More than a meal ticket

More than a meal ticket

“It was a rushed morning." “I had no time to have breakfast." “I am fed up of eating the same thing for breakfast every morning." Common grouses from most employees as they walk into office. But Anusha Pinto walks into her office in Mumbai on an empty stomach every day...deliberately, and without a complaint.

After clocking attendance, Pinto walks to the company cafeteria and then goes about deciding what to order for breakfast. Should she opt for dosa or should it be a brown bread sandwich? Sheera (a sweet dish made from semolina) sounds nice, but fresh fruits would be a healthier choice. And to wash it down, a glass of fresh fruit juice or one of the many Tetra pak juices?

“Food is not an issue for any of us working here," says Pinto, who works at Directi, an information technology firm, in Mumbai. “Our cafeteria has great options for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner and it is open from 9am to 11.30pm."

Setting the bar high

Food is an important ingredient at work, with most people ending up taking at least two of their three big meals at the office nowadays. More and more organizations are waking up to the fact that a good cafeteria enhances employee productivity and are either dishing out a spread that can vie with five-star hotel fare or putting out choices that meet a nutritionist’s advice.

Kavita Ghatge, executive vice-president, human resources, South Asia, at Siemens Ltd’s Mumbai office, says, “We offer basic food but it is nutritious and healthy." Instead of fancy meals, breakfast at the Siemens canteen might be upma, idli or medu vada, and lunch is the usual fare of rice, rotis, curry, vegetable, curd, and a non-vegetarian dish twice a week. But to ensure that employees don’t get bored with the dishes, the Siemens canteen often changes the menu and even has tailored menus for those observing fasts on key religious occasions through the year. So don’t be surprised if you find beaten rice upma or sago khichdi on the menu every once in a while.

At the Wipro Ltd cafeteria in Bangalore, there is a health menu, south Indian thali, south Indian mini meal, north Indian thali, north Indian mini meal, Chinese combos, Chinese mini meal, north and south Indian vegetarian and non-veg combos, a la carte items, a variety of sandwiches (white or brown bread), juices and shakes, a salad counter and sweets. Whew! The variety on this menu could give the local Shiv Sagars or Saravana Bhavans a run for their money.

What’s more, most of these spreads do not singe the employee’s pocket. They are usually subsidized by the company. Siemens, Mumbai, for instance, charges Rs20 per head per month for a breakfast and lunch package. SAP Labs, Bangalore, does not charge its employees for meals at the canteen. On an average, an employee at Wipro, Bangalore, spends Rs15 for breakfast, Rs30-40 a meal for lunch and dinner (this could vary if an employee opts for non-vegetarian food, in which case the cost could go up to Rs45). At the IT firm NCR Corporation India Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, a full non-vegetarian meal costs Rs35 and a half-meal (excluding some items from the regular meal) Rs20, while a vegetarian meal costs Rs20. At HCL Infosystems Ltd, Noida, the basic thali starts at Rs10 and then, depending on the dishes an employee opts for, the cost could go up to as much as Rs30.

The feel good factor

Rayanne Alvares, an employee at the Siemens office in Mumbai, is usually at her desk by 8.30am. “I realize the importance of a good cafeteria now. In my previous job, there was no cafeteria in the office and I had to not only make arrangements for breakfast but also get packed lunch. There was no way I could have started early at work there," says Alvares.

Many organizations believe that the employees’ “feel good factor" goes a long way in enhancing employee productivity. And having a good canteen on office premises is one way to do that. “We believe food and eating habits play a major role in ensuring employee productivity," says Vivek Punekar, vice-president, human resources, HCL Infosystems, Noida, and that is why the company pays special attention to its canteens and cafeterias.

Besides, the convivial aspect of drinking and eating together is emphasized by many HR heads. Food is a meeting point for most employees and it breaks barriers. “It is a break from work and a meeting point to network with other departments and divisions," says Snehdeep Aggarwal, founder-chairman, Bhartiya Group, a Delhi-based group with diversified interests. “Company-sponsored meals help people connect with each other and boost employee morale," says Bhuvaneshwar Naik, vice-president, human resources, SAP Labs India. “There is a cool quotient attached to this since very few companies provide such perks."

Another thing that most companies have realized is that to eat from an unvarying menu can stunt your soul as much as repetitive card-punching can. So they have committees comprising employees, HR personnel, and maybe a nutritionist and chef to stir the pot from time to time for new menus. For instance, NetApp India, Bangalore, reviews its menu every fortnight—the café manager likes to include offerings ranging from chicken burger and cottage cheese wrap to raagidosa and mint lime juice. SAP Labs and Wipro in Bangalore change their menu every week. “The F&B (food and nutrition) team, part of administration, and an external nutritionist decide on the menu," says Naik. The menu at HCL Infosystems and Uninor Wireless Ltd, Chennai, changes every day of the week. Stefan Kercza, head, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, at Uninor, says: “We don’t want our employees to worry about their hunger pangs when they leave home, and also not get bored eating the same food every day. Hence we believe in offering variety every day."

The health insight

“We want to ensure employees get healthy, nutritious and value-for-money food services. If employees eat a proper diet, they will stay healthy, which in turn helps them at their work," says Ram Ramakrishnan, vice-president, facilities management group, Wipro, Bangalore.

So health is more than a special garnish at many workplace cafeterias. At HCL Infosystems’ Noida office there is a special counter of low-cal foods and they have a “healthy programme" in which a nutritionist provides employees with dietary information and recipes, says Vivek Punekar, vice-president, human resources. SAP Labs, Bangalore, has a nutritional consultant who guides employees on improving health through diet, lifestyle and holistic outlook. Even at Wipro, Bangalore, employees can seek consultation with the nutritionists on the office campus about how to tailor their meals for healthier living. Questions employees ask range from the types of food that are fattening to how much protein the body requires.

Intelenet Global Services, a business process outsourcing firm in Mumbai, organizes sessions on diet, food and nutrition, coupled with lessons on physical exercise. “We have a dietitian who helps employees with daily diet tips and developing healthier eating habits," adds Manuel D’Souza, chief human resource officer, Intelenet.

The feedback loop

Organizations have also started seeking active feedback to improve facilities. At Uninor, for example, two new counters for health food, fresh fruit juices and cut fruits were set up based on employee feedback, says Kercza.

On the other hand, at Directi, “we were offering batata vadas gratis on the menu," says Margaret Rodrigues, associate manager, corporate HR. “Some employees came up and asked us to charge for it so they would not be tempted to eat it!" A plate of twovadas now costs Rs5.

Communication cuts both ways. At Wipro, employees are urged through cafeteria messages not to waste food—taking only as much as they need and disposing of waste so that it can be fed into an in-house bio-gas plant at the Bangalore campus. “On a daily basis (this) generates gas equivalent to three commercial LPG cylinders of 19kg capacity. This is utilized for cooking purposes in the cafeterias," says Ramakrishnan. Now that’s fruitful feedback.

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