Lunch is for wimps, right? Who are you kidding? Lunch has come right back into fashion as companies realise that a well-fed workforce is a happy workforce.
Now cost consultant EC Harris has even banned desk-munching, and other companies are setting up their own canteens to encourage employees to take a break. But is the tuck any good? Eleanor Harding reviews five of construction’s best staff canteens and doles out the prestigious Building Top Banana Awards
Best for posh ingredients
A public convenience
When Allies and Morrison moved to its studio in Southwark, south London, it got round the fact that there weren’t many places to eat nearby by opening its own public cafe on the ground floor. Designed by an in-house team, the cafe has simple wooden tables, benches and an open kitchen. Paul Appleton, a partner in the practice, says: “Rather than it winning architecture awards, we were more interested in it winning food awards” – which it did, with Time Out magazine’s Best Cheap Eats Award last year.
Its menu ranges from burgers to grilled sea bass, and it prefers to use small and trusted suppliers, sharing some contacts with nearby Borough food market. Now more of its customers come from outside the company than inside. “It’s better to set it up as a proper restaurant or cafe because you constantly challenge those standards and you are judged by people who have no connection with you,” says Appleton.
Treat yourself to: Chargrilled burger with mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes (£7.70 but staff get a 35% discount)
Best themed meal
Where meatball meets football
The Anglo-Swedish contractor’s eaterie served up themed meals of English fish ‘n’ chips and Swedish meatballs when the two countries met during the World Cup last June.
Chris Smith, a graphic designer at the company, says it’s the best office cafe he has ever eaten in. “I use it as a means of chatting with people I don’t get to see,” he says.
Treat yourself to: Full roast dinner including meat, stuffing and three veg (£2.65)
Best for drinks
Served by the boss
The cost consultant has built a plush cafe as well as stylish eating areas on each floor as part of its move from Tavistock Square to a new office in King’s Cross last December. The cafe is a modern glassy affair offering a wide range of food. But even better than that, a free bar operates three times a week from 5pm to 8pm, where chief executive Philip Youell and other senior staff serve their employees as a gesture of thanks.
Treat yourself to: Pan-fried rump steak baguette with caramelised onion and fresh horseradish (£2.85)
Best designer food
Food as art
Martin Cook, design director at BDP, gives rave reviews to the cafe at the architect’s office in Clerkenwell, north London. “It’s terrific,” he says. “It’s like being in a gallery.” He uses the cafe for design meetings as well as meals, but is glad BDP has not imposed a compulsory lunch hour as EC Harris has. “I don’t always take a lunch break, as a lot of us are on the move,” he says.
Treat yourself to: Beef curry served with braised rice, naan bread and mango chutney (£3.30)
Best international food
Around the world on a plate
Studio Egret West knows how to make the most of having a cosmopolitan staff. “When we started at our new studio, we said ‘never another sandwich again’,” says partner David West. “And because we have such an international studio, we have the most extraordinary culinary delights.”
Meals are freshly cooked by a different employee every day. The staff have been treated to dumplings with sheep’s cheese – the Slovak national dish – as well as fresh Italian pasta and sushi. “We take our work very seriously,” he says, “but it’s really important to eat during the day and it fuels conversation. It builds a very strong team.”
Treat yourself to: Dumplings with sheep cheese and other home-cooked treats (£3.50)
Staff need a proper break
“I always take a lunch break and I normally wander down to our new canteen. Or sometimes I might pop out, pick up something and eat it in the eating areas we’ve got on each floor. I’ll join a member of staff or another partner for a chat.
“Our policy is to not eat at desks, because the whole ethos of our building is to get people to work together. If you can get people to come together socially in their everyday work and at lunchtime, they tend to share their knowledge. You also become more productive if you take a break, rather than just ploughing on.
“All of this is working really well. The partners have now got to know more people because of the things that we’ve done in the office. We’ve created a design for people to go and meet with others.”
Philip Youell, chief executive, EC Harris
Let people eat where they like
“Quite often, my lunchtime doesn’t exist. I’m at meetings, at my desk or having business lunches. I don’t mind working though lunch because I enjoy what I’m doing. When I’m in the office, I like to eat sandwiches and fruit. Wherever possible, we try to encourage our people to take a proper lunch hour. But the advantage of being able to eat where you like is flexibility.
“At Davis Langdon, people who want to work through their lunch in order to leave early can do so. If they want to have a sandwich and continue what they’re doing because they want to get home to see their kids or get to a sports event or to the theatre, they can.
“For some people their desk and their workplace is absolutely their sacred space. It takes all sorts of environments to create one that encourages the enthusiasm and creativity we’re looking for. That’s why the regimented approach of “you will do this, you won’t do that” is not what we’re about. We want to avoid rules and regulations that make us seem more corporate than we already are.”
Rob Smith, senior partner, Davis Langdon