"Stop for lunch and you are lunch!"
It's the latest Silicon Valley soundbite — a reminder of the insatiable competitive appetite, the technological hunger, the financial thirst that gnaws in the bellies of California's ravenous business interactives.
Or perhaps it's just an invitation to today's lunch at Oracle Corporatio: caviar and creme fraiche napoleon, spring ginger seared ai tuna with wasabi and soy-meyer lemon dipping sauce, lemongrass teriyaki chicken served with pineapple chutney, Indonesian eggplant, and basmati rice pilaf; topped off by an Asian pear poached in plum wine with Yanann tea ice cream.
And that's only one choice. Oracle headquarters offer eight distinct dining venues. Four of them tastefully decorate the ground floor of the glass towers that dominate Oracle's Redwood Shores, California campus. Perhaps you'd prefer the New York-style deli, the nouveau California cuisine cafe, or the Japanese sushi and noodle bar?
The main showcase is a 10,000-square-foot "multi-country food-service cafe" with Mediterranean tiled floors, exposed kitchens, and an abundance of fresh produce and exotic gourmet temptations. Think of it as a cross between Zabar's and Spago: a palate-pleasing panoply of homemade pizzas, pastas, and panini, fresh-baked breads and pastries, fresh fish, free-range poultry, designer meats grilled to order, and the de rigeur espresso barin addition to a regular menu of daily specials.
Oracle is not alone in creating these New Age Silicon Valley groaning boards. In an effort to gourmandise the old soup and sandwich corporate lunch hour, high-tech leaders such as Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Microsoft, and Netscape are enlisting top culinary talent, borrowing recipes from San Francisco's celebrated restaurants, and copying the service model of five-star hotels.
What does any of this have to do with the fast paced world of bits and bytes? "It answers the question, how do companies come together to break bread, exchange ideas, and build a sense of culture and community," says Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Menlo Park based Bon Appetit, one of a handful of food service innovators creating the new world of corporate bits and bites. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison called upon Bon Appetit to implement his vision for authentic, gourmet cuisine in a restaurant-style setting to fuel his company's drive into the 21st century. When Jim Clark left Silicon Graphics to launch Netscape, he brought along Bon Appetit to make sure that the company he created to eat Microsoft's lunch was enjoying its own.
In the talent-hungry high-tech world, offering a phenomenal feedbag is more than just another perk. Says Bauccio, "In Silicon Valley, everyone knows everyone, and they're competing for employees like crazy. So if someone has a great mousetrap for an employee benefit, then everyone will want it too." Valley cutthroats even have a business model for lunch — trade the cost of lease and utilities (and sometimes direct payments) for restaurant-quality operations run as profit centers by expert service providers. The Netscape of an industry dominated by one-sandwich-fits-all food service giants, Bon Appetit has grown from a tiny catering company ten years ago to an organization with $120 million in annual revenues and more than 4,000 employees by providing the finest Gruyre, Camembert, and triple creme to bait the mousetraps of Cisco Systems, Hitachi, Hewlett Packard, and Claris.
Most of the dining programs include a wide range of benefits and services to ease the strain on employees who spend an overwhelming majority of their waking hours in the office — and to keep them focused on working there as long as possible.
Oracle's food fest offers diversity, quality, and health. It also features convenience: daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus are updated on the company's intranet and telephone hotline. Everything in the market is available for takeout; and a quick email can place an order for desktop delivery of pizza, sandwiches, and fruit smoothies for late night workers.
Best of all the check. The most expensive item at Oracle, Claris, and Intel is less than $5; at Sun's upscale JavaJava Bistro, its version of spit-roasted rosemary chicken from Restaurant LuLu's dish sells for $6.95 compared to the original's price of $10.95.
More important than good food, however, is good company. According to John Loiacono, Sun's director of branding and corporate communications, an attractive restaurant helps combat "the seclusionism of companies, where you're tempted to send someone an email or voice mail instead of walking down the hall and see them face-to-face."
A vibrant corporate cafe also increases the opportunity for serendipitous meetings and informal exchanges of ideas. Says Maria Pattitucci, small business marketing manager for Claris: "I find out lots of interesting things about my market by bumping into people from tech support and having lunch with them."
Eric Ransdell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is San Francisco correspondent for "US News & World Report." His favorite spot in the world for a business lunch is the Lok Yu Tea House in Hong Kong.