An Epic Food Story
Chef Eric Rupert oversees the ultimate workplace dining experience at Epic Systems
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There aren’t many chefs who aspire to run the company cafeteria.
But then Epic Systems Corp. is not your typical company and Cassiopeia is not your typical cafeteria. And, as you might expect, Eric Rupert is not your typical chef.
Rupert heads the food service operation at Epic, the health care industry software giant in Verona whose influence on this region is rivaled only by that of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also serves as executive chef, although Rupert and nearly everyone else we talked to are quick to remind you that “Epic is not big on titles.” The company is not big on self-promotion or publicity, either.
What Epic is big on is growth, and it is adding clients, employees and square footage at its Verona campus at a staggering rate. There are roughly six thousand employees spread among an ever-increasing number of buildings on the 811-acre campus. During a recent span Epic added between three hundred and five hundred employees in one month. Suffice it to say, it’s a big company. And founder and CEO Judy Faulkner has always placed a high priority on making sure her employees, as well as visiting trainees and customers from around the world, are fed well.
That’s a major reason Rupert’s distinguished culinary career has led him to this job. “Judy loves food,” says Rupert. “She’s the only non-chef professional I can talk to, chef to chef.”
Rupert, some readers may recall, cut his teeth at the Ovens of Brittany starting in 1980 as a baker and pastry chef. “And so baking is near and dear to my heart,” he says, “and the fact that we have a bakery here at Epic is something I’m just fiercely proud of and feel really so blessed to have.”
After moving to the Madison Club in the mid-1980s, Rupert says he saw the movie “Babette’s Feast,” which he calls “an epiphany” and cites as his inspiration to become a chef.
“Within about a year and a half Odessa [Piper] asked me, much to my amazement, if I was interested in working at L’Etoile. I was hired on as a line cook and a few months after that, she asked me if I wanted to be her co-chef.” Rupert did, for a while. But soon he left to start Kafe Kohoutek, and then Atlas Pasta (home to the best chicken pot pie ever). The popular Opera House was next.
After a return stint at L’Etoile, Rupert entered the corporate world as executive chef for Sub-Zero, a nod to his young family’s changing demands. He was proud of his work there, and says he enjoyed it. But the recession was especially tough on companies like Sub-Zero, which led Rupert to Epic. It was obviously quite a journey. “I would be the classic example of minimizing one’s weaknesses,” says Rupert, “and maximizing one’s strengths.”
Rupert’s strengths include leading a team of passionate and committed chefs, bakers and other food service professionals in a unique environment where food is as important as celestial-themed workspaces, whimsical art and office attire of shorts and flip-flops.
“[The food] is part of our culture. It is something that clearly the staff is proud of; they feel they know that it’s a benefit, they feel fortunate or lucky to have it, they’re generous with their praise, and they’re very generous and concise with their criticisms too,” says Rupert. “When we’re recruiting, and that’s hundreds and hundreds of people, we make a point of seeing that every one of them comes down for a meal.”
That meal is served at Cassiopeia, the company cafeteria, the name of which, continuing an interplanetary campus theme, is a constellation in the northern sky. Anything but your earthly corporate dining experience, Cassiopeia feels more welcoming and less chaotic. The stations are well organized and attractive. There’s a salad bar, a build-your-own-sandwich bar with hearth-baked breads right out of the house bakery, and a station off to the side that serves the “comfort food of the day” (think really good tuna-noodle casserole). The grill area and entrée station serve up the bulk of the food, and the dessert area offers fresh-baked pies and layer cakes from Rupert’s pride and joy, the bakery.
Some employees take their meals back to their desks, while others gather in twos or threes at the dozens of comfortable places in the hallways and open spaces of the building. But most folks sit at long, colorful picnic tables in Cassiopeia and enjoy a clean view of the herb gardens outside. It’s not fancy, but it’s well thought out and well done, full of natural light. Meals are served on restaurant-style plates, and to-go containers are made from biodegradable sugarcane.
The entire food operation is staffed by seventy-eight people, and unlike at other well-known tech-based food operations like Google and Microsoft, all seventy-eight are Epic employees. Rupert admits it’s speculation on his part but says he believes the reason Epic employs its own culinary staff is pretty simple.
“I know when I was interviewing I heard it, I read it—there really is very little hierarchy here. You’re either a team member or a team leader, and the team leaders do everything that team members do, and then they also manage people. It’s not considered a promotion to go from a team member to a team leader; it’s just additional responsibilities. And people go back and forth; they go from being a team leader for a while to going back to being a team member. So, I think it’s just fairness. It makes sense. At least it makes sense to me.”