They Are What You Eat

They Are What You Eat

January 24, 2020

In a 1780 letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams proposed a chronology of generational obligations for learning. It was his duty, the future president wrote during a sojourn in France, to “study politicks and war,” that the next generation “may have the liberty to study mathematicks and philosophy,” that the next should have “the right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

Mr. Adams’s epistle ending there, modern readers cannot know whether, with more paper and time, he would have eventually previsioned the 21st-century corporate campus where word clouds are studied in both digital and material states so that the current youngest generation of workers may attain a perfect knowledge of Cinnabon brand identity.

We can only assume that when, in a separate letter written three years earlier, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, he expressed his wish that posterity would “make a good use of” the liberty he sought, he had in mind something like the 62,000-square-foot headquarters of Focus Brands, the Atlanta-based operator of 6,536 food franchise locations.

Behind every snack food franchise is a story — a young mother raised in the Amish church takes over a pretzel stand in the wake of devastating personal tragedy; a flat tire on a hot day forces a Greek immigrant ice cream man to serve a rapidly softening frozen product — that is eventually obscured by the unrelenting popularity of its low-cost, high-indulgence, addictively delicious treats.

Behind every Cinnabon Classic Roll is an office of people dedicated to preserving its legal status, ingredient consistency, financial viability, informative yet friendly online presence, uniformity of storefront appearance, marketing power and cultural legacy.

Not to mention designing, photographing, printing, filming and distributing the materials that make it possible for anyone of legal working age in the United States to acquire the knowledge of Cinnabon Classic Roll fabrication in accordance with company standards. Ditto a Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake or an Aloha Pineapple smoothie.

Roughly 375 such individuals work in the main office of Focus Brands.

Focus owns and governs the Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Jamba (formerly Jamba Juice), McAlister’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Schlotzsky’s brands. In its offices, these have been boiled down to their very essences and those essences in turn splashed upon the walls, suspended from the ceiling and drilled into the exposed concrete pillars.

The most arresting manifestation of these brands is the floating text that hovers in altocumulus formation above a brightly lit walkway off the building’s main entrance. “Creamy frosting buttery AWESOME irresistible HOMEWRECKER,” declare (some of) the words, which Steven DeSutter, the C.E.O., said, were chosen by brand leaders to “give them a chance to say what words define your brand.” (“Homewrecker” is a type of burrito at Moe’s.)

Closer inspection reveals the text’s hues are not the standard ROYGBIV rainbow array, but reflective of the idiosyncratic palette of Focus Brands: Cinnabon turquoise, Auntie Anne lapis, the oxblood standard of Carvel.

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The colors signify that here are employed the diplomats who bring Cinnabon to Pizza Hut and to Egypt; the researchers who have determined that the sticky bun recipe should be less sweet in Asia to appeal to consumers; the men and women who photograph “milkshakes” made of mashed potatoes and crushed up Oreo cookies that exactly resemble Carvel milkshakes, but do not melt.

Mr. DeSutter’s aims in creating a new headquarters for Focus — designed in 2015 by Gensler, one of the world’s largest architectural firms (it also worked on a recent redesign of the New York Times offices) — were twofold: to fortify connections between the siloed brands, and to create an environment attractive for millennial workers. To that end, he directed his head of human resources to seek input from young Focus employees.

“I said, ‘They will be your primary adviser group, because I want to make sure that whatever we build, we build with Generation Y, Z as a primary interest in mind, because I’m building for the future. I’m building for the next generation,’” Mr. DeSutter, 65, recalled. “Because believe me, baby boomers were not going to get excited about having no walls in an office. So there was no reason to ask them what they wanted, because they’re going to tell you they wanted high cubicles or walls in an office.”

Erin Greer, 38, a director of Gensler Atlanta’s Workplace Studio who contributed to the project, said that a challenge of multigenerational office design is to create a “space that doesn’t alienate anyone” while bearing in mind that corporate clients typically acquire their spaces under leases of at least 10 years, a time span in which employee demographics can shift “drastically.”

“Another underlying layer is how people are educated,” Mrs. Greer said. “Traditionally education happened in a very rigid kind of form. And now when you go into schools at whatever level, it’s much more collaborative and solution oriented. And that, I think, has led to some of the evolution you see in the workplace and how people are taught to interact with each other and work and problem solve across industries.” A Montessori office.

What did Focus’s millennial advisers call for in the workplace of their dreams? A pool table, which never materialized because of lack of space, according to Mr. DeSutter. The desired swing sets in conference rooms were installed, suspended from sturdy metal chains, giving said rooms a louche corporate pleasure dungeon vibe.

Most have now been removed (“they’re easy to fall out of,” one employee said), but two remain — black accents in a lime green meeting room (lime carpet, lime upholstered benches, lime walls) where varieties of potato chips offered at McAlister’s are listed on the walls in concentric circles of jumbo text.

Besides bright colors, silver stools that resemble tree stumps, and unexpected graphic presentations of food-related adjectives, Gensler and Focus’s aesthetic feast for millennial tastes manifests primarily in the layout: open and collaborative.

Research on the merits of open offices is mixed. Gensler company literature suggests a majority of “knowledge workers” prefer “some sort of” open plan, while some studies have found that open offices imperil employees’ job satisfaction, musculoskeletal health and “psychological privacy.” Whether for good or for ill, they are prevalent.

Proponents cite their shared, common windows as a major advantage over cubicle warrens. These airy, symmetrical, light-and-glass-filled spaces that stretch to the near horizon are indeed beautiful, in much the same way the ninth floor of the Asch building in Manhattan — its large windows casting luxuriant light onto its open work area from their generous southern exposure — was beautiful, until the afternoon of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

This is not to imply that the Focus offices, which conduct regular fire and shelter-in-place drills, are in any way unsafe, merely that they provide the kind of dreamy access to natural light that designers have pursued for centuries. Nor is it intended to portend ill for, or in any way curse, the work force of Focus, a presumably representative sample of whom were, on a recent visit, welcoming, good-humored, eager to share knowledge and friendly. Nor is that intended to imply Triangle seamstresses lacked such qualities.

At Focus, most work spaces are structured around so-called bench seating, where employees are seated on chairs at long communal tables, with individual spaces demarcated by low partitions.

Singular features abound on the premises, like the thousands of little glass balls that hang from what looks like threads of the finest spider’s silk, arranged into the word “FOCUS” on the executive floor. Then there are the test kitchens.

Here, on a recent Wednesday morning, Cinnabon’s lab-coat-clad executive chef Jennifer Holwill, 41, scrutinized smears of caramel spread before her on parchment paper for purposes related to “risk management.” (The risk: a DEFCON 2 scenario wherein Cinnabon’s caramel manufacturer would be rendered unable to produce the vast quantities of caramel required to satiate a nation.)

It is in these miniature commercial kitchens that new products are researched and designed (with the notable exception of menu items from Auntie Anne’s, whose test kitchen and creative facilities are based out of a historic former post office in Lancaster, Pa., for reasons that seem largely to hinge on the undeniably accurate tautology that Auntie Anne’s is “a Pennsylvania-based company”).

It is here where a limited-time offering like a Cinnabon Churro Frosting Sandwich can be tweaked to such perfection that the Dr. Frankensteins who created it are left with no choice but to prolong its life indefinitely, incorporating it into menus as a permanent feature.

Ms. Holwill said that colleagues have offered to buy fresh-baked samples from her — verboten, as test kitchen chefs are only allowed to offer samples (should they care to offer samples) first come first served. (The nearest location where Cinnabon MiniBons can be legally and ethically purchased by employees is a mall roughly 15 minutes away.)

But because it is 2019, some of the most urgent work in the building is done by the social teams. A major force of Focus public relations is Marissa Sharpless, a virtuosically engaging senior manager of social media and P.R. for Cinnabon who, speaking off the cuff, paints a brand picture of such depth and volume that it rivals any by Caravaggio.

Mrs. Sharpless, 34, can keep watch over Focus’s byzantine, constantly updating social channels on the building’s ground floor, where a wall-mounted TV displays social interactions. It is possible here to observe in real time as people direct their ire, daydreams and profane, improbable questions @JambaJuice, @Schlotzskys, @AuntieAnnes.

Through a deft series of clicks, Mrs. Sharpless summoned a page of graphics onto her laptop screen. Here was the world’s collected knowledge (or at least articulated Twitter observations) about Cinnabon over the past month, broken down into hashtags, emoji clouds, choropleth maps of the United States, pie charts, bar graphs, line graphs and days of the week (Cinnabon typically “pops” on Tuesdays).

There was also some kind of something where purple was supposed to stay high because purple was sentiment and, said Mrs. Sharpless, a rise in conversation coupled with a drop in sentiment is “the last thing you want to see.”

The top emojis people had felt about Cinnabon were crying laughing, sobbing, heart eyes and anguished. Words and phrases were assigned a color: green for positive emotions (“crave”), red for negative ones (“not that great”).

Upstairs, Robby Ayala, 28, a social media manager for Moe’s Southwest Grill, maintains the brand’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. He said the most difficult aspect of his job was coming up with unique content about Moe’s every day.

“I try to tweet once a day. That’s a lot more challenging than it sounds,” he said, and laughed.

The difficulty isn’t in coming up with an appealingly irreverent tweet to share with fans of Moe’s (a task many could likely accomplish) but in thinking of another one the next day, and another the day after that, and another the day after that, hundreds — potentially thousands — of times in a row, without repeating or embarrassing yourself.

“If you jump in inappropriately, you will get roasted,” he said, reflecting on the recent Twitter storm over Popeyes’ Spicy Chicken Sandwich. “Like Zaxby’s jumped in, they got roasted. Boston Market jumped in. Chick-fil-A took a lot of L’s.”

Mr. Ayala’s job is, essentially, to talk about Moe’s in a brief, hilarious and charming way, without stopping, forever. He found delirious success one day this summer when his tweet combining a meme about aliens in Area 51 with the very notion of Moe’s burritos received roughly 2,100 retweets. But then he had to tweet again.

Maintaining the high corporate standards of some of America’s iconic snack foods in 2019 demands stamina, adrenaline, a commitment to unironically observing National Lemonade Day, high levels of organization and good cheer.

It also requires a willingness to work in a space bursting with digital screens, where, for the general population, all but the most essential walls have been eliminated, and the resulting din camouflaged with pink noise pumped in from ceiling speakers — which is to say, it’s not for everyone.

In his own office, Mr. DeSutter recalled one worker who, years ago, faced with the impending renovation, “said, ‘I’m not going to be able to work in this environment,’ and they left.” That wasn’t the only staff member with reservations. Another employee, who Mr. DeSutter described as long tenured, asked him, “‘Aren’t you worried that you’re going to ruin the company?’”

“I remember, on the first day we moved into this building,” Mr. DeSutter said, “when that particular individual sat down at their open desk, I sat beside him for a few minutes and said, ‘This is going to be O.K.’”

He stayed.

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