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Eating on the Job 

At some Vermont shops, the workers are really in to lunch

Lunchtime is an important ingredient in Kiki Pritchard's work, even though her job has nothing to do with food. As administrator of the University of Vermont's philosophy department, she sits at a desk in the former living room of the old house the department calls home - and homey it is. Every day "at 12 on the dot," Pritchard says, the faculty settles into comfy chairs around her desk. "Lunch is a huge part of this department's congeniality." It's a ritual not to be rushed. The meal "lasts generally an hour and a half," she adds.

This picture contrasts with one portrayed recently in The New York Times. According to that article, the leisurely work lunch is dead meat - done in by a trend towards dubious nutrients quickly swallowed in the solitude of one's workstation. It's a lose-lose situation, the story suggests: Not only are harried employees short-changing their midday meals, they also risk annoying coworkers with noisy crunching, spreading germs, and arousing the wrath of the very supervisors whose favor they're hoping to curry. Some bosses apparently consider eating on the job "unprofessional." Others complain that food makes the workplace seem too much "like family."

Maybe meals do bite in Big Apple offices. And perhaps the epicurean attitude among UVM's philosophers is anomalous. But how do other working Vermonters do lunch?

The Burlington ad agency Kelliher Samets Volk is big on gratis grazing: bagels every Monday and Wednesday, fresh fruit on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and unlimited beverages, including soft drinks and juices, all the time. The food-friendly vibe carries through to the firm's largest meeting room, which replicates a diner.

KSV also recently began subsidizing soups, sandwiches and salads, according to partner Tim Volk. Twice a week, office manager Aline LeClaire emails around a menu from a neighborhood deli. Staffers whose orders are in by 10 get their meals delivered at noon. The company picks up 25 percent of the bill, and deducts the balance from the employee's next paycheck.

"The thinking," Volk explains, "is that if you keep people here and feed them well, they'll be more productive."

That view seems to be shared by the accountants at Gallagher, Flynn - at least during tax season, when the Burlington office operates six days a week. On Fridays and Saturdays between January and April, the firm provides breakfast, says CPA Richard Wolfish. Lunch gets brought in on Saturdays, or when the weather's really bad. "We're not good on variety, though," Wolfish adds. "It's usually pizza."

That sounds healthy compared to Williston's Wal-Mart, where national corporate rules allow employees a 10 percent discount on snack foods, but non-snacks cost full price. Workers can chill in a lounge area with snack and soda machines and a microwave to heat up food they buy at the store.

Keeping peace in the kitchen is another issue. At a certain, er, weekly alternative newspaper in Burlington, for example, some items have been known to disappear from the refrigerator inexplicably, while others linger way too long. Doing the dishes has also been a bone of contention. Another problem: people stinking up the office by nuking offensive dishes.

The newspaper staffers could take a cue from the folks who share their building on South Champlain Street. With 110 people on the payroll, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation doesn't leave office politics to chance. The nonprofit has three kitchens, says office manager Danielle McMahon, who's in charge of cleaning out the refrigerator. She runs a tight ship. Each container must be labeled with a name and a date, "or I'll throw it out," McMahon warns. Red stickers indicate items intended for sharing. Dishes are done in dishwashers, which are "hopefully" more energy-efficient, she adds. The nonprofit has even taken the smell factor into account. "It's written in our policies that you're not allowed to microwave fish," she reports. "It's right in the staff handbook."

The kitchens at VEIC aren't just for lunch. "Most people eat breakfast here as well," says McMahon. "There's a lot of oatmeal happening." Coworkers tend to congregate for food prep, and then carry their food back to their desks.

Other offices put a premium on the communal experience of eating. The 30 employees at Venture Engineering in Burlington hold a themed potluck lunch once a month. And every day they break bread together in the company conference room. "Some days it's pretty crammed in there," says Jon Olin, a structural engineer. These shared meals are definitely not working lunches, he adds. "If someone brings up work they get yelled at pretty quickly. It's a time to take a break and chill out for a bit." The actual eating is over in just 15 to 20 minutes, he says. But lately it's been followed by another 20 minutes of "rousing" Foosball.

Olin, who has also worked in San Diego and New York City and at another Burlington engineering firm, considers his company's communal approach to eating "kind of a rare thing."

Tell that to the philosophers. They take lunch to the level of sacred rite. Pritchard, the department administrator, ticks off the different faculty members' rituals: the guy who stands in the doorway eating sardines from a can while he's talking; the one who insists on carrying in his own little table from his office; the senior member who sits in the "daddy" chair and finishes each meal with a mint. When one of the professors publishes a paper, he or she treats everyone to pizza.

The main focus, though, is on the talk. "Everybody is so smart, so every day you'll run into a good conversation. There's a lot of making fun of the world," Pritchard says. "I've never seen anything like it in my life. Here I can talk about anything."

Sometimes a question will arise that will require a Google search, Pritchard adds. She's been asked to look up "the names of various phobias, or where did Gouda cheese really come from, stuff like that," she says. One perennial topic is the "Mark Trail" comic strip - which gets such regular scrutiny that postal worker Lisa Gould adds her two cents when she drops off the mail. As for shoptalk, "If it gets really deep into the philosophy," Pritchard admits, "I'll turn back to my computer."

The best overall mealtime experience probably happens at Eating Well magazine in Charlotte. With four stations in the test kitchen, cooks might be concocting four or five different dishes in a day, while other foods are being prepared for photographs. Staff are regularly asked to critique the test food, and at 12:30, says food editor Jessie Price, the leftovers are put out on a buffet "and everyone's invited to share it and taste it for lunch."

It's a social event, Price notes. "The editor is the den mom. She goes around to all the offices and calls us down to the conference room. The rule is, no talking about work."

With the publication's May-June and July-August issues now in progress, a recent spread had a summer feel: seafood paella, Lebanese stuffed zucchinis with lamb and rice, eggplant baba ganoush, grilled eggplant and manchego salad with a smoked paprika dressing, grilled peach halves with a Sangria sauce and grilled angel food cake, Lebanese pudding cake with bulgur and apricots, Lebanese potato salad, chocolate cake and grilled tomato gazpacho. On Fridays, staffers take home leftovers.

But all this bounty does have a drawback, notes senior editor Nicci Micco. Although Eating Well promotes healthful food, as a relative newcomer she's found it hard to adjust to having so many delicious dishes around. "I've gained six pounds since I started working here four months ago," she confesses. Guess there's such a thing as eating too well.

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Ruth Horowitz


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