IRVINE — For Joe Avila, the food at Irvine-based Taco Bell Inc.'s company cafeteria can't be beat: "It's convenient, cheap . . . and the food tastes pretty good."
The fact that Avila, who works a block away at LG&E Development Corp., voluntarily eats at Taco Bell's corporate cafeteria is evidence of dramatic changes underway at company dining rooms.
"The days of big steam tables filled with food prepared two hours ago that's now battleship gray (in color) are gone," said Debi Benedetti, vice president of Bon Appetit Management Co., a Menlo Park-based food-service operator. "The future of corporate food service is directly linked to retail" trends.
Such change is obvious at newer and recently renovated company eateries, where stark neon lighting, straight-backed chairs and unadorned tables are giving way to vibrant colors, comfortable seating and outdoor dining.
Rubbery Salisbury steak and lumpy mashed potatoes are being replaced by entrees that reflect the dining tastes of the nation's ethnically diverse--and health-conscious--work force. Operators also are using branded products from companies that include Taco Bell, Starbucks Coffee Co., Dunkin' Donuts and Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream to spice up menus.
Changes are being driven in part by corporate belt-tightening that has prompted many companies to eliminate cafeteria subsidies.
"Five years ago, I would have said that 95% of the accounts we served were subsidized," said George Maciag, chief operating officer of Guckenheimer Corp., a Redwood City-based operator of nearly 100 corporate cafeterias statewide. "Now about 65% are subsidized, and in five years, it's going to be a completely (unsubsidized) market."
The loss of corporate subsidies initially sent shivers through the food-service industry. But operators have learned to turn profits by successfully competing with traditional restaurants. For many operators, that has meant installing gourmet salad bars, chicken broilers, yogurt and pasta machines and offering freshly made sandwiches and pizza prepared on the spot.
Company cafeterias serve up a surprisingly large number of meals. Taco Bell's cafeteria in Irvine, which is operated by Marriott Corp.'s Food Services division, serves about 900 meals daily.
Rochester, N.Y.-based Kodak, which recently turned over management of its 27 cafeterias to Marriott, rang up an estimated $25 million in 1992 sales, according to New York-based FoodService Director magazine. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, which operates its own food service, registered an estimated $24.5 million in sales at its 24 cafeterias.
A handful of companies, including Motorola, still run their own cafeterias. But most now are run by food-service operators, including Marriott, ARA Services Inc. of Philadelphia and Canteen Corp. in Chicago.
Successful corporate cafeterias offer dining alternatives that "customers look for when they go out to dinner," said Jay Peverley, a district manager with Marriott, which operates 150 corporate kitchens in California. "We're learning how to market, how to do things in a retail kind of way . . . we have to get away from the standard Salisbury meatloaf and get into cooked-to-order stir-fry or fresh pasta salads."
Operators are responding to an increasingly sophisticated work force--from production line workers to white-collar staff--that is accustomed to having things its way. Increased consumer awareness has dealt a death blow to the old company cafeteria culture of "take it or leave it," Maciag said.
The changes are obvious at Taco Bell's newly renovated corporate eatery. The bright, airy dining area, which is open to the public weekdays between 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., offers freshly prepared pasta, salads, pizza and sandwiches. The food court also offers slimmed down versions of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Hot 'n Now and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants--all subsidiaries of Pepsico of Purchase, N.Y.
Branded items--pizza from Pizza Hut, burgers from Hot 'n Now, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Starbucks coffee and the like--are hot items in corporate kitchens because they "end boredom" associated with traditional menu offerings, Maciag said.
Operators also are installing "display cookeries"--rotisseries, pasta machines, espresso machines and stir-fry stations that let diners watch as their meal is prepared.
For industry veterans, including Benedetti, the changes make the industry "a lot more fun . . . we run more like independent entrepreneurs now, and we're very into what's happening in the restaurant world. In fact, the two worlds are coming closer together every day."
Top 10 Company Cafeteria Sales
The nation's largest corporate in-house eateries sold more than $95 million in food and beverage in 1992. Very few companies are providing subsidies to hold down prices. Sales in millions for the top 10:
Company '92 sales % subsidy No. of cafeterias Eastman Kodak $25.0 0 27 Motorola 24.5 0 24 Aetna Life & Casualty 11.0 0 11 McDonnell Douglas 8.0 0 20 Hoffman-LaRoche 5.0 55% 7 3M Co. 4.8 0 1 Procter & Gamble 4.6 0 9 John Hancock 4.5 N/A 2 IBM 4.0 0 4 Abbott Laboratories 4.0 50% 9
N/A: not available
Day-Shift Diners Get Better Deal Only one in three company cafeterias provide dinner. Even fewer provide food during the late shift. Percent of company cafeterias that serve at these mealtimes: Breakfast: 100%
Late shift: 4% Source: FoodService Director Magazine; Researched by JANICE JONES / Los Angeles Times