Fueling hard work and hard play

Nathan decaro

At Pro Athlete, the employee perks put even the Facebooks and Googles of the world to shame: Monday massages, Wednesday facials and Friday haircuts. And that’s on top of the daily on-site amenities including the Jacuzzi, bar, personal trainer, basketball courts—and free meals.

Pro Athlete is an online retailer of baseball bats and gloves, with four brands including JustBats.com, and the sports team philosophy is the heart of the company. Executives say they expect their 55 employees to work hard to achieve the common goal, so it’s only fair to reward them with three free meals a day, plus snacks.

“Managers at other companies get mad at me for saying this, but turnover isn’t really a thing here,” says Pro Athlete Chief Operating Officer Andrew Dowis. “Our employees do a lot for us, so we owe it to them to treat them like royalty. And I can tell you, when I’m recruiting, the food is the No. 1 perk.”

It’s also the responsibility of just one employee: Nathan DeCaro, Pro Athlete’s chef. DeCaro is the sole foodservice staffer, charged with not only planning menus and sourcing ingredients, but also prepping and cooking every meal. A dishwasher comes in for 20 hours per week, but otherwise, the Ballpark Bistro is DeCaro’s domain.

A one-man operation


The day necessarily begins early: DeCaro gets into the Pro Athlete office around 4 a.m. to work out and hit the shower, and he typically begins prepping around 5 a.m. He cooks made-to-order breakfasts from 7 to 9 a.m., serving up baseball-themed dishes such as the Jason HAMmelt (named for Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Hammel): a two-egg omelet with ham, manchego, onions and toasted garlic.

The moment breakfast is over, DeCaro must begin lunch, which starts at 11:30 a.m. and is served buffet-style. The meal includes a soup of the day, salad bar and ever-changing entrees: crab-stuffed trout, lemon basmati rice with chicken or pan-seared scallops, for example. After lunch, DeCaro works to box up dinners for call center employees who work late shifts, as well as create an afternoon snack pack such as hummus with pickled vegetables. “It’s a lot to pack into a day,” DeCaro says, laughing, “so it’s really changed the way I cook.”

A modified recipe for success


The classically trained DeCaro “used to make everything with butter, a complicated sauce, multiple steps,” he says. “But when you have limited time, it forces you to learn how to get great flavors in less time. And it ends up being healthier a lot of the time, which is important for us here.”

Take DeCaro’s clam chowder, for example. Many chefs would start with butter and flour, but DeCaro begins with olive oil and the vegetables, cooking them down until they’re caramelized, which adds a richness of flavor even without the roux.

DeCaro makes almost everything from scratch, including stocks for his popular daily soups, but he’s OK with a few premade items such as tortillas and breads. “At a certain point, you have to be realistic about what you can do on your own,” he says.

But DeCaro has done so much on his own, says Dowis, proving operators can launch successful foodservice even with a tiny staff.
“So much of this is to Nathan’s credit: He’s the guy who will text you if you didn’t come to lunch and bring you a bowl of broth when you tell him it’s because you were sick,” Dowis says. “But even if you don’t have a Nathan, there are small steps you can take.”

That includes simplifying menus—not reducing the flavor profile, but minimizing the prep work, DeCaro says. “I try to let simple, healthy proteins do their thing.” There are no baked goods or sweets, which not only cuts down on time but aligns with Pro Athlete’s healthy lifestyle push. And above all, DeCaro keeps the core goal in mind: Create food that powers the company’s hard workers.

Food is a great motivator for staffers, Dowis agrees. So while he understands not every operator can offer three free daily meals, he strongly recommends B&I operators consider implementing a daily or even weekly snack.

“It’s such a small thing, but it helps people feel valued,” Dowis says. “Everyone wants to feel cared for, and food is a great way to show it. The loyalty you’ll get back is more than worth it.”

Meet the FSD: Nathan DeCaro

Pro Athlete chef

Q: What makes Pro Athlete’s foodservice a success, especially with a staff of one?
A: It’s the overall commitment to providing the employees with the most nutritional food to keep them going. The company does a lot for us, so I really push myself to make the foodservice experience great for everyone. Plus, it’s a small company, so I feel like I know everyone there so well. It can get busy, but for me, success is all about keeping positive: working hard with a smile.

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
A: I’m interested to see what we can do with a hydroponic garden we just set up to grow produce for us. We got started late in the season, but I was able to use a bunch of herbs and tomatoes and lettuce. I’m excited to see how we can expand next season.

At a Glance: Pro Athlete Inc.
Kansas City, Mo.

  • Number of employees: 55
  • Number of full-time foodservice staffers: 1
  • All food is free for employees, including breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks
  • Starting to brew Pro Athlete-branded beer at 643 bar in 2018
  • Kicking off Fancy Fridays happy hour, including a demo of mixed drinks with hors d’oeuvres

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