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Green machine 

The kitchens inside Google, Yahoo! and eBay's headquarters source many of their ingredients from within 150 miles. You might expect as much from forward-thinking companies with money to burn, but the mandate doesn't come from their idealistic higher-ups. It comes from their food service provider.

Bon Appétit demands that each of its 500 locations across 31 states incorporate a percentage of local ingredients, including produce, meats and dairy items. Of its $650 million in annual revenues, it spends tens of millions of dollars on that local food.

Founded in 1987, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, which collectively dishes 120 million meals per year currently, proves that social responsibility does not have to compromise profitability. As part of today and tomorrow's 2010 Southern Colorado Sustainability Conference, founder and CEO Fedele Bauccio will give a keynote speech addressing "food services for a sustainable future" and his company's methods and philosophies.

Incidentally, his lectern will stand just blocks away from one of his newer customers, Colorado College, which switched from Sodexo to Bon Appétit in July 2008 as part of its efforts to become a greener campus. Currently, CC buys from Larga Vista Ranch, Hobbs Family Farm, Country Roots Farm, Frost Family Farm, Greenhorn Acres, Venetucci Farm, Ranch Foods Direct, Naturescape Microgreens and the campus' student garden.

To find out more about building a green giant, we spoke to Bauccio by phone in late October.

Indy: Your bio says that with Bon Appétit's founding, you put "real executive chefs in the kitchens of colleges, corporations and cultural centers." Is the sustainable food revolution chef-driven as much as it is producer- and manufacturer-driven?

Fedele Bauccio: I felt, in the late '80s, early '90s, before this was even popular, that we had lost flavor on our plates. Tomatoes didn't taste the way they should, and apples weren't the same as when I was growing up as a kid. This became a culinary act, not a political one at the very beginning.

I went to the chefs and said, "How are we going to change this and make this better?" So it was chef-driven to begin with, where the chefs went out into fields in their local communities to try to buy the freshest product they could, from close by, instead of bringing things from — maybe they were organic — but they were in a cold storage from New Zealand for three months, in the case of an apple.

So I said to hell with organic, let's just do local and get the freshest.

Indy: In the states you're located, which are hardest and easiest to obtain local items?

FB: California is fairly easy, because we sit in a salad bowl here. We have fabulous local artisans and farmers and ranchers. When you get into Minneapolis in the wintertime, it becomes more difficult.

So one of the things we've done is, we have a foundation that has helped local farmers and ranchers. We built hoop houses for poultry. We've done a lot of greenhouses. We try to help give them the opportunity to say, "OK, we can do year-round." The key to the whole thing is that we have to menu seasonally, and convince consumers they should be eating seasonally.

Indy: Has it gotten easier to do this recently, considering our society's increased food awareness?

FB: There are a lot more local farmers and ranchers and artisans out there. But it's easier because consumers are demanding it. ...

Supporting the local communities is really important from my standpoint. We're not a chain — we customize every location. We have the ability to be able to menu from what we can get from those local communities and make them feel as if we're supporting them. So yes, it's a lot easier now than it was when we did this 10 or 12 years ago. But it's still not easy. You've gotta work at it.

Indy: A chef here recently told me that sometimes sustainable items are even cheaper than conventional items. Can you vouch for that, and cite any examples where it pays to be green?

FB: A lot of things now are cost-neutral. Cage-free eggs, from an animal welfare standpoint, were very expensive when we did it in '92 or '93. We were the first company to do that. Now we can buy cage-free eggs for as cheap as conventional eggs, and there's more suppliers out there. The more consumers vote with their pocketbook in the retail areas, the more the prices have come down.

But the most important thing is that when you buy locally, typically, you can eliminate the middle people. For the most part, yes, it's a little more expensive, but in the long run I look at it as a cost-neutral thing, especially when you look at all the externalities that go into the issues ... these huge animal production feedlots, and pork and poultry and all that, and the impact on the environment. If you look at everything, we're a hell of a lot better off buying locally.

Indy: Can you tell me a bit about Bon Appétit's distribution methods?

FB: In terms of commodity products — flour, sugar, the Coke products — they come off a big truck, just like everyone else. We run about 30 to 35 percent of what we call our farm-to-fork suppliers. What we try to do is say to ourselves, "How do we inch that up over time by working with these people?"

But the distribution is a huge issue on farm-to-fork products' sourcing ... they have to learn to deliver it, or we have to go get it. Sometimes our chefs pick it up, sometimes we hire a third party that goes to two or three different farms to pick it up — there's all kinds of ways we do it, but it isn't easy. It takes a huge commitment from the top of the organization to say, "Yes, we're gonna do this, and you're gonna figure out how to get it done because it's the right thing to do."

Indy: So at CC, general manager Beth Gentry makes the call on what local products they'll serve?

FB: Beth has the freedom with a blank piece of paper to decide with her chefs what's right for that community. We don't send menus, there's no menu cycles, no big recipe boxes, nuthin'. We hire really talented people and say to them, "Here's about 20 standards you have to follow, and the rest of it is up to you."

The chef's job is to go with Beth to find and source those local products that are terrific for the community and then message those to the students and the community and figure out how they're gonna go get it. We give them a hell of a lot of freedom to do that. No other company allows that to happen.

Indy: Have your competitors made any changes based off what Bon Appétit does?

FB: They try to copy us, and they talk about it — lip service — but if you look at our 500 locations, we're consistent from location to location in terms of these initiatives. They're non-negotiable. With them, they might do it in one place, and then might not do it at all ... they don't do it like we do it. This is part of our culture and DNA.

matthew@csindy.com

  • Bon Appétit revolutionized big-time food service. Founder Fedele Bauccio explains how.

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