Desktops and Danishes

Workplace cafeterias have gone from plastic trays to tres chic by letting chain outlets into their offices

Lunch time arrives, bringing the usual indecision. What do we want to eat today? Should we order out? Are we tired of the usual? This earth-shaking discussion often ends in a cold roll in plastic wrap and a mediocre cup of coffee. Cup O'Joe, however, opened branches at the new Israel Police HQ in Salameh Street in Tel Aviv, at branches of SAP and Cellcom and elsewhere. The Espresso Bar network, a Tel Aviv native that does not usually leave the city, has opened at Orange and Isracard and will shortly open at Amdocs. Employees get a reasonable choice, which is often subsidized.

The chains in the workplace offer lunch, chef specials, and sandwiches that are delivered to the office so you don't have to stop working for a minute. It's possible to order coffee and sandwiches to the interrogation rooms at police headquarters. Shahar Azoulay, a HQ administrative officer, remembers when the army's Shekem canteens offered almost nothing but coated wafers. "We now have a choice that no other police station has," he says. "Other policemen can merely dream about sitting under a sun umbrella and drinking good coffee. The regular dining hall is still open and tries to compete with the branch. Schnitzel with vegetables is no longer enough."

Asked how much time the policemen spend in the coffee shop, Azoulay answers elegantly: "Sitting under a sun umbrella on the porch is very pleasant and helps in the middle of the day." He doesn't specify an amount of time. On average, it seems a worker spends about an hour a day sitting in a workplace's upgraded coffee shop, as opposed to about half an hour in a typical snack bar. The price is higher. Workers spend NIS 30 to NIS 70 a day at a gourmet coffee shop, about twice as much as at the old, boring option. The profits go to the cafeteria owners, who have a captive audience of hundreds of employees. On average, Espresso Bar at a workplace gets 1,000 clients a day and takes in NIS 30,000 to NIS 70,000.

Cup O'Joe and Espresso Bar consider opening branches at workplaces a strategic move, no less. Ofer Gvirtzman, a top marketing official at Cup O'Joe, says: "We are interested that someone who drinks our coffee at work will also look for us outside. The branches where there are thousands of workers are anyway profitable." Indeed, the chances of finding a decent workplace cafeteria increase with the number of workers.

Back to hummus

The person dining in 2010 may watch television cooking programs, know his/her way around a menu and expect a certain standard to be met. The Schultz catering firm feeds some 80 percent of the country's high-tech workers, including companies such as Amdocs, Netvision and Comverse. Oren Schultz, its owner and director, says his 850 staff prepare 50,000 portions daily, which are sent to 60 companies. "We have to vary the menu all the time," he says. "At Amdocs, for example, 4,000 people at three campuses eat lunch every day. They see the situation in the dining room on their computer screens - whether it's full, how long the line is, next to whom they can sit (or whom to avoid ) and, of course, what's on the menu." Weekly, he says, the workers get a selection of menus so they know what to expect.

The most popular menu item is a 220-gram hamburger topped with a fried egg, which comes with coleslaw and chips. There's various chicken dishes or hummus for lunch and also sushi. The reception was good for fillet of salmon on a bed of rice noodles, entrecote steak with Cajun sauce and complicated Thai dishes. Schultz adds: "But there's always the feeling that after falling in love with the special offerings, most of the diners want to go back to hummus."

Shani Shimoni of Netvision, where some 2,000 employees eat lunch every day, says that when customers came to him, he used to go out with them to a restaurant. "But for the past three years, my permanent base has been the food at work." He says he eats a lot of meat and vegetables and as they know him, "they create special combinations on the spot." A worthy competition for the restaurants outside, says Shimoni.

Kebab opposite the computer

The Verint high-tech firm in Herzliya Pituach featured a World Cup menu this month. The dishes presented represented the countries that were due to play that evening on the field. Ronen Altovsky, who has been managing the kitchen there for 14 years, says the German team was represented by Merguez sausages in an individual pan on a bed of sauerkraut, Holland was represented by hot bruschetta with tuna salad and Spain by paella with chicken, olives and rice. For England, of course, it was fish and chips. At Verint about 380 people eat lunch daily; its relative smallness means it's possible to vary the menu and add new dishes. One of the new offerings, says Altovsky, is relatively avant-garde: small kebabs on a cinnamon stick, served with lentils, rice, and red tehina with beets.

The smaller companies lend themselves to experimenting with cuisine. The SIT firm (Systematic Inventive Thinking ) in Or Yehuda, which specializes in teaching innovative methods to companies round the world, decided to be innovative by sitting down together a few days every month to a lunch the employees themselves prepare. The result is is communal and thrifty, without meal tickets or outside competitors. That's another cost-conscious way to raise culinary standards.