Lee Bassian, owner of Bassian Farms in San Jose, remembers delivering his naturally raised meats to Google back when the company still operated out of a garage.
“One time our truck got a ticket because it weighed too much for a residential street,” Bassian recalled.
Google’s now-famous philosophy of providing wholesome food at no charge to its employees dates from its inception, although the company took it to a new level last year when it opened Cafe 150, a restaurant at corporate headquarters in Mountain View that serves only produce and meats raised within a 150-mile radius. It’s one of 15 restaurants at Google, with three more due to open this month.
When Nate Keller, head chef of Cafe 150, first got the directive from John Dickman, Google’s global food service manager, to run a restaurant using only food from such a tight circle, he had his doubts.
“I told him it was crazy,” Keller said, as Dickman, sitting nearby, smiled.
Keller then put it another way: “On the scale we do things, I thought it would be a challenge.”
But Dickman, who has worked for years with local farmers and the sustainable agriculture movement, said he knew there was a way.
“I was impatient to do it,” he said, explaining his “personal mission” to lower carbon emissions in delivering food to the company, as well as to instill in Google employees a visceral sense of the pleasures of seasonal and fresh foods.
Keller shouldered the challenge, and during the year since then he’s become something of a spokesman for the movement that encourages the use of locally raised foods within institutions such as corporations or colleges.
In March, Keller sat on a panel with the head chef of the Navy and a chef overseeing food service for national parks, explaining the logistics of serving large numbers of diners daily with locally grown foods. The panel was moderated by Kraft Food Inc.’s executive chef.
Cafe 150, which seats 98 people inside and 40 outside, looks fairly typical for a company cafeteria: uncarpeted floors, plain tables and chairs, a food line staffed by chefs, and areas for self-serve drinks, condiments and utensils.
But behind the food line, chefs serve fare not commonly found in corporate cafeterias. One day last week, Google employees could choose from five entrees, including stir-fried, thin-sliced lamb loin or barbecued five-spice free-range Cornish game hen. Several elaborate salads and soups were offered, along with side dishes like black-eyed peas with cilantro or sauted spinach.
Bassian Farms provides Cafe 150 with chickens from Petaluma, beef raised in the Santa Clara foothills, turkey sausage from Fresno and lamb from Sonoma and Dixon, as well as more exotic meats such as buffalo and ostrich. The meat comes from animals that have never been given hormones or antibiotics or exposed to pesticides through their feed.
The challenge of running a restaurant that changes its menu daily, prides itself on the quality of numerous offerings, and serves upward of 600 people a day is ordering food days in advance while factoring in the vagaries of the local supply, explained Keller.
A chef relying on local produce has to also watch the weather forecast.
Last month’s cold snap, for example, dashed plans to serve artichokes and avocados, according to one Google chef.
Some customer favorites will never appear on the Cafe 150 menu, such as shrimp or scallops. “Those are seafood items we cannot get,” Keller added, since they aren’t raised or caught locally.
Tomatoes also posed a challenge, as Google employees wanted them in the winter, when they’re only available from areas with warmer climates like Mexico.
To provide a substitute in sandwiches and salads, Keller salted and grilled persimmons, a deep-orange fruit grown nearby that ripens in the winter.
“You couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. “In the summer, they began complaining when we didn’t have grilled persimmons,” Keller added.
Deciding what’s locally grown varies by geography. In agriculture-rich California, it’s feasible to stock a restaurant with foods from nearby sources, said Mark Crowell, founder of Culinex in Washington, a food development and marketing firm.
But Crowell pointed out that in areas with less geographic diversity or harsh winters, such as North Dakota, 150 miles wouldn’t provide nearly enough range.
“You have to make some sort of decision about what’s in your backyard,” Crowell said.
While Google isn’t pioneering in its support of local farmers and ranchers — the restaurant Chez Panisse and a handful of others led the way decades ago — the company does have the resources to take the model to the ultimate degree, as produce and livestock raised by small operators invariably cost more than those raised by large ranches and farms.
“Google is doing a great job,” said Rafi Taherian, executive director of dining at Stanford University. “But the Google program is heavily subsidized.”
Stanford, like many college campuses nationwide, is emphasizing locally raised fare, at the urging of students, Taherian added. Almost half of its products are now purchased from farmers and ranchers within a 250-mile range, he said.
Harry Crane, the executive chef at Kraft who moderated the March panel at the Research Chefs Association’s annual meeting, invited Keller to speak at the seminar because of the growing interest in purchasing locally grown produce, even among large institutions.
But Crane said one panelist, Christian DeVos, vice president of food and beverage at Delaware North, a concessionaire with contracts at national parks, said he’d love to serve organic eggs on his menus but the cost is prohibitive.
“He made the comment that the Google situation is unique and really admirable, but frankly, he couldn’t do it,” Crane said.
But Crowell, with Culinex, said advocates of greater reliance on local farmers and ranchers are raising a “rallying cry” that food is too cheap in the country.
“The price really doesn’t reflect the cost to the environment,” he said. Local growers generally follow what are considered sustainable practices, which don’t harm the soil with pesticides or water supplies with fertilizer runoff. They also contribute jobs to local communities, and preserve open space.
For local farmers supplying Cafe 150 and other outlets, the economic support from local food supporters is vital to their success and reflects the actual cost of raising small crops that can be harvested at the height of flavor or raising free-range animals, sometimes from heirloom stock.
“Google gives us a fair price for our product,” said Patrick DeYoung, co-owner of Blue Moon Organics in Aptos, which provides Google with berries. “We had a couple of really bad years, and without getting that higher price, we’d have no hope of making it.”
Google’s commitment to buying locally may even be a key reason an 11-acre garden at Peterson Middle School in Sunnyvale is soon approved, said Brian Gardiner, a farmer heading up the effort to get approval for the garden.
Dickman, with Google, wrote a letter to the school board, assuring it that Google would purchase all the produce the students would sell. The Santa Clara Unified School District also wants 50 percent of what’s grown, Gardiner added.
“The school board had doubts we could sell this stuff, and we dealt with that by saying that we have two customers who will take all we can supply,” Gardiner said.