It’s hard to be diplomatic about the alliance’s cafeteria fare. ‘A violation of the chemical weapons ban,’ one employee says.
If NATO is serious about banning chemical weapons, some employees say it should start by shutting down its own cafeteria.
Simply put, the food sucks. And to the dismay of some top officials, the company that handles the catering, Aramark, won the contract to provide food in the alliance’s new headquarters.
“They are the Blackwater of the catering world,” said one NATO official — who declined to be identified and expressed fear of even discussing the issue — referencing the private security firm whose guards shot and killed Iraqi civilians. “We could end up dead in a dumpster.”
“Maybe they could end up in The Hague,” the official added, referring to the International Criminal Court which hears cases of crimes against humanity.
The same official was spotted minutes later having lunch in the very same cafeteria. “You don’t join NATO for the food,” he said.
“I am fully aware that the salad bar is just a name for yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s leftovers” — NATO employee
For years, the military alliance has been powered by salads, starters, main plates and desserts whose only common feature often seems to be the color beige.
On Thursday, for instance, there was turkey schnitzel — a tannish cutlet swimming in a brownish sauce of indeterminate provenance, accompanied by two lumpy taupe-and-orange scoops of mixed mashed potatoes and carrots. There was also salmon and fries — a standby that has somehow survived despite being an affront to the national fare of Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s native Norway.
And there was a stuffed tomato with neapolitan sauce and fries, a yellow-brown pizza margherita, and a Portuguese-style tuna salad. The salad bar featured beige couscous salad; beige pasta salad; beige potato salad; beige coleslaw and beige bean salad.
Then there are the soups, traditionally referred to by color rather than content — yellow (vegetable bouillon) and green (celery) on this particular Thursday — and favored less for flavor than for price: an unbeatable 35 cents per bowl.
New building, new food?
So it is not surprising that the opening of NATO’s gleaming new, €1.1 billion glass headquarters just across Leopold III laan from the alliance’s previous campus brought hope of an upgrade in food service as well.
As it happened, the contract for the new building was won by Aramark, the same global food and hospitality company that has run catering operations in the old home since 2004.
Even some officials deeply involved in the development of the new headquarters privately admitted hoping for a different result in the tender process. But NATO’s location, in a desolate stretch of retail parks on the road toward Brussels airport, and its rather large-scale needs — with 4,000 employees and visitors on campus each day and a constant stream of catered events and meetings — apparently yielded a limited pool of suitable vendors.
Aramark beat out two competitors for the contact. NATO would not disclose how much the firm is paying for the concession. Aramark officials, who have boasted online about its work at NATO, referred questions to the alliance.
“The contract for the provision of catering services at the new NATO HQ was awarded through an international competitive process that was launched in April 2016,” a NATO spokeswoman said. “The solicitation of offers was released through NATO’s business opportunities platform. Three firms submitted proposals in response to the solicitation and the contract was awarded through a best-value procedure in September 2016.”
The spokeswoman added that “Aramark is one of the top leading firms in the provision of catering services.”
One consolation, a senior NATO official said, is the contract is only for three years, “to keep them on a short leash.”
NATO officials and diplomats said that so far the food at the new building seemed to be largely the same — but the prices were higher.
One German official noted that the steak frites that cost €5.95 in the old building was now €8.95. The 35 cent soup in the old building is now a 70 cent soup across the street. The same official also lamented that the new building does not have coffee machines that offer a cup for 90 cents. “Every coffee now costs €2.50,” he said.
Asked about the pizza, an Italian official took a step back in horror. “No, no, no,” she said. “This is not edible.”
One feature of the new building that has generated optimism among officials is the addition of an Exki sandwich shop and a Starbucks. The locations are franchises operated by Aramark (the Starbucks will reportedly be the largest in Europe) but nonetheless have generated excitement given there is nowhere else nearby to eat off-campus. A Quick hamburger joint is a 20-minute walk away, not counting delays at the security checks.
The EU institutions, by contrast, are located downtown with many restaurants close by, but also with in-house cafeterias where the food is good and prices are subsidized — leaving some NATO workers with lunch envy.
“We are in a food desert,” one NATO official said. “I’ve never heard anyone downtown wax lyrical about having Exki close by. Well, here this happens.”
At the old cafeteria on Thursday, as officials prepared for a summit of foreign ministers, the tables were mostly occupied, and the turkey schnitzel seemed to be selling well.
On top of a microwave provided for reheating was a book inviting comments and suggestions, which included handwritten gripes dating back to 2015, and the occasional bit of praise.
“The quality of meat in the goulash is very, very poor!” read one entry with “poor” underlined three times. In parentheses, the critic added, “For human consumption, anyway.”
“Your vegetarian plate today — goat cheese pizza — was very good!” a customer named Mike wrote on October 17, 2017.
Another critic, writing in French, declared the soup Andalouse to be “imbuvable” — undrinkable.
One U.S. naval officer, who like others did not want to be named commenting about the food or military affairs, praised the cafeteria. “The food is actually really good,” said the officer.
A senior official who also teaches university students said the reasonable prices allowed him to treat his entire class to lunch at least once a semester.
One young NATO employee said she tried to bring her own lunch, but occasionally ate in the canteen with unfortunate results. “Each time I ended with a bloated stomach,” she said. “I am fully aware that the salad bar is just a name for yesterday’s or the day before yesterday’s leftovers.”
“It’s a violation of the chemical weapons ban,” she said, “and also human rights.”