Google goes gourmet

| Tuesday, April 10, 2012

There's a restaurant at Bakery Square in East Liberty that serves duck burgers, grilled sirloin tips with tricolor pepper chimichurri and lemon-brined turkey cutlet.

Forget about getting a table here, however. Unless your paycheck says "Google."

The world's most popular Internet search engine provides free lunch to its 32,000 employees, or Googlers, at their offices in 40 countries around the globe. Free breakfast and dinner sometimes are included, as well.

"We know that it creates a collaboration between our teams," says Linda Femling-Nielsen, food-services manager for the Americas at Google in Seattle. "When Googlers get together over a meal, they leave their normal workspace and have the opportunity to share ideas and meet new people and bounce ideas off of each other. G-mail was actually thought of and created over lunch at one of our cafes at our Mountain View Office."

Google Pittsburgh moved to Bakery Square in August 2010. They lease three floors at the converted Nabisco factory. Computer scientists at Google Pittsburgh created the popular Google Sky Map application for smartphones, to provide a map of the night sky by pointing the device upward. The local office is the company's center for shopping-related web searches.

The environment at Google Pittsburgh combines work and play. One woman works alongside her pet bulldog. The numerous lounge areas include a giant hammock, pool table, video games, musical instruments and a library, where a suit of armor stands sentry. Above the landing on one floor sits a replica of a coaster car from the Thunderbolt at Kennywood Park.

But lunchtime is likely to bring all Googlers to one place -- the company food court, where an enviable repast of gourmet food is prepared by chef Lee Keener of Parkhurst Dining Services, Google's in-house caterer. A division of Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, the Homestead-based company caters meals to universities, businesses and museums. Keener prepares meals from scratch, using meat and produce from local farms. He grows his own herbs on a terrace garden on the premises, not far from where a hive of 40,000 bees are working hard on June's honey harvest.

"It's considered by most people who work here as the biggest perk," says Craig Robbins, director of dining services and a Parkhurst employee.

Chef Keener makes everything on-site except for the desserts and baked goods, which are provided by Gluuteny, a gluten-free bakery in Squirrel Hill. He buys from a short list of foodie favorites: Logan Family Farms in Irwin; Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, a Pittsburgh cooperative of more than 30 farms; and Paragon Wholesale Foods in the Strip District. He buys bacon from Cunningham Meats in Indiana County and cures it in-house, using maple syrup from Somerset County.

"If we can get it local, I get it local," says Keener, a burly Avalon native who worked for six years in New Orleans under chefs such as Emeril Lagasse. "If I can make it myself, I make it myself," he says.

And Robbins adds: "If we can grow it here, we grow it here."

Herbs and other produce on their rooftop gardens are fertilized with compost made from uneaten food that Googlers toss in designated receptacles.

The seasonal menu includes two main protein dishes, a vegetarian or vegan selection, three side dishes and two soups. Googlers also can nosh at one of five micro-kitchens or snack bars that are stocked with fresh fruit, juices, baked goods and fresh coffee or espresso.

"The philosophy is that Googlers should never be more than 140 feet away from food," Keener says.

Sinful food is not banished from Google Pittsburgh -- it's just a tad harder to get. Googlers are diverted subtly from the salty and sugary snacks. Dried fruit and other healthful munchies are plainly visible in glass jars, while the M&Ms and chocolate-covered espresso beans play hide-and-seek in opaque crockery.

Likewise, the bottled water and organic juices stand at eye-level in the freezer case, while the fattening sodas hug the bottom shelf.

Google software engineer Mark Russell, 50, says his favorite dish is the venison sausage. Russell, who lives in Muddy Creek Township, says he's gained about 15 pounds since he joined Google about 18 months ago.

"The food definitely keeps me here," he says. "After working in multiple companies in Pittsburgh, it was really good to find the quality of the food was so good,"

He occasionally brings his wife, BJ, daughter Lily 15, and son Patrick, 12, to Google Pittsburgh to share in the food, another Google perk.

"I used to come home and tell her about lunch," he says. "She'd be envious of what I had."

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