Back of the House with Epic
By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 1
Epic Systems, the healthcare software company in Verona, is undeniably changing the Madison landscape, as its 9,000-and-counting employees buy and sell real estate, shop and play and influence the local economy. One significant part of the “Epic Effect” is how the company is changing food culture in Madison.
Like many Silicon-Valley-area technology companies, Epic has a sprawling campus designed to make employees feel at home, inspire them with some of the company’s personality, and encourage them to stay at work rather than leaving to eat lunch or have a meeting. There’s a general store for last-minute personal needs, a treehouse for retreats, and fun artlike sculptures of the Tin Man and Humpty Dumpty.
Feeding that many people every day could easily have resulted in standardized, mass-produced cafeteria food. Epic, however, chose to treat food and feeding their employees—who are known as team members or team leaders—as a serious part of their business. The numbers make Epic one of the largest regional players in the food business. Each day, about 1,300 breakfasts and 6,500 lunches are served, according to Eric Rupert, Epic’s executive chef. “We want to nourish them, make them happy and help them be productive,” says Rupert. The kitchen officially shuts down at 2:00 p.m. and does not serve dinner, although a limited night menu is available for those working late, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Almost all meals are made from scratch. Bread is baked at the campus bakery. The culinary team makes their own stocks, scones, and, available three days a week, gelato. Menus are planned two to three months in advance, and while they try to never repeat recipes, biggest hits include variations on spaghetti and meatballs, pad thai, macaroni and cheese, pork chops, and meat loaf with mashed potatoes. Comfort foods win the popularity contest, but the team also strives to make unusual dishes from different countries and cultures that might introduce someone to a new spice or flavor. The flagship restaurant, Cassiopeia, has enormous floor to ceiling windows looking over farmland and rolling Wisconsin hills, and long, brightly colored picnic tables to encourage communal eating.
Epic’s culinary team numbers 180 people, including chefs, baristas, recipe writers, cashiers, tablewashers, and caterers, who rotate among the five large commercial kitchens. A culinary career at Epic is wildly different from most restaurants—the hours, which run on the earlier side (not late-night), are regular and the benefits are set. For Rupert, who has been in his role at Epic for more than six years, these were part of the attraction of working at Epic. He was previously at L’Etoile and Sub-Zero & Wolf. While Rupert runs the back of the house, his colleague Moe Chose runs the front of the house operations.
Like many chefs, Rupert strives to source his food seasonally and locally when available. But that’s sometimes not possible given the need to buy on a larger scale than most individual local farms can provide while also remaining economical. Salmon, for example, is bought straight from Alaskan fishermen. There is an on-campus garden, which is used mostly for herbs because growing quantities of vegetables at the level they need—often 200 to 300 orders of something—would be a huge undertaking.
Cooking healthy foods is a priority, but every offering also includes treats like cookies and cakes. Each item is marked with one of three colors: green for healthiest, yellow for good for you in moderation and red for special occasion. Dishes also, unusually, feature full recipes with nutritional information for employees to read before making their choice.
Epic charges employees what they say is cost of the food, which ranges from $3.00 to $5.50 for an entrée meal. Chose says the employees value the food more when they pay something for it, and are more likely to save anything they can’t finish rather than throwing it in the trash. There are a couple exceptions: leftover breakfast items are put out for free at lunch, and the late-night dinners are given away as a perk for those putting in longer hours. Milk, juice and water are free, but sodas are not. Rupert has learned that the employees count on food being available. During a rare time when the kitchen shut down, “the whole town of Verona ran out of food,” he says.
One of the trickiest things about running this size of a food operation is figuring out how much to make. Part of the Epic culture is frugality, he says, which they call “picking up nickels.” Rupert aims to have enough but not too much food. Still, there are leftovers, which are predominantly sent to Community Action Coalition. That donation is significant to the Madison area; in a recent month, Epic sent 3,000 meals to the group.
One of the team’s busiest days is also their favorite. In a nod to food, geekiness and a culture of continual learning, every March 14—“Pi Day”—in honor of the mathematical number 3.14, the culinary team serves a slice of homemade pie to every single one of the thousands of employees on campus.