independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Techies go to work on gourmet fare

What do Facebook staff eat? What's on the Twitter menu? Adrian Weckler meets the chef who cooks for Ireland's tech giants

DOES multinational success trickle down to small business and the 'real' economy? Critics of last week's Forbes Irish coronation doubt it.

But don't tell Gavin Prendergast that. From being a man with a van doing dawn patrols four years ago, he has grown a new company to 50 people, thanks to his status as unofficial caterer to Ireland's booming tech multinationals.

It started in 2009 with 4am solo van runs to Facebook's small, newly established Dublin office.

"Tech companies need to pull out all the stops to attract high-quality staff, which means top-class food," said Prendergast. "So that's what I pitched. I was driving the van in the middle of the night with all of this high-end food. But they seemed to like it. Then when they expanded, they stuck with me so I started to upscale. And then word of mouth got around."

Four years and 46 new staff later, Prendergast's Urban Picnic company is now serving over 1,000 people daily at canteens in Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zynga and Hubspot.

What they get is something approximating a sheikh's wedding buffet. On the day I visited Facebook's Hanover Quay restaurant-canteen, prime beef, pork and salmon fillets made up a small fraction of the fare on offer, with freshly made cheesecake and strawberry vanilla chocolate sauce – among other things – for dessert. One would struggle to find a better meal anywhere in Dublin.

And this is the point: the ultra-competitive market for skilled engineers and coders means that big tech companies now have to lay on the best food in the city. That means serious chefs, fresh food and a constantly changing menu.

"Eating habits have changed," he said. "People are no longer interested in simply chicken and chips. So all of our chefs comes from high-end restaurants. We operate more as a restaurant ourselves than a canteen. We rarely have the same menu twice. We do a lot of ethnic food days, too. The idea is that people will genuinely find it difficult to get better food anywhere else in the area."

Ironically, the only place to arguably challenge Facebook's canteen in this part of Dublin is another tech multinational's restaurant: Google.

"A lot of staff here came from Google and, yes, they have a pretty good restaurant there. We needed to make sure that we were at least as good."

Prendergast is not a newbie to fine dining. After college, he went to work in the Four Seasons George V in Paris, before joining up with Gordon Ramsey and a stint with the Ritz Carlton in Powerscourt. This has led to a few high-end habits.

"We employ one person just to research menus," he said. "What we're doing differently is we put everything on site. Almost everything is sourced in Ireland. We also operate a 'clean food' system and don't use butter or cream. In fact, we try to limit dairy altogether. It's light food, with lots of fruit and vegetables."

Prendergast's operation works in two ways. For large companies such as Facebook (which has 500 employees now), it occupies a permanently staffed restaurant canteen. For smaller firms (those under 250 employees), it prepares food from a communal kitchen in Sheriff Street.

It seems to be keeping coders and tech engineers happy.

"It's a pretty superb restaurant," said Gareth Lambe, director of operations and head of office at Facebook Dublin. "The staff love it."

Dublin's digital docklands continues to boom, with new tech firms setting up every month. While rising companies such as Dropbox and Airbnb have recently established European bases here, others such as Evernote are strongly tipped to follow suit.

This should provide Prendergast with opportunities for his next wave of potential clients. However, he has also started to add some non-tech customers to his corporate logs. This includes Communicorp, the media company that owns Today FM, Newstalk FM and a range of other radio and media interests.

"People want good food," he said. "That's really the bottom line. There's a new market here and that's what we're doing. The detail we put into the food and the menus is, we think, very high."

Prendergast's fortunes mirror the cultural and economic expansion of Facebook, Urban Picnic's biggest client. The social networking giant recently announced a move into an adjacent building which has the space to accommodate up to 1,000 people. Because of the diversity of roles and nationalities at the company, catering provides a unique challenge.

"We have people working here from countries who never see their national food prepared in Dublin restaurants," said Prendergast. "You have to respect where people come from and what they want, while keeping it interesting for everyone. The nice thing about companies like Facebook is that the people here are very open-minded and willing to try new things."

Despite the haute cuisine on offer, Facebook's canteen restaurant fills and empties in a militaristically scheduled way. There are three two-hour windows throughout the day in which to eat.

"People leave this restaurant motivated and satisfied," said Facebook's Lambe. "What you need to understand is that all of this high-end food and other benefits we have here allow people not to have to worry about things or waste time on small issues."

At the rate of growth in Dublin's tech sector, will Prendergast's Urban Picnic remain a boutique corporate caterer? Or is mass-market expansion on the way?

"Right now, we're happy with what we're doing," said Prendergast. "It's all about the food."

Sunday Independent

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