With a canteen like this, who needs Conran?

Click to follow
If the words "staff canteen" summon up images of chips with everything, lumpy custard and Formica tables, think again, says Helen Jones. Eating at work is changing and, for some employees, focaccia has replaced Mother's Pride

"Staff canteens or staff restaurants, as many companies like to describe them, are generally getting better," says Peter Spencer, principal lecturer in Food and Beverages at Sheffield Hallam University.

He says that the reason for the change is that many staff canteens are now regarded as profit centres by companies and if they are to compete with Pret a Manger, Marks & Spencer or the local pub then they have to provide food that is at least as good - if not better. "Staff know what they like and what is available outside work, so canteens have to meet their much higher expectations," he says. According to a recent survey from the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) more than half of workers questioned described the quality of the food in their staff canteens as good or excellent, although seven per cent still consider it downright awful. Canteens in Scotland and the North got the worst reviews from workers and are the ones most likely to serve chips with everything.

Melissa Compton-Edwards of IPD says: "People have become more discerning about the food they eat at home and in restaurants. Many employers have cut out the stodge in their staff canteens and provide a varied, nutritious menu - although as our research indicates, there are still a number of greasy spoons around."

Wolff Olins's canteen could never be described as a greasy spoon. This corporate identity consultancy whose clients include the mobile phone company Orange and telephone bank First Direct, has a canal-side restaurant in London's King's Cross which, with its designer furniture, fresh flowers and eclectic menu, wouldn't look out of place as part of Terence Conran's empire.

Company secretary Jane Scruton says: "When we first set up we used to do simple lunches for clients. Our building was open-plan, so all the staff could see what clients were eating. That was was very unfair, so we decided to give everybody the same." Initially Terence Conran's son Tom acted as a consultant and, during the recession, Scruton ensured that the restaurant remained open by letting neighbouring companies use the facilities for a fee.

Ms Scruton says that the staff restaurant, which is known throughout the company as simply the kitchen, is intended to reflect the company's philosophy. "It shows the staff that we care for them and shows the clients that we have high standards, a single level of excellence and generosity without extravagance. Our food reflects our work ethic: simple ingredients, not dolled up, good-looking, wholesome and creative."

Staff are offered a choice of two hot dishes - on a typical day roast pork with potato cakes and pak choi or seared salmon, plus an array of salads and sandwiches, calorie-laden puddings and home-made ice cream. Free breakfasts are also provided to encourage staff to get in early. Other food is not free but it is heavily subsidised and a meal costs on average about pounds 2.50. Ms Scruton says: "We charge for meals because if things are free they tend to be abused or under-valued."

Another company which prides itself on its staff restaurant and which counts Peter Gordon, now of London's ultra hip restaurant The Sugar Club, as a former chef is the design company Newell & Sorrell. It offers staff a constantly changing menu which includes papardelle with mascarpone, lemon zest and rocket and Thai seafood curry as well as home made breads and ice cream. It also occasionally serves less sophisticated food such as fish finger sandwiches, which the staff secretly regard as a bit of a treat.

Michael Harwood, cafe manager says: "We try to provide really good food here and the staff definitely appreciate it, but sometimes it is like feeding a family and they can get a bit blase and ungrateful." The company says that it installed its cafe to act as a focal point for staff. "People work on lots of different floors here, so the cafe is a good place for them to mingle with people that they don't work closely with," he says.

The cafe is also used to entertain clients as Mr Harwood explains: "Rather than meet clients in a restaurant we meet them here because there is none of the hanging around that happens in an external restaurant." An additional advantage for Newell & Sorrell, Wolff Olins and other companies that feature attractive restaurants is that if staff eat at work rather than outside the building they tend to take less time doing it - and they also avoid the temptation of the local pub. Ms Scruton says: "We serve lunch on the dot at one and by 1.45 most people are back at their desks. "

According to a report from food service specialist Eurest, the average lunch break is now 33 minutes. Cookery expert Prue Leith is worried about this trend and says: "Workers are just not getting a proper break in the middle of the day. Lunch has become a hurried bite taken on the hoof. Can this be compatible with the knowledge that people who eat well and relax well, work well ?"

But while staff at Woolf Olins may wolf down their lunch and rush back to work, they can at least be content that they are doing so in stylish surroundings and are not subjected to an endless round of chips with everything.