How do you lure a top-drawer chef who has nearly a dozen job offers to work in a company lunchroom?
For starters, you stop thinking about it as a company lunchroom. You think about it as a vital gathering place for workers, an employee attraction and retention tool, and a key wellness initiative.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City this year did just that, joining a national corporate dining trend which, according to Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine, is a movement that “sizzles with innovation, culinary and design sophistication.” Around the country, many company cafeterias are giving nearby restaurants stiff competition for their employees’ patronage.
In the last few months, Blue KC has begun offering workers at its Kansas City headquarters a different take on food service. Its headliner is Kyle Williams, a chef with international, multi-star restaurant experience who moved to Kansas City with a passion for serving locally sourced, tasty, good-for-you food.
The company’s re-imagined food service, named Live Blue Kitchen and Café, is on the first floor of the Blue KC’s 2301 Main building. Its renovation started with architectural redesign by Helix Architects and Burns & McDonnell. The new space is bright, white, with flexible seating, a large adjacent patio, and an open kitchen that lets employees watch their cook-to-order meals being made.
But, like several other health-focused employers in the Kansas City area, Blue KC wanted more than redecorating. Cerner, Hallmark, Sprint, Truman Medical Center, Shawnee Mission Medical Center and others are deep into efforts to encourage and educate their employees about the importance of diet in overall health.
“We wanted to give our employees better, healthier options for eating,” said Jason Spacek, a Blue KC vice president whose responsibilities include the company’s wellness strategy.
The goal is easy to understand: Healthy employees miss less work, are more productive, and cost less to insure.
To help reach that goal, the Helix planning team called on Bill Crooks, former co-owner of the PB&J restaurant group. Crooks two years ago founded Good Food Good Futures, a consulting firm. His first client was Shawnee Mission Medical Center, where he helped a former PB&J chef remake the hospital’s food service program.
That laid groundwork for Blue KC’s next steps. The company hired Crooks, who hired Williams, who created the Live Blue Kitchen and Café menu.
Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in applied science in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales University, and he brought 16 years of experience at restaurants in Italy, Kauai, New York, Florida, Nantucket Island and Kansas City.
Back in Kansas City for the second time in his career, Williams heads a crew of nine that provides breakfasts, snacks, lunches and occasional take-home dinners to the Blue KC staff. On any given day, half of the headquarters’ 800 employees patronize the cafe.
“Employees vote with their wallets,” said Crooks. “Our headcount is up since the change, we’re serving more lunches, and our average ticket is a little higher.”
Crooks has a one-year contract to manage the cafe, as do Williams and the rest of the cafe staff. It’s an expense that has doubled Blue KC’s spending on its employee food service, partly because the company subsidizes the healthier and more expensive locally sourced food.
Meal prices for employees average $6 to $7 — competitive with area restaurant lunch tabs — while the real cost is closer to $10 to Blue KC.
“The way we look at it is that the cost of sickness is way more expensive than the cost of health,” Crooks said. “If we improve the health of Blue Cross and Blue Shield workers, it’s a savings more than an expense.”
Spacek, the Blue KC executive, said planners included an employee survey in the process, finding out food likes and dislikes and thoughts about pricing. They found support for buying from local farmers, bakers and suppliers when possible.
Williams said the cafe team deals with about 1,000 products, taking care to find the healthiest option whenever possible, down even to the mayonnaise and jelly packets. That includes stocking some unusual items, such as Mexican bottled Coca-Cola made from sugar instead of corn syrup as an alternative for people who prefer that.
“We don’t use high fructose corn syrup in anything,” Williams said. “We even make our coffee syrup from scratch. Everything is healthier, leaner. In our chocolate chip cookies, I use a chia seed blooming” — soaking the seeds in water to make a mixture — “to replace eggs. It cuts the fat and cholesterol in half, and it’s delicious.”
Sometimes, the least costly things have made the biggest difference so far, Williams said, pointing to the cafe’s “hydration station,” where big urns of flavored water — flavors change daily — beckon a steady stream of workers. The result: sales of soda pop have plummeted 75 percent.
The cafe also replaced traditional “junk food” vending machines with healthier snacks, such as yogurt bars and fresh fruit. That speaks to another national trend attributed to evolving eating habits of younger workers who are more likely to snack throughout the day than eat the traditional “three squares.”
Bending to employees’ desires for old-fashioned comfort food, the cafe also serves casseroles, barbecued meats and burgers. But those are outsold by falafel sandwiches and a shawarma recipe.
Employees on the BlueKC intranet can find nutritional information, including ingredients and calorie counts for all items on the cafe menu. Offerings include gluten-free and dairy-free products.
“It’s fundamental cooking,” Williams said. “The most important thing is food quality, seasoned properly, so that it tastes good and is presented well.”
The overriding mission among employers who are redesigning their food offerings, Crooks said, is to “stop subsidizing food that makes employees sick” — a reference to fried, fatty or salty foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
“As more employers offer breakfast, too, that means two-thirds of employees’ meals can be covered,” Crooks said. “That’s two-thirds of a daily calorie count, and that’s great if they have choices to eat healthier. We’re using Kyle’s talents and motivation to change behaviors.”
As might be expected, the cafe staff hears occasional rumbles from employees who don’t want their employer to get too involved in their personal food choices.
“That’s why we still cook burgers to order, and we will serve french fries, but we’ll bake them instead of fry them,” Williams said. “But that’s also why we were very selective in hiring a whole new cafe staff. We looked for people with a passion for the culinary arts, people who smile and who do a great job interacting with the employees.”
That’s also, Crooks said, why the food service redesign created “a kitchen without walls — to de-mystify food preparation.” The changes include Williams’ giving occasional food preparation seminars to employees.
The company is considering expanding healthy food seminars into its retail locations in the Zona Rosa and Prairie Village shopping centers.
Kelly Cannon, who works in public relations for Blue KC, noted that the company has for years had an onsite fitness center for headquarters’ employees, but the new focus on nutrition made sense.
“Not everyone exercises, but everyone eats,” she said.
To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Celebrity chef on the air
To catch chef Kyle Williams in action, check out the Food Network Channel at 9 p.m. Central time this Thursday and watch him on the “Beat Bobby Flay” cooking challenge show.
Williams is bound to secrecy until after the show airs, so all he can say for now is that the taping in New York City was “a lot of fun” and “great,” despite a long flight delay that gave him only three hours of sleep before the showdown.
Live Blue Kitchen + Café’s suppliers
Good Nature Family Farms
Farrar Family Farm KC
Farm to Market Breads
Green Dirt Farms