How a tech company is winning the war for talent through food


Oracle’s new Austin campus is a little slice of Silicon Valley in Texas.

The 560,000-square-foot lakefront complex is designed for both work and life. There’s a 295-unit luxury apartment building, a massive fitness center, multiple game rooms and murals by local artists. And no work-life space would be complete without excellent food.

“Competition in the tech space is intense, so food needs to be a bragworthy perk,” says Shon O’Donnell, general manager of Oracle Austin’s foodservice through LifeWorks, a business and industry contract feeder and division of Aramark. “Our foremost goal is to help our clients win the war for talent through amenities.”

That’s why food at Oracle Austin is “an event,” as O’Donnell puts it. Read on to see how. 

Photos courtesy of Oracle

Capturing an un-captive audience


The menu at each of the Oracle cafe’s eight branded stations changes completely every day, filled with dishes made with ingredients sourced from Austin farms. The on-campus Starbucks features items made specifically for Oracle, such as the “extra strong and highly integrated” Oracle Clouduccino. And the cafe hosts multiple pop-ups and chef’s table demonstrations every week, in addition to events every few weeks that feature a DJ, photo booths and other fun.

“With all of the great restaurants in Austin—and considering that some people live 100 feet away and can go home for lunch—the captive audience here really isn’t that captive,” says Executive Chef Drew Ison. “If you don’t make food options fresh and the service exciting, you’re not going to capture them.”

That means the team has to focus on the desires of their specific audience. Oracle built the Austin campus—which officially opened in late March 2018—as a hub for cloud-sales innovation, and it’s staffed largely by recent grads.

“It’s a heavily millennial population, and they want their food to be one of two things: crazy and over-the-top, or super fresh and healthy,” Ison says.

Options like hot dogs and burgers are piled high with unique toppings. Recent offerings include the Hot Diggity Dog with bacon jam, melty cheese and crispy onions, or the Lazy Boy burger with housemade beer cheese and pickled jalapenos. Healthier items have included a Mediterranean vegetable wrap with locally sourced feta, or specials such as soft-shell crab with Thai yellow curry.

Involving dining staff


Daily menu revamps aren’t easy from an operational perspective, so Ison spends a lot of time with staffers to provide highly specific guidance. He meets with them one-on-one every afternoon, reviewing the next day’s menu, describing instructions about prep and fielding questions.

“This gets everyone on the same page long before the craziness of the next morning hits,” Ison says. “It takes time, but I’d recommend it to anyone. It ensures focus and keeps everyone in close touch.”

That close bond among foodservice team members extends to the diners, too, Ison says: “I know people come back not only because they love the food, but because Mary at the grill knows their tastes and asks how their weekend was. You’re not getting that when you grab a burrito at Chipotle.”

Surprisingly, it’s technology in the form of touchscreen self-checkout kiosks—Oracle’s own MICROS system—that has helped foster a personal touch.

“Honestly, when we first talked about people ordering and paying via kiosks, I was concerned it would reduce that personal service,” O’Donnell says. “But that interaction remains huge. Not only has it not taken a back seat, but our staff is actually freed up to interact more because we don’t have to place people at cash registers.”

Looking ahead


O’Donnell credits his staff’s unfailing commitment to deliver excitement and quality on a daily basis, noting he was able to hire everyone on his staff himself, a rare opportunity, he says.

With only a few months of operation so far, the Oracle Austin foodservice team looks forward to collecting more financial data over time and “fine-tuning” some processes, O’Donnell says, including expanding the catering program. But the operation’s launch has been the smoothest of four openings O’Donnell has overseen, and he’s pleased to see customers’ excitement.

“When I look around the cafeteria and see Oracle (staff’s) family members checking things out, it’s such a nice thing,” O’Donnell says. “Our guests want to show off where they’re working and living, and when we rank as an important part of that, it means we’re doing pretty well.”

Meet the GM: Shon O'Donnell

Shon O'Donnell

General Manager of Oracle Austin’s foodservice

Q: What are your goals for the coming year?

A: While we’ve had great success in our first months, once we have a little more time under our belts, I’d like to start fine-tuning. Tracking the financial metrics will be huge, so we can understand trends and tweak where applicable.

Q: What’s the key to your team’s success?

A: It goes back to old-fashioned hard work, and on a consistent daily basis. We all put in the hours and the passion to make it happen—and then you get up and do it again the next day. Everyone here has bought into the mission, and because they care, they take ownership of it. The person at the top has to set the expectations, and our staff knows we expect that everything is right every day: the signage, the prep, the menu. You don’t get to take days off from that passion: When daily excellence is your goal, you’re in it every single day. Luckily, we’re surrounded by staff who not only support, but embody that idea.

At a glance: Oracle

Square footage of cafe and dining room: 25,000

Seats in the cafe, including indoor, outdoor and mezzanine space: 550

Touchscreens at the self-ordering kiosk area: 10

Food stations: 8

Number of guests served at the cafe and Starbucks and via catering on opening day: 2,000+

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