Guckenheimer Offers Unique Approach To Northeast Contract Dining Programs

That's exactly what happened with Dr. Stewart Ritchie, the founder of Guckenheimer Corporate Dining.

“We're very specialized,” says chief marketing officer Karla Lacey.  “Our clients tend to be the kind of employers who recognize that high-quality food service is an employee benefit which helps with retention, productivity, and even health.  With us, they're able to get healthy food from scratch – fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats.  We'd never describe ourselves as serving 'diet food.' But we don't buy processed stuff.  We don't use frozen food. We're making restaurant-quality food.  The way we cook and purchase our food is a lot healthier than other vendors.”

For many companies, it's a big perk, she adds.  “You don't have to get in your car, decide where to go, then drive there, then park.  And for the employer, it's even better.  Your workers stay in the building.”

Even better, many companies offer the food for free or at a subsidized cost.  “It's part of the inducement to get people to eat there, in the building – to have a wonderful sushi lunch for $10.  At a restaurant it would be $20,” says Lacey.

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But primarily the focus is on good food that's also good for the employee.  “It all started at the University of California Stanford School of Medicine in 1965,” she notes.  “Our late founder was a med student there and his parents called and said, 'We can't afford for you to stay in med school, you have to figure out a way to make money.'  The food was always lousy in the cafeteria so, with his girlfriend, who later became his wife, he began making healthier sandwiches for students.  They found a baker for whole grain bread and places to get fresh, local produce.  Dr. Ritchie, in a lab coat, put a sheet on a hospital cart and started serving and the rest is history!”

From there the company grew to a $250 million business, Lacey says.  Now the company has a sales force and marketing group and is expanding from its California headquarters to the East Coast and the Southwest.

Unlike other foodservice companies that cater to corporate clients with bundled services like janitorial and dry-cleaning, Guckenheimer provides only food.   “We're chef-driven.  Every unit has its own chef who's gone to culinary school, or owned a restaurant.  Some work in restaurants a few years, then come to work for us.  They're expected to be creative, have a different menu every day.  Not every unit serves chicken on Mondays.  The best part?  We're not open at night or on weekends.  You get corporate hours, and that's attractive.  They want to have a life,” she says.

When it comes to clients, Lacey describes the company as “chameleon-like.”  “If you're an informal business culture, we'll create a cafe.  If you're a law firm or in a more corporate setting or an executive dining room, with formal sit-down meals, we'll do that, too.  We do barbecues for 5,000 people or a fancy dinner for five.”

Though she's not running it down, Lacey says if what a company's looking for is a hot dog and a bag of chips, “That's not what we do.  We put a lot of effort into it and we're never going to be the cheapest.”

What's really driving the business these days is the growing interest in health and wellness.  “Companies are realizing that if they have some healthier options for their employees, it's good for the company, too.”

Lacey says the company never calls any food an unhealthy food.  “If someone wants a big steak, a pepperoni pizza, a hot dog, we'll make that for you.  As long as it's good-quality, non-processed food, no artificial sweeteners, we can do it.  When we take over an account from another vendor, they'll have huge freezers because they use lots of frozen stuff.  We end up putting paper in them because we don't need those big freezers!”

What Guckenheimer does need is room for its produce.  “We try to buy local, but in Omaha in January, for example, there's not a lot that's fresh and local.  So we can't always do it, but we try to take advantage of growing seasons when we can.”

Lacey says one of the company's biggest goals is sustainability.  “We work with clients to have the gentlest impact we can on the environment.  We cook with energy-efficient technology.  We use compostable paper ware. We try to exceed local standards of recycling, and reduce solid waste.  We try to educate customers to let us use china and silverware in the cafeterias.  We don't use disposables; we're set up to wash.  We make sure we're buying and cooking and disposing and operating in the most sustainable way.”

Another benefit Guckenheimer supplies is its use of registered dieticians instead of nutritionists for quality control.  “Pretty much anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.  It's not a title that goes with any certification.  But a dietician has to have a degree, pass tests, take a certain amount of continuing Ed.  So we use only dieticians because we know they have the background and academics and experience to be knowledgeable about good healthy food choices,” says Lacey.

“We want people to think more about their food choices, but at the same time, not preach at or lecture them,” she adds.  We're trying to get people to think food is not the enemy.” For more information, visit,