Meet Silicon Valley's Chief of Food
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because tech companies’ cafeterias may rival Michelin-starred restaurants one day.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
It’s feeding time at LinkedIn. Inside the company’s ritzy San Francisco digs, a flock of hoodie-clad techies streams into the cafeteria, shoulders slumped, glasses askew, pecking at their smartphones. Redolent flank steak and fresh cilantro await, along with Hong Kong barbecue pork, Oaxaca cheesesteak pizza and Japanese sweet potato drenched in nutty brown butter. “You won’t find Coke machines here,” says Fedele Bauccio, as he threads his way through the hubbub, admiring the spectacle. This feeding frenzy is his chef-d’œuvre, after all.
Bauccio is the masterful CEO behind Bon Appétit, the catering company serving the tech industry’s biggest behemoths, those that line Highway 101 from Silicon Valley up to the vertiginous streets of San Francisco. His clients include Google, Oracle, Adobe, Uber, Yahoo, Twitter and, of course, LinkedIn. In all, that’s about 200 million meals in 650-plus cafes every year. As of 2015, Bon Appétit says it’s raked in north of $1 billion. Bauccio, 73, has been beating the drum for local, healthy, organic food for 30 years now — peddling the virtues of farm-to-fork fare well ahead of Eric Schlosser’s release of Fast Food Nation in 2001 and long before the Slow Food Movement accelerated in the 1990s. In 2012, he won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Lifetime Achievement award for being one of the first to bring “sustainably sourced, cutting-edge foods” to big businesses.
Today at LinkedIn, Bauccio prides himself not only on the ethics behind his food but also on teaching techies to appreciate food as nourishment, rather than mere sustenance or Soylent. “Fedele is always on the front line of addressing food issues,” says Josh Balk, the director of food policy for the Humane Society. “If there’s ever a battle for change, you’d want him leading the charge.”
The global ambitions for a food renaissance aren’t limited to plush dining halls and idyllic dreams on hillsides.
And yet Bauccio the disrupter, who shares a Palo Alto building with the billion-dollar software firm Palantir, still runs his company like an old Italian family business. His brother serves as president, and many of his employees have stayed for a decade-plus. “We think breaking bread together creates innovation within companies,” Bauccio tells me in between bites of Indian-inspired chicken korma and green papaya bhaji. Behind us, cloves of garlic and red pepper dangle from the kitchen ceiling like wind chimes. “We want to set an example for what people should put into their bodies, what real food is.”
But, OK. Disruption is a familiar tale in the Bay Area: When a powerful company chases a lofty vision to change the world, its goals are global in scope. Yet when the point of the big dream, in Bon Appétit’s case, is to live as locally as possible, a new set of questions arises.
In small-town Petaluma, some 100 miles away from the click-clacking Macs of Silicon Valley, a herd of 50 cows basks in the sunshine, grazing on emerald-green hills. Each cow gets a spacious two acres to lazily lounge on — larger than the average studio apartment in San Francisco. Bon Appétit sources thousands of pounds in grass-fed ground beef here, at the century-old Tresch Family Farm. Wandering the grounds, Bauccio relishes the solitude. The pace of life is slower here, recalling his childhood roots in Santa Barbara, where he picked fennel, anise and collard greens alongside his grandmother. Bauccio hails from a big Italian family; he cooked fresh pasta and chopped chard with his mom. His dad raised chickens in the backyard. All of this is far from the massive factory farms Bauccio toured between 2006 and 2008 while serving on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
By the time Bauccio founded Bon Appétit at 43, he had spent more than two decades moving up the ladder from dishwasher to senior manager inside restaurant chains and food service companies. Bon Appétit was initially headquartered in a dingy San Francisco warehouse, with a rickety card table for a desk and a jailhouse for a neighbor, Bauccio says.
Today, things look different, and he has the luxury, as we walk, to philosophize. His long, sloping nose wrinkles in disgust as he launches into a diatribe against the “horrid” stench of manure, pooling around suitcase-size pens that nearly suffocate the fowl. And don’t forget the antibiotics: Farms burn through more than 9 million kilograms of medically important antibiotics, up from 7 million kilograms in 2009, according to the Food and Drug Administration. For Bauccio, seeing America’s agricultural heartland in such a state of disrepair inspired him to redouble Bon Appétit’s local-food-purchasing program — which wasn’t yet sexy, he says. He started using only rBGH-free milk (no genetically engineered hormones) from artisan ranchers, buying cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free meats from local farmers and procuring sustainable seafood. Now, at least 20 percent of Bauccio’s ingredients travel under 150 miles to reach all of Bon Appétit’s kitchens.
Some argue that contract food companies like Bon Appétit could bring people further away from their food, cosseting the Valley’s young startuppers into a kind of man-child dependency and breeding a generation who rarely cooks their own meals or lifts a spatula. If free, gourmet-level food is handed to the technorati on a silver platter — if they’re spoon-fed, so to speak — “people become further divorced from the value of the food” rather than discovering its roots, says Michael Dimock, the president of Roots of Change, a food-activist nonprofit based in Oakland. “That’s a real danger.”
Other experts, like Jayson Lusk, a food and agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, say Bauccio’s plug for buying local isn’t realistic. Lusk has authored dozens of books and articles on food policy over the years. Eating local foods comes with certain trade-offs, he argues, including more expensive and less varied food for you, the consumer. Smaller farms are less efficient, unable to benefit from the large-scale operations or equipment that help drive down the costs per unit of food. People in Lusk’s camp argue for specialization over the local craze. Pineapples shouldn’t be grown in North Dakota, period, or anywhere where the climate and geography aren’t suitable for certain crops; North Dakotans won’t eat any better if they are limited by their state’s climate, soil and a bunch of other factors, explains Lusk. “One has to be careful of falling for the hype,” he warns me.
And then there’s another wrinkle — a familiar one in the Bay Area, where gentrification is on everyone’s tongues. Mom-and-pop restaurateurs say companies like Bon Appétit and Palo Alto Foods challenge their businesses and their livelihood by luring away more hungry patrons and whittling the pool of chefs and line cooks for hire in the area. “There’s no more talent anymore. It’s dried up,” says Musa Ibrahim, who owns the 10-year-old Mediterranean Grill, not far from Google’s stomping grounds in Mountain View. “It’s a survival game. You learn how to survive or you get out of here.”
It’s not as though Bauccio is unaware of his critics. He says his business model, investing in socially responsible sources of food, could help transform the larger agricultural industry into “a more ecological model” — one that is “socially just, environmentally savvy and economically feasible for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.”
And here in Northern California, the global ambitions for a food renaissance aren’t limited to plush dining halls and idyllic dreams on hillsides. Bauccio is part of a larger epoch of food disruption, along with products like the eggless mayonnaise by startup Hampton Creek, lab-grown burgers from Impossible Foods, plant-based patties from Beyond Meat and dairy-free milk made from peas through Ripple Foods, says Marcy Coburn, the executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) in Oakland.
Looking at Bauccio as a player in this larger landscape, one can see the argument for changing culture and policy far beyond the Valley: Working alongside the technoriche influences the powerful people who might create the technologies that address seemingly intractable problems, Bauccio says. And with companies like Google spending an eye-popping tens of millions a year to feed its employees, the odds are far better when the food comes from healthy sources, right? “It’s difficult math, but Bon Appétit has led the conversation [on] industrial food at a scale that’s supporting the local food system,” says Coburn. “It’s just as important to prioritize where your food is coming from just as updating the operating system on your iPhone is.”
Back in the underbelly of LinkedIn, when asked about the shortcomings of buying local and spoon-feeding rich kids, Bauccio is suddenly at a loss for words. With bated breath, he clasps his hands and sits back on the cushy LinkedIn couch. There’s a pained look on his wizened face. “It’s a tough one,” he mutters. “It’s a problem.” He doesn’t have a “real answer” to the thorny local-global dilemma, he says. Outside, the familiar San Francisco fog gives way to icy rain. The unwieldy, half-built skyscrapers of San Francisco loom large, with domineering cranes overhead. But inside this comfy tech oasis, refreshing grapefruit-lemon and pomegranate-mint spa water flow freely from spigots. And a few steps away, an in-house barista hands me a warm grass-fed-milk latte, free of charge.