Dealer.com establishes a model food system
Dealer.com employees at the Dot Calm Café 2.0
“I answer directly to the CEO. No one else in the company does,” says Shawn Burdick, manager of Dealer.com’s Dot Calm Café, of his interactions with boss and founder Mark Bonfigli. “That’s how important food is to this company.”
At many Burlington businesses, employees still brownbag it. But at Dealer.com, Vermont’s fastest-growing company, Burdick’s team of 10 prepares breakfast and lunch each day with local, healthy ingredients. For their at-home cooking needs, employees get 10 percent discounts on CSA shares from the Intervale Food Hub or Jericho Settlers’ Farm. Soon an in-office market will allow them to shop for locally crafted items such as Aqua Vitea kombucha and From the Ground Up pizza dough without ever leaving the office.
All those foodie perks help make Dealer attractive to tech-savvy applicants. Burdick says the company, which currently has 580 “Earthlings” (as it calls them) in Burlington and 50 more in its Manhattan Beach, Calif., satellite office, is hiring about 30 new employees every two weeks. Most of them will be charged with building and maintaining websites for auto dealers — time-consuming, labor-intensive work.
In feeding its employees well for the long haul, Dealer follows a trend set by higher-profile tech companies such as Pixar, in Emeryville, Calif., where animators can enjoy chilled asparagus soup amid pictures of Ratatouille’s Remy the gourmet rat. But Burdick’s in-house eatery at Dealer.com has a secondary agenda: keeping employees healthy, as defined by the whole-fat guidelines of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The controversial diet is a pet cause of Bonfigli’s wife, Marisa Mora.
Thanks to Bonfigli’s over-the-top ardor for maintaining employees’ well-being, the Burlington company has earned a reputation as a fun place to work. A nook decorated with Christmas lights houses the “life team,” whose full-time jobs involve improving the lifestyles of the “Earthlings.” Life director Heidi Brigham mentions a recent apple-pie-and-cider-themed “life social” as one companywide activity. Everyone is invited to take free, in-house French or guitar lessons and get a weekly chair massage.
The company offers discounts at more than 100 businesses, including restaurants such as Chef’s Corner, Fresh Market and Three Tomatoes Trattoria. To work it all off, the massive “Playground” has classes all day; during a break, hearty eaters can lift kettle bells or stretch on the Pilates reformer bed, then relieve stress with Ping-Pong or Air hockey.
If that’s no ordinary office gym, Dot Calm is no ordinary cafeteria. Burdick, 40, has worked as executive sous-chef at both the Topnotch and Stoweflake resorts. After that, he says, he refined his cooking in Aspen, Colo., restaurants. His staff includes alumni of A Single Pebble, the Windjammer Restaurant and Sadie Katz Delicatessen. Matt Lunde, the new rounds cook, has also worked at Topnotch and cooked at the James Beard House in New York two years ago as sous-chef to Team Vermont captain Mark Timms.
It’s an accomplished team, better suited to a restaurant than a cafeteria, but Burdick says the Dealer.com lifestyle attracts top talent. “We get 10 personal days,” he says, his face lighting up. “You don’t see that in restaurants. I’ve taken [my staff] all out of coming to work not knowing when you’re coming home. They know they’re coming home at 3 p.m.”
Because the company subsidizes the endeavor, Dot Calm doesn’t have the tense atmosphere of restaurants whose owners keep one eye on profit margins. “I don’t cut people because of my payroll,” says Burdick, who admits that he loses money on all his wares except the prepared chocolate bars and healthy snacks. “We have that buffer of the company.”
All team members, however, need to learn a new system of cooking. The principles of the Weston A. Price Foundation inform all the recipes prepared at the company; that’s due to the influence of Mora, who was its wellness director until last year. This year, Dealer.com paid for every member of the kitchen staff to attend the foundation’s “Wise Traditions” conference in Dallas, Texas.
Weston A. Price (1870-1948) was a globe-trotting dentist who claimed he’d observed a higher level of both dental and general health in unindustrialized nations where people ate unprocessed foods with whole fats. In accordance with his findings, menus at the Dot Calm Café focus on local, grass-fed meats, fresh dairy and organic vegetables. Burdick admits that he finds some of Price’s tenets “over the top,” such as recommending raw eggs for infants, but agrees with most of the diet.
Assistant café manager Carter Beidler, who worked at Papa John’s Pizza and Koto Japanese Steak House before joining Dealer.com, is a more steadfast convert to Price’s ideals. “I was never a diet-fad kind of guy,” he says. “It’s just natural foods in their natural states, what people ate thousands of years ago. Now, cancer and Alzheimer’s are on the rise. It struck a chord with me. It doesn’t for everyone. It doesn’t for vegetarians.”
When Burdick joined the company a year and a half ago, it was his job to eliminate white flour, high-fructose corn syrup, canola oil and soy from its small café, now referred to as “1.0.” Burdick also helped design the larger 2.0, which started serving in May, and 3.0, the new eatery that opens this winter in Manhattan Beach. 1.0, which still serves grab-and-go sandwiches and salads, will soon become the aforementioned healthy grocery.
Early in Burdick’s tenure, he let go a vegan baker who used a soy-butter replacement. Now Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery products and Kate’s Homemade Butter reign in the kitchen. Evaporated-cane-juice sugar is the go-to sweetener. The other offending substances are completely off the menu, while dishes with gluten are generally limited to sandwiches on bread from Red Hen Baking Company and O Bread Bakery.
One exception: Cancelling Thursday “Croissant Days” proved too controversial among employees, so the French pastries are still available in all their white-flour glory once a week. Meanwhile, muffins prepared by From the Ground Up entice Earthlings who suffer from celiac, and those who don’t.
“Some people have hangups about gluten free, so I don’t tell them,” says Burdick. Beidler bakes crunchy, buttery chocolate-chip cookies using buckwheat flour.
Another Beidler specialty — duck-fat potato chips — is currently on hold. He’s still figuring out how to make enough to feed more than 580 people. Meanwhile, he’s concocting recipes for homemade ketchup and mustard to replace the expensive prepared bottles the café uses instead of sugar-laden Heinz.
At lunch last Thursday, employees could sample pork loins from Vermont Family Farms in Enosburg, stuffed with kale and croissant crumbs. The tender, caramelized pork was beautifully seasoned and would have fit in at a high-end restaurant, especially with the addition of mascarpone-bolstered polenta made from Nitty Gritty Grain Company cornmeal, and heaping servings of garlicky broccolini and kale. A large plate from the cafeteria line costs $6.50; a small portion, as little as $4.25. Those looking for something even lighter can get a nutrient-packed smoothie.
Against his better judgment, Burdick also provides a daily vegetarian option. “I did get a lot of vegetarian and vegan resistance, and they won,” he says of his effort to cook with more animal fats, per Price. “My job is to play to vegan, vegetarian and gluten free.” Last Thursday, the veggie option was balsamic portabella Caprese, an indulgent-tasting tower of mushrooms, tomatoes, pesto and fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
The life team serves as a liaison between Burdick and the diners to let the chef know what will and won’t fly. “Are people going to come in here and drink goat’s milk? I don’t think so,” he says of one Price favorite.
If the demand did present itself, Burdick doesn’t doubt he could find a supplier. Both he and Beidler are members of Rural Vermont, with strong ties to many local producers. However, the team is realistic about not being able to serve all local, organic and preservative-free food all the time. “It’s easy for a family of four,” says Burdick. “It’s harder when it’s a family of 600.”
It became even more difficult after Tropical Storm Irene, when disastrous flooding in the Burlington Intervale left Dealer.com without one of its major resources. Jericho Settlers’ Farm picked up much of the slack, replacing the Intervale CSA and providing 130 dozen pastured, free-range eggs each week. They’re especially popular on the morning scrambled-egg bar.
The cafeteria still composts its waste at Intervale Compost Products and at small farms where the leftovers become animal feed. Burdick says the many young bachelors who populate the office are eager to take their leftovers home, though, assuring low levels of waste.
Burdick is so pleased with the food system he’s developed at Dealer.com, he plans to use outreach programs to share it with schools and hospitals. “It will benefit the farmers in the long term to have more large accounts,” he notes.
Until then, Burdick is sharing the wealth by inviting employees’ families to eat with them at Dot Calm Café. Last week, several small children joined parents for a lunch of homemade broccoli-filled green juice and grass-fed beef sticks — the Dealer.com alternative to Slim Jims. Each Friday, families can converge for an educational food movie.
Keeping the company’s own “family” of 600 healthy and fed may not be easy, but Burdick and his team are doing it with flavor.