Employees and visitors at this new headquarters building can partake in a refreshed culinary experience that complements the company's on-site wellness program.
Since 1994, the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood in Washington, D.C., had been home to NPR (formerly National Public Radio), a privately and publically funded nonprofit membership media organization that serves as a national syndicator to 976 radio stations. The building occupied 150,000 square feet, and NPR outgrew its Mt. Vernon headquarters a decade ago. In April 2013, NPR moved its headquarters to a 330,000-square-foot, 4-story concrete facility about 7 blocks east. The historically preserved art deco warehouse was occupied by the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in 1927 and now connects to a new seven-story office tower.
Today, NPR's headquarters includes a 90,000-square-foot newsroom, a 2,400-square-foot multipurpose performance studio and event space (Studio One) and a conference and training center. The building resides in NoMa, a developing neighborhood that is North of Massachusetts Avenue along Union Station's rail yard on North Capitol Street. The move took place five years after NPR bought the property.
"We had to move," Emma Carrasco, NPR's chief marketing officer, told the Washington Post. "When we looked at the possibility of retrofitting our existing buildings and consolidating [into the old headquarters], it really wasn't feasible. So building a cost-effective building was the most prudent decision for us. We based it on pure economics and our staffing and technological needs." NPR celebrates its 44th birthday this year.
"The plain, white concrete structure with streamlined art deco details is protected as a historic building, but the developer got city approval to tear down about half of it, making room for an office tower behind it and retaining the front wall," says Maury Schlesinger, former director of real estate and administrative services. "The new building is designed to have lots of space for collaboration. The entire newsroom is open, and the second floor serves as a balcony over the lower level." The building received LEED Gold certification.
The building also features a wellness center with a fitness area so employees can work out during the day; in the Sound Bites Café employees and visitors can find food and nutrition information to support their wellness needs. The café occupies part of the historic building, where large windows bring in natural light. "In order to incorporate the windows into one of the dining areas, we had to raise the platform in the area with two- and four-top tables," Schlesinger says.
"The old lunchroom served up to 400 people and had very rudimentary foodservice, which was basically a sandwich bar," Schlesinger says. The new café can serve up to 800 employees. "When we knew we were moving, we surveyed employees about the type of food they wanted in the new facility. They wanted much greater menu variety and catering services. We didn't know exactly how many people would want to eat at the new café, so we didn't want to overbuild either."
Hickok Cole Architects, the project's architects, brought in foodservice designers Eric McConnell and Josh Smith from Next Step Design. "We shared the survey information with them and the things that wouldn't be on the menu for health reasons, maintenance and sustainability concerns: no deep-fat-fried foods and no soda fountain," Schlesinger says. And since the building was to apply for LEED Gold certification, designers were asked to incorporate energy-saving equipment and systems.
After the café was designed, NPR, under the leadership of Pam Dorsey, director of human relations, selected Guckenheimer Foodservice as the foodservice provider. The team is led by Russell Szekely, regional executive chef, Gretchen Hoffman, executive chef, and Kirk Huserik, general manager.
Located on the first floor in a central location, the café and kitchen serve as a community gathering place. The kitchen's central location also allows for easy delivery of food and service to conference rooms and staff pantries throughout the building. When employees and visitors arrive, they walk through the seating area before entering the café's servery where they see granite and slate counters and overhead signage at the stations: Good Earth Grill, Panini Press, Chef's Table, Farmstead Bakery and Health Bar. Guests can interact with culinary staff and watch their food in preparation and presentation. The front of the house merges into the back-of-the-house prep areas, many of which are visible to customers.
From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., food arrives at a dedicated loading dock. Deliveries come from large distributors as well as local firms providing food from area farms, fisheries and bakeries. Staff off-load food and take it through a hallway into the kitchen's main storage area, which includes a walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer and dry storage.
Food production begins at 6 a.m. when staff use mobile carts to transport items from storage to the cold and hot prep stations. "One prep table doubles as general prep and for receiving materials and raw product breakdown," says McConnell. Two additional tables provide more prep space. Pass-thru refrigerators give staff easy access to ingredients and also provide storage space for cold items.
At the cold prep area, staff use cutting boards and a slicer, hand mixer and produce prep sink to prepare salads, sandwiches, fruit and other items for the main service stations, the health bar and catering.
"It was a great challenge to create a kitchen on the small side that would fit all the needs for regular foodservice and catering provided by a small staff," McConnell says.
"Acute levels of kitchen organization allow for the team to meet this high demand while remaining true to the craft of fresh food prepared from scratch," Szekely says. "Menus change every day and season, and are driven by the natural, unprocessed foods available in the local marketplace, minimizing transportation resources and taking advantage of the freshest, most abundant ingredients available. This approach delivers the maximum nutritional benefit and most enjoyable dining experience while respecting the resources used to produce the raw ingredients."
Though the original layout and equipment selection generally served the Guckenheimer team well, Szekely admits, "We did make a few changes after we arrived. We did some repurposing of storage space into a foodservice space and added a tabletop refrigerator, an ice maker, induction cooktops, pressure cookers and rice cookers."
The chef's station sits in the middle of the kitchen. Staff can prep ingredients here, as they have easy access to an array of utensils hanging overhead. Using a 4-burner range with a 12-inch griddle-top section, double-stacked convection oven, 3-foot-wide underfire charbroiler, rice cooker, induction ranges and hot holding cabinets, staff prepare food for the themed stations.
At Good Earth Grill, staff prepare and display breakfast items such as cage-free eggs and skillet potatoes. Hot wells display these menu items along with nitrate-free bacon and fresh turkey sausage heated in convection ovens. At lunch, this station features flattop-grilled, hand-formed, grass-fed burgers, house-made veggie burgers and all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken breast, each served with fresh relishes, artisan breads and healthy side dishes.
At Panini Press, a full-service deli featuring meats roasted on-site each day, customers can choose either custom-made sandwiches or sandwiches prepared in advance and heated to order. A traditional panini press sits on the front counter for warming sandwiches. Customers can also choose such sides as fruit salads, green salads and composed salads.
At Chef's Table, menu items change daily. Five hot wells hold entrées featuring global cuisine, comfort foods and vegan and vegetarian ingredients. Staff make dishes in batches and replenish them continuously throughout service. This area also displays daily soups, grains, legumes, fresh vegetables and sauces.
The Farmstead Bakery serves as a carving station and an area for dessert preparation and display. For customers wanting a sweet treat, bakers prepare fresh brownies, fruit crisps, bread pudding, cheesecake and cookies.
In December Guckenheimer also added a self-service Health Bar, where items such as natural proteins, vegetables, grains, artisan cheeses, salads, fresh fruits, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, artisan breads and house-made salad dressings are priced by the ounce. "We put the best of the season out every day," Szekely says. "Because it's self-service, customers can define their own portion sizes and make their own meals."
For beverages, guests select from spa waters, natural beverage choices low in sugar and, for the indulgent, Starbucks coffee drinks and bottled soda. "We aren't the food police," Szekely says.
Catering represents a significant part of Sound Bite's business and, according to Szekely, is "exceeding expectations." The culinary staff caters everything from coffee service to special events for between 12 and 1,200 people, with grazing menus and entertainment and activities for kids. A section of the kitchen supports catering with its convection oven, ranges and griddle. Guckenheimer is the caterer of choice, though not the exclusive caterer.
"To have foodservice at a facility that is centered around wellness allows you to change your culture," Szekely says. "And of course everyone hopes to have healthy people as an outcome."
To support wellness efforts, Guckenheimer's Color Matters program includes labeling menu items with nutritional facts such as calories, fat, sodium, protein and so forth. Menu information is also available on the company's internal website. A color-coding system identifies foods that are green (most healthy and recommended to choose most often); yellow (healthy); and red (indulgent). Diners can use the information to put together meals that are as healthful or indulgent as they want them to be.
Guckenheimer also offers NPR an "Ask Our RD" program in which staff can call or email corporate nutrition and wellness manager Alison Acerra with any special or private nutritional questions they might have. An "Ask Our RD" link is provided on the Sound Bites Café website.
In order to provide a safe working environment, racks on walls hold gloves, pot holders and protective equipment. "It's a tight space, so we need to make good use of it," Szekely says. "In addition, every food item is labeled and detailed so we can work safely and productively."
Biocompostable and renewable plates, cups and serviceware are used throughout the operation. "We partnered with NPR, and they built facilities to allow composting," Szekely says. No china is used, so the dishwasher is small. China is rented for catered events, however. For environmental preservation, each station contains three receptacles: one each for composting and recycling and landfill (for what's left over). Recyclers come to the operation and pick up waste.
At catered events staff set up each event with a three-tiered waste management system. Serviceware is also compostable.
For energy saving, McConnell specified hoods with energy management systems. "Though the equipment isn't Energy Star rated, walk-ins are remote and water-cooled in the basement so cool air isn't needed to bring down the temperature in a hot kitchen," he says.