Food & Wine

Corporate caterer targets large scale, local feel

Shannon Weaver/Special to the Town Crier
Epicurean Group’s chefs personalize new dining plans for each client based on the company’s sustainability policies, which prioritize local and fresh foods each season.

Corporate cafeterias, subsidized or gratis, have become a standard perk in the Bay Area, and behind the scenes, food service titans duke it out for catering contracts. Giant multinational conglomerates dominate the world of food service management – locally grown Bon Appétit, known for its presence on Stanford and Google’s campuses, was acquired years ago by Compass Group, one of the largest food service contractors in the world.

But hidden away in a second-story office on Los Altos’ Main Street, a local challenger has been quietly setting up cafes across the greater Bay Area.

Los Altos resident Mary Clark Bartlett’s Epicurean Group operates 35 facilities and employs approximately 400 chefs and other workers. After 10 years in operation, it has expanded its sustainable foods ethos to corporate cafeterias, school campuses and museum cafes.

Bartlett and her partners built the company as a test case for environmental and socially responsible management practices – how big can you scale while making food from scratch, with responsibly raised meat and an emphasis on organic produce? Each of their facilities maintains a kitchen garden, and in addition to developing a food plan for new clients, they delve into waste management, figuring out how to implement composting and reduce solid waste.

Capitalizing on local

Bartlett fell in love with the culinary world while studying in a hospitality program and got her start in corporate dining in Southern California, opening restaurants for a large company and then becoming director of nutrition for a hospital in Santa Barbara.

“We put a hotel service in a hospital because I didn’t know how to do hospital food,” she said. “We were batch cooking for the tray line. Cooks who didn’t want to learn how to use a knife left.”

Batch cooking – preparing food by hand just before serving it – provides an alternative catering model to the industrial food prep based on the “defrost and warm” method.

Moving up to the Bay Area to work for then-independent Bon Appétit, feeding thousands for Stanford’s commencement each year and customizing programs across campus, Bartlett got a taste for what a local company could achieve in the corporate food market. When Compass Group purchased Bon Appétit in 2003, Bartlett left to found the Epicurean Group with her partners Rey Hernandez and Marvin Rodriguez.

“We live in the mecca of food, why wouldn’t we capitalize on local?” she asked.

And as Bartlett pointed out, sustainable values don’t always come at a great cost.

“We develop our menu seasonally around fresh food – when food is in season, it’s plentiful. When there’s plenty of supply, the price is right,” she said.

The group operates institutional eateries from Napa to Watsonville to Sacramento, at places like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Fairchild Semiconductor. The group’s chefs and managers confer with each client to determine how to craft a “green” meal plan suited to each program’s tastes and budget.

Some standards the company won’t compromise on, regardless of cost. For instance, they only buy seafood that passes muster with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines, which tracks which fish can be responsibly caught or farmed.

“We would not go below those sustainability standards. If we’re going to do a hamburger, it’s grass fed,” Bartlett said. “People want honest food. People here are educated – they want to know where their food comes from.

“That hamburger is going to cost us 20 cents more, but so what? We know that the hamburger is grass fed. We grind our own meat, scoop it out and hand-form patties on the grill.”

Promoting sustainability

The group has also worked to build savings into their practices. Epicurean Group established a cooperative buying group, the GreenTown Co-op, three years ago for Los Altos businesses to team up to buy compostable products, replacing Styrofoam containers and plastic cutlery with a bulk discount – primarily underpinned by the Epicurean Group. Chef Chu’s and Los Altos High School number among the co-op’s participants.

“This is the way we give back to the community,” Bartlett said.

Working out the economic benefits of reducing solid-waste and renegotiating trash contracts to include composting provides a teachable moment for educational institutions and individual corporate clients experiencing a new way to eat.

“People will say, ‘I can’t afford all organic.’ We’ll pick and choose – if you’re going to eat the skin, definitely buy organic. That’s like putting a deposit in the bank for the future,” Bartlett said.

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