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El’s Kitchen at uShip Turns Produce into Productivity

It’s 11:50 am on a Tuesday. Chef Ella Adams and Sous Chef Denise Dawson zip around uShip’s newly-built industrial gourmet kitchen, putting final touches and prep on the day’s lunch for 220 employees.

In 10 minutes — at high noon when the chefs blast a “lunch is ready” Slack message across the company — it’ll be as if someone just pulled the fire alarm. Hungry employees jump up from their desks and make a beeline for the kitchen, hoping to reduce their time in line.

On this particular day employees find build-your-own BLTs, consisting of garlic aioli, locally-grown tomatoes from Johnson’s Backyard, Bibb lettuce, and bacon (of course) on multigrain bread, along with housemade romesco sauce over JBG carrots, potatoes and asparagus. Invariably, there are vegetarian and vegan options available.

Today’s lunch isn’t some special occasion or one-off event. The duo pulls this off daily — lunch Monday through Thursday and breakfast on Friday. Later this week employees can look forward to chicken curry with basmati rice on Wednesday, herbed salmon on Thursday, and housemade granola on Friday.

Seasoned Nouvelle Cuisine

The free corporate cuisine trend is hardly new — uShip began doing it in 2010 — but it’s getting increased attention today as companies realize the productivity benefits of offering perks like meals, snacks, coffee, water, and other refreshments.

The topic has been covered widely citing a multitude of results, including:

  • Saving money (this article digs into the numbers on that)
  • Team and friendship building
  • Supporting employee health and wellness (vs. fast food runs)
  • Igniting better cross-department collaboration
  • Improved employee satisfaction
  • Improved recruitment

Lox, Stock & Beagles

Ella and Denise, who are full-time uShip employees as well as French-trained pastry chefs, constantly stock the employee refrigerator and 2nd Floor break room with healthy snacks (and yes, some not-so-healthy ones too). Each month the uShip crew consumes 10 cases of bananas, 250 lbs of carrots and 160 lbs of greens, while staying caffeinated on 120 lbs of coffee.

“It takes a lot of careful planning and buying because everyday we cook for a couple hundred people, many of whom have special diets, allergies, or are just plain finicky — not that there’s anything wrong with that,” says Ella. “What people eat is such an individual, personal decision, so we do our best to accommodate everyone’s needs.”

While uShip is known for its dog-friendly workplace policy, Ella says the kitchen is a strict no-dog zone. “They can share their cuteness everywhere else around in the office, but not near the kitchen.”

The Wish List

In 2015, Ella found herself in the fortuitous position that any chef short of Anthony Bourdain would envy: she was asked to put together a wishlist for building her dream kitchen from scratch.

At the time, she and Denise were pumping out meals for about 175 people in a less-than-adequate facility at uShip’s previous location, so the request was a welcome and exciting challenge.

uShip was working with Austin-based Chioco Designs to architect its new 45,000 sq. ft., 3-story headquarters just south of downtown Austin. Ella’s input on all things cuisine was a crucial ingredient.

 

Ella was also put in charge of working with the City of Austin’s rules and regulations to get uShip’s kitchen restaurant compliant. She certainly has the background for it, having been in the culinary arts for 10 years and previously worked at Austin’s MMH Group of restaurants, including as a baker at Elizabeth Street Cafe and as head pastry chef at Lambert’s.

This summer, after nearly two years, employees moved in and Ella finally got her dream kitchen, complete with a walk-in cooler and freezer, a large enough produce sink that Ella could sit in (don’t worry, she doesn’t), and a beautiful floor-to-ceiling window that looks out to a patio, backyard and greenery.

She also inherited many more mouths to feed as the company’s employee count grew during the construction period. And the company continues to hire.

The newly-refurbished industrial complex also includes open, collaborative spaces, shower facilities and locker room, a game room, and a dog-friendly yard that backs to the East Bouldin Creek greenbelt.

Central Perk

Daily lunch and an always-open kitchen let spontaneous meetings and interactions take place in-person when they may otherwise take place over email, instant message or even a phone call across such a big space.

“Ella and Denise do an amazing job fulfilling what has become a very strategic company decision and benefit for employees,” say Heather Hoover-Salomon, uShip’s executive vice president for operations.

“In a lot of houses, the kitchen and kitchen table become the central gathering place. The uShip kitchen is no different. You can see a lot of meetings happen over coffee, lunch, or an afternoon snack, ultimately helping employees be more collaborative and productive.”

To see what’s cooking in El’s Kitchen, follow WelcomeToElsKitchen on Instagram.