Evolution of a lunch break

How the places of the corporate catering change: from the canteen to the social area 24/7.

Segreen Business Park. Project by Lombardini22.

Once upon a time people went to the canteen.

It goes without saying that even the name “canteen” conjured up some rather dodgy tastes and flavours leaving a slightly stale “canteeny” aftertaste in the mouth. There was a set time or ‘window’ for doing this, and leaving our work desks to head off to the canteen with our workmates at so-called lunchtime even sounded like some kind of religious ritual. Our company had a spacious canteen, but you had to be alert and quick off the mark to avoid getting trapped, with the tray in your hands as you looked at the day’s menu, in a queue that was not all that different from those we would find ourselves in at the beginning or end of our shift as we drove off to work or back home. And then after the “ritual” was over (i.e. the meal) these crowed spaces emptied and remained that way for the rest of the day, partly because there was no other reason for going there.

The wonderful world of the corporate catering

And then the time came for these canteens to be given a makeover and turned into company restaurants complete with all the appropriate conceptual and sensorial paraphernalia: these new facilities were more appealing and welcoming and the setting even effected how the food tasted. It was more enjoyable to be in this kind of well-manicured setting and there was even talk among colleagues of staying a bit longer or going back for a coffee or a snack should the facilities be open longer than usual. Some people even flirted with the idea of moving their desk into the company restaurant!

Rumours began circulating about strange characters seen in the city’s coffee bars, bistros and other public places, carrying their own PCs and looking as if they were working in these places where you were not supposed to work! There was even talk of business meetings being held at the most unlikely times, well outside the usual business hours of nine-to-five. Sheer madness! But the times were changing and businesses had realised this: if the city was becoming one seamless workspace pulverised into a thousand different locations where business reports, Excel files and conference calls were getting mixed up with leisure, then there was absolutely no reason why leisure should not flow into workplaces.

And what kind of space “officially” embodied leisure better than our old canteens (now called company restaurants)? People had already realised that its spacious premises needed to be exploited more throughout the day: for breakfast, lunch, the mid-morning/mid-afternoon coffee break, but also for preparing a lunch box or “schiscetta”, in this case used for the opposite purpose (we are, after all, in Milan) to be taken home after work if you were staying on late at the office (yes, even here in Italy the working day was getting longer) and did not want to go home without something to eat. At some stage, all this became a habit, but it did not last long, because something else was happening. “Smart working” was arriving on the scene.

Bread&Network

And so, our restaurants became “smart”, too. It was inevitable, because most of the working world was heading in this direction. Everybody was becoming more mobile and, in a certain sense, freer too, and we suddenly realised that those people who in the past had astounded us with their eccentric way of working almost everywhere, with no temporal, spatial or even postural bounds, were, in fact, us. Not everybody, of course, but lots of us, indeed an increasing number of us, found ourselves at breakfast meetings or greeting clients in the restaurant’s coffee bar, which, in the meantime, had been converted into a free-flow bistro or reception area, meeting room, training facility or place for hosting rather informal events, conferences and board meetings, not to mention a set for succulent ‘show cooking’ accompanied by delicious cocktails.

I can remember one memorable occasion involving a Mexican delegation, when the chefs and their assistants served up iguana eggs in a spicy pepper sauce, fly eggs (Mexican caviar) moulded into the shape of tamales, chrysalises chopped up with aromatic herbs, Mezcal worms roasted and wrapped in corn tortillas or fried on ceramic plates, boiled frogs with peppers and epazote leaves, xumiles mashed in stone mortars with guajillo pepper, boiled armadillos basted with a spicy sauce and, last but not least, Siredon Lichenoides soup that the chefs called Axolotl, an energising aphrodisiac, which brought this spectacular tribute to pre-Hispanic cuisine to a fitting close: for us an authentic explosion of taste!

In a nutshell, our company restaurants had turned into something hybrid. And something enjoyable too, not just because you could now eat whenever you wanted, particularly appetising for our younger workmates (who were always hungry), but because it was no longer merely a place where you could eat or drink in company, but also a place for interaction, socialising, culture and work. And a place for networking, as well.

But that was not all, even the restaurants themselves seem to be networked, as new 2.0 versions began appearing everywhere and greater mobility gave us the chance to actually go and visit these new restaurant-workplaces: in Milan we could see “trains” of chairs set out in a niche alongside conventional tables with adjoining meeting areas and informal zones serving all kinds of different purposes, not just separating productivity from catering; or even museum-like layouts, which, right from the entrance lobby, welcomed us into such legendary places as a Jacobs’ Pharmacy in Atlanta before leading us through to “canteens”, whose flows and functions had been carefully studied to make them not just cutting-edge restaurants but also open and flexible locations throughout the entire day; and then there were company restaurants deliberately designed to encourage interaction and the exchanging of ideas that were furnished with special “corners” for hosting workgroups, not to mention other exclusive features, such as kitchens connected to special meeting rooms or projected onto the Web like a blog and, lastly, tasting rooms or even virtual supermarkets. So, those places that had been used very little in the past gradually took on different functions and became liquid spaces for social communication and experimentation open to outside guests and clients.

Extended serendipity and technology

It took some time (not that long, to tell the truth, let’s say just long enough) to realise that all this was the body’s appropriate response to the pervasive spread of virtuality by means of cutting-edge technology that was, however, dematerialising urban relations. So, the city and its public spaces became the driving force behind and focus of this evolution. We are talking about universities with their canteens/coffee bars: like, for example, Wetterleuchten Cafeteria at the Technische Universität in Berlin, a connected place with a powerful sculptural ceiling made out of a textile fabric or Moltke Canteen on the university campus in Karlsruhe, a sort of artificial woodland made of polyurethane and wood, which, like some sort of soft, rubbery and fibrous sandwich, became the social hub of student activities interacting with three different faculties and the outside city.

Allianz Canteen. Project by L22

It was, indeed, technology and an opening up to the city that seemed to be the ingredients in this new “revolutionary” phase in corporate catering: which some software fanatics referred to as release 3.0.

The companies even opened up to each other, creating business parks designed just like the canteens on university campuses, shared by the various faculties and departments. Dedicated facilities were built right in the middle of business complexes, often surrounded by greenery, where various industries could come together as part of a much more extensive and elaborate kind of conviviality: extensive serendipity. And companies and local inhabitants also came together in restaurants that were permeable to outside flows, even welcoming in outsiders in their own peculiar ways: absolute serendipity.

Meanwhile, spaces continued with their process of cellular division, increasing the number of internal functions but also becoming more intelligent, “smarter” in managing flows (more complex and more dilated across time), logistics, bookings and menus. And they became digitalised. All this was made possible by technology, making catering a kind of augmented reality (after having turned it into work): that same technology, which long ago had moved on from the leisure world of consumers to the production world of business, was now returning to the world of leisure as part of business. A wonderful short circuit! Something that only the extraordinary times in which we live could come up with.

Nature Hub, Microsoft House. Project by DEGW
Nature Hub, Microsoft House. Project by DEGW

And, so, a vast array of scenarios could now open up: company restaurants that will allocate space (and time) to welfare through gastronomic teaching activities after working hours before, just two days later, becoming the locations for top-class events featuring Michelin-starred visiting chefs conducting food-tasting of the highest calibre. And, in between all this, there will be socialising of every imaginable kind.

Cucina Buitoni di Nestlé. Project by DEGW

So how can focusing on food make business and companies more appealing?

Companies are already asking ourselves this and working on these matters, well-aware that socialising, interpersonal well-being and the desire to communicate underscoring the evolutionary process now underway, will not only make them more appealing but also more productive.