Foodservice Operation of the Month

How Viasat makes lunch the best part of the work day

The company’s Eurest-run dining operation aims to offer office workers and guests an eye-catching feast for the palate.
viasat team
Members of the Viasat foodservice team surround Director of Dining Services James Lao, holding a hospitality award. / Photos courtesy of Eurest.

For hardworking employees, a busy day at the office can be exciting yet draining. Back-to-back meetings, a big presentation or writing a long report can leave energy in short supply.

And to perform at their best, workers need fuel other than lumpy, lukewarm oatmeal for breakfast or a sad sandwich grabbed midday.

Meals should be a feast for the palate, the eyes and sometimes maybe even the soul. That’s the view of the foodservice team at Viasat, a high-speed satellite internet service provider based in Carlsbad, Calif.

“I want people to come to our cafes excited, wondering what we have planned today,” says James Lao, director of dining services with Eurest, which runs foodservice at Viasat. “When you’re in meetings all day long, you want to be impressed with food that is not only wonderful but also presented beautifully. You want something special.”

The Viasat dining team hosts plenty of special events, but they place particular focus on elevating the everyday. Where some operations might offer a pasta bar with a few sauces and toppings, Viasat has served made-to-order fettucine spun directly in a $1,000, 12-month-aged cheese wheel.

Breakfast includes not only the standards guests expect, but also more unusual options like “Friyay” breakfast tacos or Irish breakfast grilled cheese with tater tots and eggs between sourdough slices. Meat is smoked on site, in a truck parked next to the cafe so the scent wafts through to whet diners’ appetites.

“When employees walk through the plaza, you see them say, ‘Oh my gosh, what's going on?’” Lao says. “That’s exactly what we want: For people to say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this before in a corporate environment.’ You see can see they’re excited, and that makes us excited.”

Salads showcase kale from an on-site garden.

But the team’s goal is for excitement to build even before those breakfast tacos or smoked meats land on the plate. Presentation, Lao says, is just about as important as the food.

The Viasat team finds a strong return on investment from the time and money spent on servingware, decor and anything else that creates ambiance in its two cafes and coffee bar—and it recommends other operators do the same when possible.

“We aim to change the mindset for our guests as soon as they walk in. Otherwise, it’s just, OK, here’s some nice food,” says Executive Chef Juan Padilla. “To take it to the next level, we really take pride in making sure the food not only tastes great but looks great.”

Caprese salad is served not on a plate but as a skewer. Fruit medleys peek out of the tops of street food-style paper cups, while the fruit selection for a continental breakfast is laid out on a charcuterie board in a beautiful design. The bakery gets particularly whimsical, with presentations like mini cupcakes placed in the seats of a Ferris wheel.

This “over the top for everyday” approach earned the Viasat team the honor of being selected as Eurest’s Center for Excellence in 2019 and Marketplace of the Year in 2022.

To celebrate the Center for Excellence achievement, Viasat threw a bash for about 100 Eurest unit managers. Guests arrived to find a live band playing and a red carpet for them to walk, after which they were handed a welcome drink served in a coconut. Food options included chocolate fountains, crostini bars, passed hors d’oeuvres and more underneath a large black chandelier and other decorations.

avocado toastAvocado toast gets an upgrade.

“We all struggle in this business, whether it’s the pandemic or the labor shortage or anything else that comes up,” Padilla says. “So to keep going, I would [tell other operators] you have to have that passion and [translate] it into commitment. You have to be strict in your own mind and demand that you, yourself, have high standards and you won’t settle for doing less. Otherwise, it’s too easy to slip into, ‘Oh, this is just another day.’”

Yes, not every day is a party, but Lao and his team are used to throwing them. They’ve hosted a fancy receptions, more casual meet-and-greets with finger foods and welcomed public officials like San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and even President Joe Biden.

“I saw this crowd of 30 people going back and forth, and I finally asked someone: ‘Hey, what’s going on? I’m just curious, but people are acting like the president is here or something!’,” Lao says. “And they said, ‘Um, well….’

“I was floored, but I also knew we were ready. We’re confident with our team and what we offer, and we know we can execute. Even when it’s the president.”

Get to know Viasat's James Lao

See what’s in store for Lao’s operation, which was named FSD’s July Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?

We focus on people development. I’ll be honest: When I first started here, I thought, “Wow, I’m not going to make it. The expectations are really, really high.” But then you start working side-by-side with your team, seeing them grow and giving them feedback and providing them the tools to be successful. I think that’s the key for all of this; it’s that's something that is really done here.

James Lao
James Lao

I love that I’ve been able to promote so many people. For example, my catering manager started at the salad bar, became a catering attendant, then became a captain—and now, he’s my supervisor. It just shows that when you take the time to invest in your people, the sky’s the limit. I think that’s something a lot of us should do: Focus on your people, along with, of course, your guests and your standards of quality, and everything will be absolutely fine. With great people and a great experience, the financial [success] will follow.

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

We’ve converted all of our supplies to 100% compostable—forks, knives, plates, napkins—but there’s always more to do on sustainability. We’re really focused on being super green. Personally, I want to grow within the company, for sure. And I want to be able to share all the things that I've learned here as an operator at Viasat. In our business, I think it’s really important to share tips and tools, whether that’s with other [Eurest] units or anyone who wants to talk.

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