New Travelers HQ cafe offers dazzling food hall experience

Insurance firm Travelers recently opened its completely renovated and expanded employee dining facility at its headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut. The 53,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility offers 10 dining options as well as a couple of 24/7 micro-markets with both hot and cold fresh food options along with snacks and beverages, and seating for over 700 at peak.

A prominent consideration in the reimagining of the cafeteria was providing not only a wide range of food and beverage options but options made with healthy, high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. Hence, among the offerings are a tossed salad and grains bar, a fresh juices/smoothies bar and healthy options at all stations, such as plant-based burgers at the grill. Sustainability issues are prioritized through such practices as the local sourcing of ingredients as well as recycle bins around the facility and a 100% biodegradable/compostable utensil and food container setup that reduces the operation’s carbon footprint.

Positioning for the future

With some employees returning to the office, the café is open but currently operates all stations (except the salad bar) only one day a week, on Thursdays during the lunch period. The rest of the time, the one station opens to serve a hot breakfast while the coffee bar and the micro-markets are open all day (with the latter actually open round the clock).

The approach Travelers took to this new dining facility, which is a massive expansion of its previous cafeteria space and now takes up a whole floor, was to align with current and future business and consumer dining trends, says Ed Howard, vice president of food & beverage for Travelers.

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Employees are free to come down any time of day to the café to grab a beverage or snack and do some work in a relaxed setting.

“Travelers has been in the process of evaluating what the new workspace looks like, and of course within that was the opportunity for me to examine how food and beverages should look and how people from different demographics—from Baby Boomers and Gen X to Millennials and Gen Z—eat today, because there have been a lot of changes in what people want to eat and how they want to eat,” he says. “So in the process of transforming the physical workspace, we got the opportunity to redesign our restaurants and make them more community based.”

He cites food hall concepts such as Eatily and Le District in Manhattan as models, “where you go down into that open food concept almost like you were going into a community market.” Integrated into that food hall model was the opportunity to create collaborative workspaces.

“The old style [of corporate dining] was that you got your lunch, sat in the dining room and then went back to your office, but the style now is that at any point in the day you come down for a coffee or smoothie or a snack, so this new space is designed to be enjoyed all day, with wi-fi, conference rooms around the perimeter and even a large outdoor patio deck, also with wi-fi.”

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The micro-market outlets are open 24/7 and offer hot and cold meal choices, snacks and beverages.

Plenty of choices

The dining service, operated by the FLIK unit of Compass Group, is designed to be interactive, fresh, customized and convenient. Though they are only open one day a week at present, the stations already hold the promise of a high-impact, intensely sensory culinary and social environment. The cafe includes…

• a smoothie bar also offering protein shots, fresh squeezed juices (including a highly visual automated orange peeler juicer unit) and blended drinks;

• a Mighty Brew espresso bar offering baked goods like pastries, muffins and croissants made in-house and which is open every day;

• a salad station that offers made to order tossed salads with customers’ choice of ingredients, toppings and dressings, including lettuce and herbs grown in three adjacent farm shelf hydroponic garden units that customers can see when they order;

• the Melted deli station offering both made-to-order and ready-made hot and cold sandwiches as well as sides and soups;

• Main Dish entrée station with rotisserie unit and double stack smoker for turning out anything from chicken, pork and brisket to Southern fried chicken, plus sides;

• Mad Char grill station, offering its signature smash burger as well as other grill favorites ranging from traditional to relative exotics like Korean fried chicken, plus a variety of sides like fries and onion rings:

• Hearth station, described by Howard as “really the focal point of our restaurant,” centers around a Marra Forni pizza oven—the largest they make, Howard says—that can generate over 900°F and cook pies in about 90 seconds; gas fired with wood burn enhancement and made with bricks brought from Naples, it turns out Neapolitan style pizzas as well as other items that are ideally made in such an oven; to ensure authenticity, the staff traveled to Marra Forni to train on using the oven, and Travelers brought in an international pizza champion chef for two weeks of instruction on how to make the perfect pie;

• Teppan Asian station featuring three commercial woks turning out all made-to-order dishes as well as favorites like salt and pepper shrimp and General Tsao’s chicken;

• a sushi station with made to order rolls and its own rice cookers; “It’s designed for the chef and it’s designed for the customers to interact with the chefs,” Howard notes.

• a double-sided salad bar designed to have culinary staff inside preparing ingredients from in-place cold storage units and replenishing the serving bins as needed without disturbing customers; the station can operate as either traditional self-serve or staff serve as needed and open one or both sides depending on traffic;

• Finally, there is Chef’s Table with “an amazing suite of equipment” according to Howard that includes a tandoori oven, a flat top, a charbroiler, gas burners and a Friolator unit.

“The Chef’s Table was designed for a two-fold purpose,” Howard explains. “One is to really be able to do any kind of ethnic cuisine—it has already been set up as taqueria and as a spice bar doing the flavors of India—but also as a show kitchen.”

In its latter guise, it holds evening classes with chefs interacting with employees sitting around the station, serves as a catering space for hosting informal gatherings and converts into a studio for filming cooking classes.

The café also has one of the two micro-markets that are available to employees round the clock. The other is located on the other side of the complex to offer a convenient stop for those located near there. The markets provide self-checkout using bar codes on all items that customers scan using the QuickCharge app on their phones, something also available in the café restaurants as the entire operation is cashless. The café also has a pre-order component that allows diners to make selections remotely and pick up at the café micro-market outlet.

Interrupted but not abandoned

The initial design phase for this extensive renovation/expansion began in the fall of 2018, with construction commencing the following spring with expectation to finish and be ready for opening in the fall of 2020. Of course, the intervened, pushing the timetable into 2021 Over that time, Travelers kept the FLIK culinary team on board by having them turn out some 120,000 meals to the community outreach programs like Meals on Wheels, FoodShare and the local Hands on Hartford nonprofit.

The café finally debuted this summer during the Travelers Championship golf tournament in late June, when it hosted some catered events on its outdoor patio area with food from its restaurant concepts.

The meal program at Travelers also offers employees a curbside pickup service that provides family dinner meal packs designed to serve four to six diners. The menu and order form are available on the company intranet.