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Institutional Dining: Feeding the State Capitol

Fresh Seasons defies the expectation that institutional dining has to be quick and dull.

Juanita Caballero has been working at the State Capitol dining services since 1982. Her retirement was coming up on October 20, and the impending date had been the talk of the Capitol for weeks. Caballero says the Speaker of The House has told her that her retirement must be approved by the senate, and that word on the street is they’re not going to approve it. 

A recent tour of Taher owned-and-operated Fresh Seasons Cafe at the Capitol introduced me to Caballero, a spot-on, mid-rare, all locally produced burger and the idea that cafeteria food needn’t be impersonal or an afterthought. In fact, it can be the polar opposite. 

Bruce Taher immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1964, and began his career as a dishwasher. His company, which he owns with sons Shawn, vice president, and Trent, vice president of purchasing, is the country’s largest privately owned contract foodservice management company. On any given day, they serve more than 400,000 meals in 17 states. 

Given the numbers, one could easily imagine frozen, overcooked burgers, insipid sandwiches, and flavorless soups. But Shawn says those days are long gone. If you don’t have good food, you’re dying in this industry. Today’s diners are just too food savvy. An intense recognition of that savviness includes each member of management spending a week at a time immersing themselves in various diets—vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, etc.—strictly dining on the company’s offerings in order to confirm they’re meeting customers’ needs. 

Beyond that, the company recognizes this important fact: eating is a highly emotional and personal act. While they're meeting the biological needs of nearly a half-million bodies daily, they don’t forget that each one is an individual, with individual needs and wants. 

At the Capitol, meeting those needs manifests this way: four cafeterias, 70 percent of product made from scratch daily, menus written by onsite chefs, five daily specials (think cranberry pistachio pancakes or a “knife-and-fork andouille sausage sandwich,” two to three varieties of pizza, seven to nine made-to-order sandwich options, grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, soups and snack packs; heat-and-eat options, beverages ranging from decaf black coffee to artisanal local kombucha, and lots more. 

“Everybody is so personal,” says Shawn Taber. “Food is an incredibly emotional decision for people. We’d be naive to think otherwise.” 

Juanita Caballero has served three Minnesota governors their lunch at the Capitol’s restaurant.

Indeed, on my visit, I ate an all-locally sourced burger with beef from Lowry Hill Meats, a Baker’s Field bun, local cheddar and house-made pickles. It arrived restaurant-standard medium rare, and I washed it down with a Bootlegger Brewing Kombucha. It was one of the better meals I had all week and— pro tip—since Lowry Hill only sells its famous burger on Wednesdays, addicts like me can have it anytime Fresh Seasons is open. 

But while things like the Lowry Hill Burger, or a special of Cajun-inspired shrimp and grits (with actual spice!) are easy to recognize as the flashy supermodels of the operation, there are other, more subtle details that make the place the service that it is. 

For an operation as busy as this one— during session they can serve upwards of 2,000 people daily— flow is crucial. If there is a crush of bodies at the door or overly long lines, diners will surely go elsewhere. Competition is greater than it’s ever been, with meal delivery services dropping lunches on desktops within minutes. Food at Fresh Seasons not only has to be appetizing, but fast, efficient and affordable. Shawn puts it succinctly: “We have to be more than just the convenient option.” 

In order to keep up with demand for locally produced food, Taher has a 50 percent stake in Star Prairie, Wisconsin’s Threshing Table Farm. In addition to sourcing produce from the farm, people can sign up at any local Taher cafeteria and once a week pick up a Community Supported Agriculture box. 

They’ve hired Paul David Stanko, formerly manager of St. Paul’s Macy’s department store, as general manager, and with his help they’ve given the operation a retail push. Customers can grab, say, a bottle of St. Paul-based Isabel Street Heat hot sauce to take home, or give as a gift at a post-work cocktail party. 

“We always try to have cool stuff, bold flavors, and we never try to act like we’re [as big as we are]” says Shawn. Though after the tour of Fresh Seasons, which starts to feel a bit like a neighborhood cafe (staff get to know diners on a first name basis) he reminds me that Taher makes all of the salads, sandwiches and wraps for gas station giant Holiday. “Would you believe that?” 

The company has what they call “Chef Council” consultants around the world—“we’ve been just about everywhere—Spain, Portugal, South America, Asia,” who inspire recipes that the local chefs are tasked with using a minimum of 10 times annually. 

Meanwhile, the price point must reflect value. Indeed, Shawn says, my $8 Lowry Hill burger would be considered an expensive item in the Fresh Seasons environment. “The biggest compliment is when someone says they brought their lunch but whatever we were serving looked so good that they went with us instead.” 

In order to stay successful, Fresh Seasons has to be all things for all people—equally appropriate for the business lunch, a private person’s quiet time, a much-needed social hour. But the most important aspect is quality. “If you don’t have good food, it’s game over.” Only about 15 to 20 percent of product arrives from the company’s Plymouth-based commissary kitchen. The rest is made on site, including whole chickens and scratch soups. Shawn estimates that about half of the Capitol employees dine with Fresh Seasons daily. 

And naturally, those employees include some pretty big names. As Caballero reflects on her decades at the counters, she admits that it was the personalities that kept her going all these years. She was a shy stay-at-home mom until she started meeting the likes of governors Tim Pawlenti, Jesse Ventura and Rudy Perpich, and then she admits, she was hooked. 

Perpich, she says, was “So big, so tall, so handsome.” And Ventura? “Oh! That was fun! All the reporters!” Pawlenty was a tease. In fact, before he left for the White House, she requested he come back down to the cafeteria one last time to tease her. Did he? You bet. “With two big guys on either side!” [Secret service.]

Does she like her job? 

“Oh God, yes. Believe it or not, I worry about who’s going to take my place. Are they going to take care of everybody? I know what all the people like, how they like to pay. How they like their drink. I hope they get someone who cares.” 

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