January 6, 2012 | Sustainability + Energy, Workplace Culture + Practices

Talk about cafeteria benefit plans! Since 2007, NRG Systems has contracted with Wild Leek Kitchen to provide free, catered lunch for every employee four days a week, with an emphasis on fresh, local, low-calorie food cooked from scratch.

Wild Leek’s owner and chef Beth Sengle and staff members Amy Harris and Mary Crane arrive each morning to do the final prep on the day’s meal, opening the salad bar at 11:45 am. Beth stands at the end of the line and ladles out a daily soup, and sometimes special extras.

“Food is a connection,” she says, “I physically serve everyone, family style. Someone hands you a bowl – that’s me. It’s an emotional link.”

Every soup batch for 100 begins with a 10-pound bag of onions, chopped by hand and simmered for hours the day before at the Wild Leek kitchen. Employee favorites include Italian wedding soup, Hungarian mushroom, white chili (my personal favorite, along with artichoke), chicken tortilla, and lentil and sweet potato (Beth’s soup of choice, with lots of vinegar).

Small company, big ideas

Subsidized meals are not a new idea – tech giants Google and Facebook provide free food to employees to increase productivity, fuel innovation, support health and wellness, and enhance communication.  But it’s a rarer offering at smaller companies. NRG Systems sees a high return on the investment, knowing that happier, healthier employees strengthen our company, our customer service, and our bottom line.

We also see catered lunch as a vital step toward a healthier planet. In the previous lunch routine, somewhere around noon, a string of cars would exit the company parking lot, drive to the local sandwich shop or bakery, pick up take-out lunches, and head back. This drive, repeated daily by multiple employees, seemed counter to NRG Systems’ environmental stewardship mission.  What if, instead of driving the employees to the food, we drove the food to the employees?

CEO Jan Blittersdorf and HR Director Julie Goodhart worked out the idea.

“The business plan evolved,” says Beth. “When we first started talking, we were thinking about an in-house café, or partially-subsidized meals that employees could buy. But then Jan said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! What if we make this an employee benefit?’”

Food service has grown from a small number of diners sitting at two large tables four years ago, to company-wide service today for 117 employees.

Farm-fresh local food takes planning

Beth, who has run her own café and served as test-kitchen chef for Vermont-based magazine and cookbook publisher Eating Well, focuses on maximum health in her menu planning.  She works with local farmers to secure fresh vegetables and salad greens. Given Vermont’s relatively short growing season, that demands advance planning.

“We start talking in February, looking at seed catalogs,” she explains. “This year, we wanted fresh beets on the salad bar every day. More Brussels sprouts, arugula, mustard greens. It all starts with the seeds.”

James Donegan and Sara Armstrong Donegan of Trillium Farm; photo by Scott Sears

Most of our lunch comes from only a few miles away, the vegetables from Hinesburg’s Trillium Hill Farm and the bread from Bread and Butter Farm.  Local eggs are supplied by an NRG Systems colleague, whose flock is fed in turn the peelings and food scraps from the kitchen. The NRG Systems company garden provides additional produce, and employees bring in their own seasonal bounty.

The benefit of the benefit

Of course, NRG Systems' employees appreciate the convenience of good food a few steps away. It saves them time, money, and the hassle of eating out, and gets them back to their work stations sooner.

But equally important is the food/health connection, a vital addition to NRG Systems’ robust wellness program. Beth comes from a long line of health-conscious Italian cooks.

“My great-grandmother was a garment worker who never had any extra money, but she would scrimp to buy the best cuts of meat, the freshest fruits and vegetables. She would say, ‘Pay the grocer, not the doctor.’ ”

Lunchtime is a mixer, where people from different departments can interact, exchange ideas, and learn. From her post behind the counter, Beth sees it all.

“Everyone comes to lunch on an equal basis. There are no politics, no hierarchy. It’s about community building, about connections. You feel cared for, like a member of the family. It’s a message of value – YOU are valued.”