"If you want to eat your competitor's lunch, feed your people a nice lunch." That seems to be the philosophy in Silicon Valley, where hungry companies are racing to build lavish cafeterias that serve their employees gourmet cuisine. The folks at Equal Exchange Inc., based in Canton, Massachusetts, have a rather different approach to business — and a different approach to meals. Equal Exchange is an employee-owned coffee company that's committed to the practice of "fair trade": It buys beans directly from growers in such countries as El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Peru; it roasts the beans; and then it sells them in bulk to coffeehouses and supermarkets.
In other words, Equal Exchange is not out to eat anybody's lunch — which helps to explain its special approach to preparing lunch for its own people. At least three times a week, folks who have joined the company's Lunch Club eat a meal prepared by another member of the club. For example, every Monday — Deli Day — a club member sets up a help-yourself sandwich bar, with fresh bread from a local bakery. Lunch Club participants also share cleanup and shopping duties, with everyone striving to buy as much of the food as possible from local, organic suppliers.
But there's more than food on the menu. "We want to provide options for eating," says Michael Rozyne, 43, one of the company's three founders. "But we also want to give people an opportunity to check out of the daily madness and just hang out."
Visit Equal Exchange on the Web (www.equalexchange.com).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.