At Philadelphia Brewing Company, workers are eating their bosses’ lunch. Literally.
written by Danya Henninger
Most businesses recognize a midday meal as an essential component of a productive afternoon. Some provide a cafeteria. Some stock a variety of on-site vending machines. Some send out for office-wide orders of hoagies or Chinese food. Some force employees to make daily scavengings across nearby quick-serve stores and delis.
For the past seven or eight years, brewery owners Nancy and Bill Barton have solved the issue of employee lunch by preparing a home-cooked meal for their entire staff, nearly every day. There’s even brunch on Saturdays.
Bill does the cooking—though Nancy is the salad queen—and a record-keeping calendar hanging by the fridge proves his menus are nothing to shake a stick at.
Roasted chicken with ratatouille and quinoa salad. Pork chops with buttered noodles. Breakfast burritos. Make-your-own tacos. Tomato soup with mac ‘n’ cheese. Black bean soup with chicken…and without.
The Bartons went vegetarian just under four years ago (“except when there’s bacon involved”), and meals always include a meat-free option. PBC might be the only brewery in the country where the hiring interview includes questions about candidates’ dietary restrictions. Not that the answers affect who gets the job. The Bartons just want to know.
One current staffer is concerned about cholesterol, for example, so if quiche is on the menu, there will also be an egg-white-only version. One of the drivers is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat eggs. One worker doesn’t like salad, and another doesn’t do vegetables at all, refusing anything more colorful than corn or potatoes. At lunch, each is provided for.
That’s not to say Bill Barton panders. Sometimes he’ll cook a vegan soup but not mention the v-word until after everyone’s drained their bowls, or slip eggplant into a dish without mentioning it. (“Oh, you hate eggplant? Well, guess what, you just ate a whole lot of it.”)
The crew doesn’t take the effort for granted. Emboldened by a couple of drinks at an off-site party one evening, a relatively new worker pulled Bill aside with a serious-sounding query. “Could I talk to you? I have to tell you something,” he said. The Bartons’ concern about employee dissatisfaction evaporated when the issue became clear. “I don’t like tuna fish,” he confessed.
“We were like, ‘It’s no problem. Really,’” said Nancy, laughing at the memory.
Personal taste is even sometimes taken into consideration as the day’s lunch takes shape. Spicy or not for your Buffalo chicken cheesesteak? Fried egg to go with your French toast and bacon?
For the most part, Bill likes to know preferences in advance. Asking a question à la minute can throw a wrench into his streamlined notification system: a group text sent just before plates are ready to be picked up. The midday ping has become almost Pavlovian for PBC workers, to the point where few even look at the content of the message.
“Ten minutes after I texted out the question asking how spicy they wanted their chicken cheesesteaks, people just started showing up in the kitchen! I was like, ‘No, wait, I haven’t cooked anything yet…’” Bill recalled, chuckling while squinting as he chopped a purple onion.
Group texting took over lunch bell duty from a large silver triangle, the metallic ring from which couldn’t quite penetrate the furthest corners of the brewhouse. It still hangs in the middle of the kitchen, which is in a section of the five-building complex that originally went unused.
Just off Frankford Avenue in Kensington, the historic structure was formerly the Weisbrod & Hess Brewery. It had been sitting vacant for more than 60 years when the Bartons and then-partner Tom Kehoe moved their brewing operations there in 2001.
In an arrangement familiar to anyone following the Philly beer scene at the time, the Bartons separated from Yards Brewing in 2007. The split assigned Yards’ intellectual property rights—name, recipe, labels—to brewery founder Kehoe, and the brew tanks and physical location went to Nancy and Bill. There was a six month period, though, during which it was agreed that Kehoe could continue to brew on the Bartons’ equipment (via a lease) as his new Delaware Avenue facility was being constructed.
Left for a short while without day-to-day brewing operations to manage, Bill dove into renovations. One of his first build-outs was the kitchen.
Recently repainted in cheerful lime green, PBC’s kitchen looks like it could’ve been transplanted from your favorite grandmom’s house, the one that’s home to all your best childhood food memories. A few quirky clocks and cat-themed knick-knacks decorate sun-dappled walls. A spice shelf sidles up to a row of slotted spoons hanging above the stove, where a shiny red teapot rests, waiting to be called into action. A fridge in the corner boasts a front covered by photos and magnets, and at center is a broad, wood-topped work counter.
To see Nancy and Bill maneuvering around it, slicing bread and shaking up salad dressing, you’d think they were cooking for their kids (and in a way, they are).
There is one giveaway that the room serves upwards of 18 people every day—most home kitchens do not sport two full-size dishwashers. On the front of each is a sign that can be flipped from “clean” to “dirty,” and when employees are finished lunch, they bring plates back to the kitchen, scrape leftovers into the compost bin, and carefully load their dishes into the proper set of racks.
“If both dishwashers are running, sometimes people stand there, confused,” said Nancy, who oversees cleanup. “I’m like, ‘OK, fine, put your plate in the sink, but just this once!’”
Most employees eat lunch in the large tasting room, which won’t yet have opened to the public for the day. (Management congregates in a separate, ruby-red dining room just down the hall.) More than just providing sustenance, these lunch sessions provide a chance for camaraderie to develop among the brewery workers, which it often does.
At the end of their shifts, many staff members return to the same spot to catch up over a couple of beers. Bill even makes them an evening snack. “They’re drinking, so I figure they should have a little food.”
It’s clear the Bartons view their employees as part of their extended family. And the family that eats together, stays together.