As an employee wellness manager for a large company, I was given responsibility for dining services — cafeterias, catering, and vending machines — with the express goal of accelerating our commitment to providing healthier options.
Easier said than done.
A slew of challenges ensued, but most perplexing were those instances in which food service operations directly conflicted with wellness goals.
Converting Brown Baggers
We were hosting finalist meetings for food service vendors, and it came to light that our “participation rate”— the percentage of employees who regularly use our cafés for breakfast or lunch — wasn’t up to par. The standard in our region is about 35%, and we were well below that.
We attributed our low participation to our homebody culture and demographics that include a lot of likely “brown baggers” — employees who bring their lunch from home. Our facilities don’t have competition from nearby eateries that could’ve been drawing business away.
The vendor’s sales guy told us, “We can convert a lot of those brown baggers to café customers, so that they’re buying their lunch instead of bringing it.”
There was a long silence as our wellness-focused team conjured images of employees leaving their brown bags — with their simple sandwiches in zip-lock baggies, or leftover lasagna in Tupperware — sitting on their kitchen counter as they headed out to work in the morning with a pocketful of cash to spend at our café.
I looked at my boss and asked, “Do we want to convert brown baggers to café customers?”
The Other Side of “Nudging”
Our company needs to generate revenue in our cafés in order to keep them operating affordably for employees. On the other hand, research tells us that food prepared at home is likely to be more aligned with healthy eating compared to eating out (notwithstanding our efforts to offer plenty of healthy menu options). Eating home-cooked food is better for financial wellness, too.
We’ve faced other dilemmas: Several years ago, before it was fashionable, we started diverging the prices of “healthy” foods from the prices of foods considered unhealthy. The idea was to “nudge” customers to buy the more favorably priced healthier food. Each year, we raise prices, on average, according to the Consumer Price Index for Food (about 3% or 4% in recent years). We’d achieve the average increase by raising prices more for the so-called unhealthy food and less (or not at all) for the healthy food.
We were victims of our own success. Sales shifted from soda to bottled water, from fried food to salads, and from beef burgers to turkey burgers (this harkens back to a simpler time when experts agreed that lean meat was healthier than red meat).
The problem was that our margins decreased. We were making less “profit” because we’d nudged people to buy the least profitable food menu items. Don’t get me wrong, we hold true to the belief that we are not in the business of making money from employee cafeterias. But we all have budgets to meet.
Advocating for the Opposite
One more example: We have trays in most of our cafeterias, but for some reason they’re rarely used. A consultant observed this, noting that it was unusual. More importantly, he advised us that we could increase our “check average” (the amount of revenue earned on each purchase of a meal) by encouraging the use of trays.
Customers are limited by what they can hold in their hands, and using trays would allow them to pile on the food well beyond what their hunger level actually demanded.
Did we want to encourage trays, so that employees would buy more food than they wanted or needed? In most companies, the wellness manager would advocate for the exact opposite: Making trays less convenient in order to “make the healthiest choice the easiest choice.”
(The trayless strategy, you’ll be interested to note, has been refuted by Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, led by Brian Wansink.)
I’m proud to report that we’ve consistently opted for whatever we determined to most effectively serve the best interests of employees. Sometimes it served their nutritional wellbeing and sometimes their financial wellbeing. And sometimes it served their career wellbeing by assuring sustainability of good food at work. Sometimes it was all of the above.
Organizations are complex. It’s easy for consultants, vendors, and academics to sit in their home offices hollering at you about what you should do. But real jobs have real people, with real goals, real pressures, real personalities, real challenges, and real conflicts.
Seeing the big picture, and recognizing that it can be viewed from different angles, sometimes is the first step to success.