Mark Freeman: Mayor of Microsoft

Mark Freeman is taking Microsoft's foodservice to the next level by driving a from-scratch cooking philosophy, promoting the use of a cashless cashier system and pushing for an "ingredient revolution."
Mark Freeman

At a Glance

  • Customers at Redmond, Wash. campus: 60,000
  • Discrete foodservice outlets: 43
  • Meals served globally: 91,000 per day
  • Global annual revenue: $140 million

Accomplishments

Mark Freeman is taking Microsoft's foodservice to the next level by:

  • Driving contractor Compass Group to develop as much from-scratch cooking as possible in Microsoft cafes and to grow the company’s catering arm into a multi-million dollar business
  • Promoting the use of cashless, cashierless systems to reduce costs and streamline service
  • Pushing an “Ingredient Revolution” movement by encouraging the use of local, GMO- and chemical-free food, and by setting up hydroponic gardens in several cafes
  • Partnering with local restaurateurs such as John Howie and Maria Hines to provide employees with a higher-end dining experience

Mark Freeman, senior manager of global employee services for Microsoft Corporation, loves to compare the nearly three–square-mile headquarters campus in Redmond, Wash., to a small city. There’s a certain justification in that: Freeman’s last foodservice job was with Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, Ore., a town with a total population of 56,000—which is less than Freeman’s current customer base of 60,000 Microsoft employees. Over the last 10 years, he’s built the foodservice program at Microsoft from 20 outlets to more than 40—and growing.

“I look at a city like Seattle and I see how the food is distributed and I see how people move in the food space,” Freeman says. “That helps determine what we do here. I’ve challenged Compass [our foodservice provider] to explore how food moves in a city and see if there are any gaps that we may have here [and fill them].”

Since he arrived a decade ago, Freeman has slowly developed the foodservice program into one that not only offers employees a wide variety of menu options and price points, but also reflects the greater Seattle community that Microsoft calls home.

Keeping it local

Seattle merchants operate more than half of the 43 foodservice locations on Microsoft’s campus. They are mostly fast-casual restaurants such as Quincy’s Charbroiled Burgers, the main unit of which is found in the Lower Queen Anne section of the city, and Steamers, a seafood restaurant with locations in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

Most recently, Microsoft opened Spitfire at the Microsoft Commons, an offshoot of the popular Seattle sports bar that sells items such as angus teriyaki, pulled pork, jalapeño chicken and gnudi salmon pasta.  As of this month, the Microsoft brewpub will begin selling alcoholic beverages, making it the “city’s” first pub.

Few cities are complete without at least one high-end restaurant. Last November, Freeman made that happen, when Puget Sound restaurateur John Howie opened In.gredients, a waitservice restaurant in Building 34. The restaurant offers a three-course, prix-fixe menu that rotates every three weeks and is priced around $15.

Howie, best known for John Howie Steak in nearby Bellevue, Wash., is just the first of several chefs Freeman has approached to bring their culinary expertise to campus. He says he also is talking with Maria Hines, an Iron Chef winner who operates three Seattle-area restaurants. Also on Freeman’s list is Ethan Stowell, who owns nine local restaurants.

“I spend a lot of time in Seattle restaurants,” Freeman says. “[Most people] don’t go to the same restaurant every time. I want to bring that same diversity to Microsoft. And when you bring in a high-end chef, it’s a completely different experience than you would get at one of the [other] local brands.”

An ingredient revolution

One thing all three restaurateurs—Howie, Hines and Stowell—share with each other, and with Freeman, is a love of local sourcing and clean label foods.

It’s exactly the philosophy Freeman wants Microsoft’s foodservice program to portray, that of an organization that knows where its food comes from and cares about both farmers and customers. That philosophy has been developed into a program he calls the “Ingredient Revolution.”

“The Ingredient Revolution is really understanding where our food is coming from, where it’s grown and how farmers are growing it, and then making sure we can explain that to our customers,” he explains. “That’s where the industry is heading.”

This philosophy is manifesting itself in a number of ways. First, according to Freeman, is making sure that as much food as possible is free of genetically modified ingredients or chemicals.

It’s not only about using farmers who Freeman believes care about the food they grow and the animals they raise. It’s also about ensuring that Microsoft can make those farmers as productive and profitable as possible.

One way the company is doing this is through the Misfit Produce Rescue. Through this new program,  Microsoft buys fruits and vegetables that can’t be sold in supermarkets or produce stands because of various imperfections.

“Misfit Produce is about helping the farmers,” says Craig Tarrant, executive chef for Compass Group at Microsoft. “On average, 40 percent of the produce a farmer grows is wasted, tilled over because it’s not grade ‘A’ produce. But we chefs really don’t care. It doesn’t have to look good. It just has to taste good. We’re buying this produce to make sure the food is not going to waste.”

Like a growing number of companies and institutions, Microsoft is also adding a hyper-local element to its sourcing. Last summer, Freeman’s team began setting up hydroponic gardens in several of the cafes on campus, growing a variety of lettuces and microgreens.

If hydroponics can be successful, he says, the next step could be aquaponics, a variation of hydroponics in which fish are part of the equation.

“The fish swim in the water and their waste feeds the plants,” Freeman says. “Then, the parts of the plants that you don’t use decompose, and they feed the fish. So you create that cycle.”

The technology piece

Being at Microsoft almost has to predispose a foodservice director to think about how technology can be incorporated into a program. That certainly has been true for Freeman.

Order kiosks and online ordering are becoming commonplace on the campus. Freeman says that people will sometimes come to a cafe to “see what looks good” and then go back to their offices and place an order online so they don’t have to wait in line for the food to be prepared.

The Microsoft foodservice program is completely cashless and cashierless, with employee customers either paying for their orders online when they order or by swiping their employee cards at a kiosk.

“I wondered at the beginning whether customers were ready for us to take away cash,” Freeman says. “But they embraced it. And it has opened the doors for all of the technology that goes along with it: mobile ordering, loyalty apps, that sort of thing.”

As Microsoft brings more restaurants onto the campus, Freeman says, his department may create programs that reward customers or, at the very least, encourage them to try as many venues as possible.

The big picture

Freeman calls himself a dreamer, a role that has become more fitting as the years have passed.

“When I first got here, I was a hands-on person. I wanted to be in the cafes, I wanted to be in the contractor’s face, making sure that the tablecloths were straight, that sort of thing,” he says. “I can’t do that any more. I have to rely on my people to do that.”

So Freeman has learned to keep his eyes and ears open, to absorb ideas that can be turned into projects.

For example, he says the idea to partner with local brands came from a visit he paid to Duke University in Durham, N.C., where then-director of dining services Jim Wulforst was making local brands work on his campus.

Another time, inspiration came in the form of a garden show. A “tower garden” display at the event sparked Freeman’s push to bring hydroponics to Microsoft’s campus.

“Mark is a true innovator,” says Jodi Westwater, senior director of marketing, communications and advocacy for Compass Group at Microsoft. “He strives to integrate what’s new, better and different into the [program]. He’s always dreaming of what’s next.”

When he is not traveling, Freeman can frequently be found working in a Microsoft cafe as a mobile worker, a distinction he shares with about 23,000 Seattle-area employees.

“I don’t have an office. My desk is my computer,” Freeman says. “I can sit anywhere, and where I choose to sit is the cafes, because that’s where the energy is for me.”

It’s there, in one of the cafes, that Freeman can reflect on his ideas and how they have come to fruition.

“One of the nice things about working for a technology company is, there is a willingness to accept change, and to accept failure,” Freeman says. “Employees are okay with something breaking. So we can try things. If they work, great, if they don’t, we can rework them or shelve them for a later time.”

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