Cafeteria 2.0

Winning high-tech hearts through their stomachs.

Years of relative stability have made many of Cisco's employees fat and happy. Literally. A 2005 assessment of employee health found that 30% of Cisco's nearly 50,000 workers had more than two health risks. "A lot of those risks were related to being overweight, unhealthy meals, and sedentary lifestyles," says Dr. Pam Hymel, Cisco's director of corporate medical programs.

Given that Cisco is an "older" Silicon Valley company—the average Ciscoan is pushing 40—the diagnosis wasn't all that surprising. Hymel's prescription was a companywide program called HealthConnections that incorporates fitness centers, diet and exercise coaches, and meal-planning help. Today, signs in Cisco's cafés point the way to perfectly calibrated, "good" meals (fewer than 600 calories, 30% or fewer calories from fat, limited sodium, plenty of whole grains). The response to HealthConnections has been encouraging: Sales of the nutritious meals now exceed those of hamburgers and cheeseburgers combined, and in 2007 the nonprofit National Business Group on Health named Cisco one of the best employers for healthy lifestyles. Cisco estimates that the program will save the company $160 million in health-care costs by 2010.

During the 1990s boom, high-tech companies offered restaurant-quality food to entice employees to work long hours and stay loyal. Now the idea has evolved. Call it "cafeteria 2.0." Companies such as Cisco, eBay, and Yahoo are now customizing their menus to the personalities of their workforces. And the same outfit that created those luxe Web 1.0 cafeterias is also part of their 2.0 reinvention: Bon Appétit Management Co. (Bamco). "As a society, we are awakening to the idea that food is more than simply sustenance," says Bamco's director of communications and strategic initiatives, Maisie Greenawalt. Here's how some of the Valley's A-list companies are working with Bamco to create menus as innovative as their products.

Family Takeout: At eBay, it's a well-known bit of company trivia that somewhere in the world, an eBay child is born every day. "We try to craft programs toward that," says Bob Worthen, eBay's senior manager of facilities and employee site services. One new program is YourDinner.com, which allows employees to spend a couple of hours a week (on the clock) with the company's café chefs, assembling a week's worth of dinners to take home. "There was a demand for dinners," says Worthen, "and this seems to have met a need for employees who don't want a complicated nightlife. It de-stresses them." The program is still in beta, but if the demand remains high, eBay plans to expand it.

Eating Green: VMware, a 3,000-employee Palo Alto—based developer of "virtualization" software that in August had the biggest tech IPO since Google's, designed the café on its über-green campus to be low-carbon and virtually waste-free. The café uses built-in water filtration systems, not bottled water. All food is served on china or in compostable containers. Snacks are served in bulk. Portions are carefully sized to reduce thrown-away food. The focus on sustainability in the café menu is good PR for a company whose product helps businesses save energy by running fewer power-hogging servers. Says Betsy Sutter, VMware's VP of human resources: "Our products are reducing carbon emissions around the globe. We are really pleased that our food program is a continuum of that practice."

Melting Pot: If top-notch tikka masala isn't on your menu in the Valley, you might as well move. Thanks to immigration of skilled workers through the 1990s, 42% of the Valley's high-tech workforce was foreign-born by 2000, versus just 17% a decade earlier. Immigrants from Asia account for about 28% of that workforce and 38% of its scientists and engineers. Indians are the biggest part of that group, making up 13% of the region's S&E talent.

"There are a lot of Indian restaurants here," says Robert Hart, Bamco's top chef at Yahoo. "We strive to be as good or better than them." Hart recently spent six months scouting local Indian restaurants and grocery stores, ultimately recruiting a chef to design a menu and training program. The Bamco cafés at Cisco, eBay, and Oracle also employ native Indian chefs.

Coming soon: upgraded menus for the Valley's next-largest immigrant groups—mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Filipinos. Yahoo, Cisco, and eBay all have plans under way for expanded Asian offerings, from dim sum to pho. Other firms are bound to follow. Says Bamco's Greenawalt: "The great thing about Silicon Valley is that everyone is so competitive; once somebody does something, everyone else wants to do it too."

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