The 86 percent participation rate at Idexx Laboratories’ Culinary Fusion cafe is as much about the food as it is about the people preparing it. As employees at the Westbrook, Maine, veterinary diagnostics company browse the lunch offerings at multiple stations—including stone-oven baked pizzas and hand-rolled sushi—they’re greeted by chefs who chat with them about the local ingredients and skilled preparations used to create made-to-order entrees.
Culinary Fusion, Idexx’s newest self-operated cafeteria, opened in August 2013 in the company’s $35-million, LEED-certified Synergy Center, which some reports have compared to Google’s corporate headquarters. The dining space was specifically designed to foster interaction: All of Fusion’s chefs and sous chefs prepare items in front of guests at cooking stations, and there isn’t a back-of-house kitchen.
“When I was looking at the design, I wanted chefs and customers to collaborate about the items they are having for lunch,” says Kim Cassella, dining services manager at Idexx.
Guests can order hand-rolled maki at a sushi station, get a slice of pizza at the stone oven or select from daily specials with a New England twist, such as lobster macaroni and cheese, from another interactive station. This third action station was designed to be flexible, Cassella says, to accommodate a rotating menu. “Fast-casual dining is exciting and ever-changing, so you need versatility in the equipment,” she says.
Diners can concoct their own salad at the salad bar—or they can give the chef free rein. The chefs often suggest ingredient pairings guests might not consider on their own, such as root vegetables and sunflower seeds. Employees crunched for time can skip the line—and the interaction—entirely by selecting premade salads and sandwiches from the grab-and-go stations and heading to a self-checkout lane.
But it’s the interaction that Cassella credits for the high participation rate—47 percentage points higher than the average 39 percent lunch participation rate at B&I operations, according to a 2013 study by Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management. “[The cooks] are the real ‘secret sauce’ to each customer’s dining experience,” Cassella says. “They innovate and energize the entire dining program, every day.”