An Epic Food Story
Chef Eric Rupert oversees the ultimate workplace dining experience at Epic Systems
BY NANCY CHRISTY & NEIL HEINEN
There aren’t many chefs who aspire to run the company cafeteria.
But then Epic Systems Corp. is not your typical company and Cassiopeia is not your typical cafeteria. And, as you might expect, Eric Rupert is not your typical chef.
Rupert heads the food service operation at Epic, the health care industry software giant in Verona whose influence on this region is rivaled only by that of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also serves as executive chef, although Rupert and nearly everyone else we talked to are quick to remind you that “Epic is not big on titles.” The company is not big on self-promotion or publicity, either.
What Epic is big on is growth, and it is adding clients, employees and square footage at its Verona campus at a staggering rate. There are roughly six thousand employees spread among an ever-increasing number of buildings on the 811-acre campus. During a recent span Epic added between three hundred and five hundred employees in one month. Suffice it to say, it’s a big company. And founder and CEO Judy Faulkner has always placed a high priority on making sure her employees, as well as visiting trainees and customers from around the world, are fed well.
That’s a major reason Rupert’s distinguished culinary career has led him to this job. “Judy loves food,” says Rupert. “She’s the only non-chef professional I can talk to, chef to chef.”
Rupert, some readers may recall, cut his teeth at the Ovens of Brittany starting in 1980 as a baker and pastry chef. “And so baking is near and dear to my heart,” he says, “and the fact that we have a bakery here at Epic is something I’m just fiercely proud of and feel really so blessed to have.”
After moving to the Madison Club in the mid-1980s, Rupert says he saw the movie “Babette’s Feast,” which he calls “an epiphany” and cites as his inspiration to become a chef.
“Within about a year and a half Odessa [Piper] asked me, much to my amazement, if I was interested in working at L’Etoile. I was hired on as a line cook and a few months after that, she asked me if I wanted to be her co-chef.” Rupert did, for a while. But soon he left to start Kafe Kohoutek, and then Atlas Pasta (home to the best chicken pot pie ever). The popular Opera House was next.
After a return stint at L’Etoile, Rupert entered the corporate world as executive chef for Sub-Zero, a nod to his young family’s changing demands. He was proud of his work there, and says he enjoyed it. But the recession was especially tough on companies like Sub-Zero, which led Rupert to Epic. It was obviously quite a journey. “I would be the classic example of minimizing one’s weaknesses,” says Rupert, “and maximizing one’s strengths.”
Rupert’s strengths include leading a team of passionate and committed chefs, bakers and other food service professionals in a unique environment where food is as important as celestial-themed workspaces, whimsical art and office attire of shorts and flip-flops.
“[The food] is part of our culture. It is something that clearly the staff is proud of; they feel they know that it’s a benefit, they feel fortunate or lucky to have it, they’re generous with their praise, and they’re very generous and concise with their criticisms too,” says Rupert. “When we’re recruiting, and that’s hundreds and hundreds of people, we make a point of seeing that every one of them comes down for a meal.”
That meal is served at Cassiopeia, the company cafeteria, the name of which, continuing an interplanetary campus theme, is a constellation in the northern sky. Anything but your earthly corporate dining experience, Cassiopeia feels more welcoming and less chaotic. The stations are well organized and attractive. There’s a salad bar, a build-your-own-sandwich bar with hearth-baked breads right out of the house bakery, and a station off to the side that serves the “comfort food of the day” (think really good tuna-noodle casserole). The grill area and entrée station serve up the bulk of the food, and the dessert area offers fresh-baked pies and layer cakes from Rupert’s pride and joy, the bakery.
Some employees take their meals back to their desks, while others gather in twos or threes at the dozens of comfortable places in the hallways and open spaces of the building. But most folks sit at long, colorful picnic tables in Cassiopeia and enjoy a clean view of the herb gardens outside. It’s not fancy, but it’s well thought out and well done, full of natural light. Meals are served on restaurant-style plates, and to-go containers are made from biodegradable sugarcane.
The entire food operation is staffed by seventy-eight people, and unlike at other well-known tech-based food operations like Google and Microsoft, all seventy-eight are Epic employees. Rupert admits it’s speculation on his part but says he believes the reason Epic employs its own culinary staff is pretty simple.
“I know when I was interviewing I heard it, I read it—there really is very little hierarchy here. You’re either a team member or a team leader, and the team leaders do everything that team members do, and then they also manage people. It’s not considered a promotion to go from a team member to a team leader; it’s just additional responsibilities. And people go back and forth; they go from being a team leader for a while to going back to being a team member. So, I think it’s just fairness. It makes sense. At least it makes sense to me.”
Food at Epic is available around the clock, although the vast majority of business is lunch. There’s a grab-and-go packaged food section of Turner’s General Store, the in-house convenience store, one of several obvious concessions to the hundreds and hundreds of daily departures for site-oriented training, and everything is purchased on an honor system by simply swiping your employee card. Leftovers from lunch go into the late-night cooler, and employees in the office after 7 p.m. can simply help themselves for free. What doesn’t go into the cooler is donated to the Community Action Coalition for distribution to local food pantries.
Coffee carts open at 7:30 a.m., and there’s a café that specializes in baked goods, such as homemade cinnamon rolls, brioche, palmiers and Florentines, plus Anodyne coffee from Milwaukee. It seems like most coffee shops get one thing right, either the coffee or the bakery. They’re both done right here.
Mikey’s is the name of the on-site deli, where everything from the wall murals to the pastrami evokes New York’s Grand Central Station. It’s also an example of how Epic works with its food team: If someone has a good idea, it can happen. “Mikey” said, “Let’s do a deli.” Employees and visitors from the East Coast rave, and there’s no higher praise than that. Nutrition is encouraged, if not at the expense of employee tastes. There’s a clever, color-coded calorie indicator system, with a limit of one red-tagged, six- to eight-hundred-calorie option prepared each day. Soda costs $1.50. Milk and juice are free.
But if there are to be the natural comparisons to the popular culture image of the twenty-four-hour-a-day, help-yourself-to-anything-you-can-think-of food services at other big tech companies, they end with two specific aspects of the Epic system. First, the food is not free. Employees pay the cost of ingredients and, if it’s prepared to go, the cost of packaging. That’s it. A beautiful, fresh salmon entrée at lunch will set you back $4.75. “Because we charge people a little bit for it, they value it a lot more,” says Rupert.
The other difference, at least compared to Microsoft, where the food is provided by selected vendors, is the food at Epic is all made from scratch with a menu that changes every day. It is a fundamental precept of the company that Rupert finds rewarding, and challenging.
“I’ve never worked harder in my life,” he says, “but I’ve never derived more satisfaction from my work. And I think a lot of people would say the same.”
It is impossible to miss Rupert’s pride in his team. “We don’t do fancy food, we just do really great ingredients and we treat them with a lot of respect.”
Food service employees rotate through the various stations in the kitchen, spending time making salads, for example, then at the entrée station, then making soups. Learning and improving are part of the culture. As we walked around we saw several people training in certain elements in which they had requested to learn. It’s the team leader’s job to encourage good ideas and ensure they come to fruition. So if employees have recipes they really want to make happen, they get the opportunity.
“And that’s one of the ways we grow our staff,” says Rupert.
Of course they also entertain ideas from their customers. One of the by-products of having food play such an important role in the work culture is that it stimulates conversations on the topic. Rupert says employees are always talking about recipes they’ve found or dishes they’ve tried or seen on TV, and the culinary team is often willing to try them. And then there’s the cultural diversity that comes with the territory. Rupert says Epic employs staff from fifty-five different countries. “We have learned a great deal about curries, regardless of where they’re from, because our population here knows a thing or two about curries. And because feedback is a big part of Epic, they know that we receive it and that we try to make it better.”
The scope of the work is hard for the layperson to fathom. Epic purchases food by the pallet—between eight and sixteen aday. Here’s a better way to think about it: An average recipe for Asian beef and broccoli stir fry calls for one hundred sixty pounds of beef tip, four hundred pounds of broccoli, ten pounds of ginger and seven gallons of soy sauce. “People can relate to that,” says Rupert. Ingredients are sourced locally “as much as feasible,” he says. And they’re always trying to do more.
“We really truly nourish people here, and it’s actually one of our stated goals to do it with integrity and respect,” he says. “My goal is to not just provide excellent service to the team leads, but to model excellent service all the time and to always be trying to figure out what is excellent service in any given situation. If I provide that to the team, they in turn model it and provide it to our co-workers. And I truly believe it becomes part of the culture if we model it to our customers.”
Reflecting on a career that is one of the more storied in Madison culinary circles, we return to the concept of pride in one’s work, again in Rupert’s own words.
“If you’re really fortunate enough to find what it is you’re supposed to do, if you have a gift for something, life seemingly offers up lots of opportunities to do it. And that’s really what’s happened. I work harder now than I’ve ever worked before and I derive more satisfaction. I would say I’m later on in my career, but I’m learning more now than I’ve ever learned. I have to solve problems that I never thought five years ago I would have the ability to solve. And a lot of that is actually teaching managers to be better managers as I learn myself how to be a better manager. So the cooking part is just icing on the cake. Really, I get down there and I’m happy cutting up watermelon. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. As long as I’m in the kitchen it’s a good day, it’s a really good day.”
Nancy Christy and Neil Heinen write Madison Magazine’s monthly food and culture column, “Genuine Articles.”
Employees Dish: Find out what what Epic employees have to say about Rupert and the culinary team.