exotica like Talking Rain.
But the new centerpiece of the break stations is the iCup, a high-tech coffeemaker leased from Starbucks that brews individual cups of Starbucks branded coffees and hot chocolate. It was one of the first fruits of Freeman’s association with My Microsoft and remains one of its biggest hits.
The free beverages obviously affect sales in the cafes, but not as much as one might think. For one thing, the free cold drinks are confined to traditional carbonated sodas. New age drinks, energy drinks and bottled water—especially the company’s own Microsoft Water—are only available for purchase (the kitchenettes do dispense filtered water). The iCup units only make traditional coffee and tea, giving the cafes a clear field to sell popular specialty type drinks like espressos and lattes.
Nevertheless, Freeman says the iCups are a huge improvement over the previous office coffee service, a major source of employee discontent when he came on board.
It also represents another facilities commitment: “When I found out about them, I wanted to put the iCup machines in in the next two weeks, which is a pretty short timeline even for me,” Freeman recalls. “In the end, it took five months to get them all in because the kitchenettes were redesigned for certain kinds of equipment and had to be remodeled.”
spanning the globe
Microsoft is one of the world’s largest companies, with operations around the globe. Not all locations offer onsite dining of course, but where they do the matter is left to the site’s managers (or the building management in the case of leased structures) and each operates its own foodservice management contract.
“Compass is our major supplier worldwide, though we also contract with other companies at some locations,” explains Mark Freeman, employee services senior manager.
Internationally, “the locations manage their own budgets, so I’m really just a consultant to them as they have independent contracts,” Freeman adds. In all, Compass manages dining operations at a dozen Microsoft sites around the world, says Tod Nissle, director of operations for Compass. The relationship, which began in 1999, represents Compass’s largest B&I contract.
“I think of them as the Compass umbrella, not as individual operating companies,” Freeman notes. “When I took over here, they were operating under the Eurest brand, but they are a big company and since then we’ve tapped into a lot of their umbrella companies to help us out.”
In Redmond, the Eurest division continues to manage the cafe operations while the Flik division operates the conference center and Canteen the vending. The Outtakes convenience retail group developed the combination Espresso Plus branded kiosks/mini-c-stores that are now a feature of every full-service café, and Wolfgang Puck Catering, another Compass division, supplies some of the high-end graband- go meals sold in those sites.
While dining, catering and vending form the bulk of Compass’s Microsoft operations, it also manages some other services such as audio/visual around the campus and at the conference center. One group, called CLOS (Compass Learning Operations Support) supports Microsoft’s in-house training group by taking on routine administrative functions such as logistics and scheduling. It is a considerable task as some Microsoft groups require each associate to undergo at least 40 hours of training annually.
What is working with a global giant like Microsoft like? “When I came here I was warned that it would be like drinking out of a firehose,” Nissle laughs. “It’s the Microsoft pace, and you better get used to it.”
Freeman says he is gratified at the success so far of his initiatives, and credits Senior Vice President of Human Resources Lisa Brummel, author of the My Microsoft initiative, for supporting his efforts. He believes they have helped achieve the program’s goals of making Microsoft an employee-friendly workplace.
“What is a good sound to me is when you walk into a cafe and people are talking about things other than food,” he says. “They’re talking about their weekend, about their latest project, about what’s up rather than what just went wrong at the cash register.”
the big dig
The next extension of the My Microsoft initiative is slowing rising out of a huge hole in the middle of the Redmond headquarters complex. Scheduled to open in April 2009, at the site of the old Eddie Bauer’s headquarters in Redmond, Microsoft’s massive millionsquare- foot West Campus Commons project is designed to provide the projected 5,000 associates who will work at the complex with a new kind of workspace. Incorporated into the five-building complex will be a central area—a “commons”—offering employees a variety of amenities as well as communal activities.
One of the central components of this “commons” will be food. Plans call for a dozen food venues and nine amenity stops (post office, card shop, hair salon electronic gadgets store, event tickets, bank, even a mini spa and sports equipment rental outlet) to be located at the site. The food venues will all be outlets of noted local restaurants under the Local Brands program (see sidebar on p. 30). They may all be exclusive to the Commons rather than extensions of restaurants already with stations elsewhere on the campus.
Though plans were still being finalized at FM press time, the Commons was scheduled to incorporate various ethnic eateries, a bakery concept, a coffee/ice cream station, a station emphasizing Northwest cuisine (salmon, etc.), as well as shops menuing burgers, soups, pizza/pasta and organic dishes. A stage area will accommodate exhibition cooking by guest chefs as well as musical entertainment. One possible addition is a sports pub that will serve beer and wine later in the day to give associates a place to congregate after work, something many already do offsite, notes Employee Services Senior Manager Mark Freeman.
The various dining stops are scattered around the two-story structure as well in an adjacent building that will include a mini spa, sports equipment rental outlet and facilities for various games (basketball, soccer, even cricket for the large South Asian population).
“We designed the dining as individual restaurant spaces rather than one big mess hall kind of thing where the service is off in a corner,” Freeman explains. “As people flow through the space, we want them to encounter different food choices all along the way.”
There will also be a space in the complex where Microsoft technologists will be able to demonstrate some of the things they are working on to their colleagues (obviously, entry to this area will be restricted).
“Each year we have a product fair to which people bring their products in and people from Microsoft can walk around and see what’s being developed,” Freeman explains. “This is an attempt to duplicate that and I believe it will be a real attraction. Of course, when people come over to see these things, we’re hoping they will stop to buy buy something to eat, too!”