How Mark Freeman helps satiate Microsoft’s workforce

Every morning, employees travel from points near and far to the Microsoft campus in Redmond. When lunchtime hits, most of those hungry techies head either to The Commons, the social hub of the campus, or to one of several cafés that collectively serve 40,000 customers a day.

Microsoft wants its employees to enjoy quality food and local flavors. That’s where Mark Freeman comes in.

20160128_MarkFreeman-microsoft_0152As Microsoft’s senior manager of global dining services, Freeman is responsible for the food Microsofties eat on campus. He’s constantly thinking of ways to improve employees’ dining experiences while also hunting for ways to promote sustainable meals. A veteran of the corporate food-service industry, he’s been with Microsoft for 10 years, and is thriving within the creative culture of a tech firm.

“We always test our software before it goes out to the public, and there’s tweaks and there’s bugs and there’s different things that we have to go through to make the software right,” Freeman said. “Well, that culture is accepting when we want to do something in food service.”

Freeman’s implementations include compostable cups, featuring local restaurants on campus, and hydroponic tower gardens. These soil-free planters, an experiment Freeman started a year and a half ago, grow greens on campus. Near Café 83, diners can see the pyramids with lettuce growing from them. Consistent with Microsoft’s cloud-focused business plan, Freeman can control the environment of the towers and monitor growth from his phone.

There are now 55 hydroponic growing units on the campus: 12 pyramids and 43 vertical towers.

It was an idea Freeman long harbored: Growing food for campus, on campus. But enough produce to feed 40,000 employees would require vast swaths of farmland. Then, at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show a few years ago, Freeman saw a hydroponic tower for the first time. He immediately wondered how he could bring something similar to Microsoft.

“I thought, man, this is perfect. We can grow these in the cafés,” he said.

Now, Freeman’s instinct is reality. There aren’t enough vegetables sprouting right now to offer a completely sustainable food source, but Freeman hopes someday all the greens consumed on campus will be grown where employees can see them.

The Microsoft cafeteria features a mix of mainstays and rotating local vendors.

The Microsoft cafeteria features a mix of mainstays and rotating local vendors.

“We’re growing them in office space, we’re growing them in café space, we’re growing them all over the place. It was kind of a whim to get it started,” he said.

Hydroponics is a way to grow plants without using soil, making it a popular indoor system. The plants are nourished with a nutrient-rich solution. The hydroponic grows are part of the “Ingredient Revolution,” a Microsoft initiative that educates employees about where their food is coming from and who is growing it. Through the program, Microsoft has partnered with more than 100 local farms.

A pilot program was also started to purchase odd-shaped, discolored, and underutilized parts of vegetables — a system en vogue with food-sustainability advocates. The United Nations estimates 2.8 trillion pounds of food fail to be consumed each year. In the U.S., much of the wasted food is suitable for the dinner table. But farmers typically sell only cosmetically attractive produce to supermarkets, thus leaving unlovely food to rot. Furthermore, farmers — not the grocers who reject such produce — usually shoulder the financial burden of the wasted produce.

Since Freeman joined the company, Microsoft has cut its waste by 94 percent companywide. Zero waste means nothing is sent to a landfill. There’s more to do before Microsoft hits that threshold, Freeman says, especially when it comes to items like candy wrappers and potato-chip bags. “We’ve made a lot of strides, and we’re down to the hard stuff today,” he said.

Microsoft’s waste-cutting started with eliminating an on-campus staple: the Styrofoam cup.

“We had this traditional cup that we used that was Styrofoam. It had the Microsoft logo on it; it had been there since day one. So we had nightmares about how we were going to get rid of Styrofoam because of this cup,” Freeman said.

Microsoft made the switch from Styrofoam to compostable, and other things have since followed, including silverware and plates. Now, the company composts 24 million cups, 22 million pieces of cutlery, and 3 million plates annually. Microsoft estimates that 11,100 tons of garbage is diverted from landfills.

Mark Freeman controls office hydroponics with his smartphone.

Mark Freeman controls office hydroponics with his smartphone.

Freeman also has attracted local restaurants to the campus. In The Commons, a massive building that includes retail and dining, there’s a Lunchbox Laboratory, as well as other area eateries like Post Alley. “We’ve got a great local program that’s kind of developed. It’s been six or seven years ago that we had a request from our employees to bring in local restaurants,” Freeman said.

There’s also in-house branding with Compass Group. Microsoft is the largest domestic client for Compass, said Alexia Manthey, general manager of The Commons.

Responding to employee requests is important to Freeman; at the end of the day, his goal is to facilitate a welcoming environment at the Redmond campus.

“I think the most rewarding thing is to see the reaction of the employees when we do something (different),” Freeman said. “We’re always pushing ourselves to do something neat and cool, and you never know if it’s going to be neat and cool until (the employees) come in.”

Come in the employees do. At The Commons, which opened in 2009, employees stream in like a rushing river. Around 11 a.m., a crowd fills the building, which transforms from a wide-open hall to an elbow-to-elbow squeeze. Billed as “the place to be” in corporate literature, the 150,000-square-foot “town center” space hosts 1.5 million visitors per year.

But there’s more than just The Commons. The Redmond campus is home to 33 cafes, 32 espresso stands, and more than 20 small markets. The result? No employee is more than a five-minute walk to a food location, said Manthey.

Tech companies are fighting for the best employees, and these days it’s not just about the work — the work environment matters tremendously. So, how important is food service and the atmosphere of The Commons to potential employees, as well as current employees?

“It’s huge,” Freeman said. “You don’t always see it in the HR brochures, but a lot of companies in our industry are using the food service and the cafeterias to bring in the best and the brightest.” Just last month, Google paraded media and dignitaries through its new Kirkland office, and a full-service cafeteria loaded with eco-conscious meals was a focal point.

But Freeman’s not concerned about the competition. “We feel the quality of the café and the program that we have here is driving an opportunity for Microsoft to attract and retain the best.”

This article originally was published in the April 2016 issue of 425 Business.