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Hungry? These four employers lure talent with lunch

An employee at Digital Extremes prepares to eat curried chicken in the company's complementary cafeteria during lunch at the company’s offices in London, Ont.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

When it's time for lunch at some of Canada's top employers, there's more going on than just eating.

Chow time is part pleasure, part necessity and part strategy, say companies that offer free, healthy meals to employees. In some cases, good food keeps people on site so they get back to work more quickly. In others, a remote location makes food and accommodations a necessity if companies want to land quality employees.

Meals for the staff of about 200 at Digital Extremes Ltd. in London, Ont., have become a celebrated feature of the company in its almost 20 years as a game development studio, says Meridith Braun, vice-president of marketing. It started in the company's infancy, when a suburban location made it impractical for staff to go out for lunch and get back within an hour. The kitchen staff, once consisting of the wife of an employee, has grown to four busy cooks.

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"It's part of the company culture," Ms. Braun says, underlining the benefits of camaraderie. "It has really allowed our team to talk to each other away from a desk. It's a chance to share stories and a few jokes for 45 minutes a day.

"It provides an opportunity to meet people across the company, across disciplines, and this can lead to new ways of problem solving," she adds. "It has worked productivity-wise, too. People aren't leaving the office at lunch time."

In addition, the cooks provide for special diets. "We have vegans and vegetarians and people with gluten-free diets. The kitchen staff is very concerned with providing healthy foods," Ms. Braun says.

Google Inc.'s new Toronto office offers free food, too. It's colour co-ordinated based on how healthy the food is. Each floor has different snack options, which encourages employees to explore and interact with each other.

Each floor in the building, which opened Nov. 13, has beverages and a wall of snacks. Some floors have healthy snacks, and one has gluten-free offerings.

At Bayer Inc., a Toronto-based subsidiary of the multinational Bayer AG, the food program is part of the healthy, balanced work life and lifestyle the company endorses, says spokeswoman Marija Mandic.

The Toronto location includes a fully equipped, subsidized fitness facility, a quiet room for meditation and relaxation and a marché-style cafeteria with healthy menu items, take-home meals and fruit smoothies.

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"We believe that our success as an organization is measured by the strength of our people, setting an example for corporate culture in Canada," says Gord Johnston, vice-president of human resources.

The company also provides nutritional information for some cafeteria selections, Mr. Johnston says.

Bayer has a catering partner that offers meals set by dieticians and an executive chef. Among the parameters followed are low sodium, low cholesterol and high fibre in a 600-calorie meal; a maximum 30 per cent of those calories can come from fats and a maximum of three grams from saturated fat. The cafeteria is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and includes fruits and a salad bar.

Crossing the street to find a meal isn't an option at Diavik Diamond Mines Inc., 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

"For our work force, many of whom are on a rotation of two weeks on, two weeks off, we fly our workers into the site. It's a home away from home. Part of the experience is meals and we want to make sure our workers have a healthy, enjoyable experience and a choice when it comes to the food we provide," says Doug Ashbury, a Diavik spokesman.

"There isn't a cost to an employee for food – it's part of our operating cost," Mr. Ashbury says of the cafeteria operation, which is open from 5 a.m to 8 p.m. "We have a wide range of fare – fish, chicken, steak night, a full salad bar, a sandwich bar. All kinds of breakfast foods, hot meals for breakfast and dinner." No alcoholic beverages are served.

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The dining area has large windows and is on the main floor of a three-storey complex overlooking the tundra. It's operated by the aboriginal-owned Bouwa Whee Catering Ltd. (the name means "I am hungry" in the Dene language).

"We've worked with local contractors, many of which are aboriginal, to ensure there are local benefits as well," Mr. Ashbury says.

Meals are integrated into worker benefits that include private accommodations with television, the Internet, phone, full bathroom, membership in Diavik's gym, running track, weight room, sauna and recreation co-ordinators.

Diavik airlifts food from Yellowknife once a week aboard a Hercules aircraft. When weather permits, some shipments are trucked in on the winter ice road.

"We purchase a large amount of food," he says. "We feed 600 people a day."

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