The role of electrification — for power, heating and cooking — in the modernization of Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, is well-documented. The site eschews natural gas hookups and instead will be supported by more than 902 geothermal wells, in a thermal energy center topped with solar photovoltaic panels. The electricity from Puget Sound Energy will be “carbon-free,” supplemented with more hydropower supplied by the Chelan County Public Utility District.
A centerpiece of the complex will be 77,000 square feet of all-electric kitchens: As Microsoft notes, commercial kitchens can draw up to five times the power used for other functions across a building. Getting that right isn’t just a matter of overcoming technical hurdles — roughly 75-80 percent of the equipment in a typical commercial condition is powered by gas. It’s a matter of overcoming chefs’ and diners’ skepticism about food prepared via induction cook surfaces.
While the modernization isn’t slated for completion until 2023, Microsoft has literally created a working test kitchen for many technologies that will be used there in another location, the One Esterra Food Hall next to the new campus. The all-electric cafeteria opened in March.
“The culinary field is steeped in tradition,” Jodi Smith Westwater, senior services manager of the Puget Sound dining operations for Microsoft, told me. “Authenticity is a big deal in food preparation. That is part of the mindset. But rather than being daunted, we worked with that mindset.”
The One Esterra food hall includes 12,200 square feet of all-electric cooking space, which supports the creation of more than 1,000 meals on a daily basis. (The kitchens on the new campus will serve more than 10,500 meals daily.)
The menu isn’t minimal: There are nine “culinary concepts,” ranging from Masa (Latin cuisine) to Pacific Rim (Asian) and Diner (think all-day breakfast). Microsoft’s food service partner, Compass Group, was closely consulted about the equipment it would take to support this operation, and the two worked closely with manufacturers. This was one of the biggest hurdles for the buildout: Many technologies Microsoft needed weren’t yet available, so Westwater said the company helped custom-design them.
One example is the electric wok central to the Pacific Rim menu, which had to be tweaked three or four times before Microsoft was happy with the design. The energy costs associated with operating the wok are 60 percent less than for a natural gas-fired counterpart. But the electric wok also heats far more quickly, dramatically altering the techniques a chef would follow to prepare a meal — and to determine when something is cooked to the proper temperature or texture. Generally speaking, many all-electric models can heat up in less than 30 seconds; water can be boiled in less than 90 seconds. By the way, that’s also a safety consideration.
“Along the way, we had to make sure we were greenskilling. You can’t gauge the temperature in the same way by watching the food,” she said.
Katie Ross, senior sustainability program manager for global real estate and facilities at Microsoft, underscored the importance of including kitchen staff in the process of moving to an all-electric environment. “The chefs were very important. We didn’t want to have this be a transition where the people who were responsible for delivering had their hands tied. People have pride in their work,” she said.
To involve diners in menu adjustments, Microsoft ran blind taste tests of food prepared on all-electric equipment and natural gas models from other parts of the campus — asking questions about taste, the mouthfeel of the food, the look and so on. Westwater said the results were “all over the board,” which was actually a good thing because chefs don’t want diners to notice. “Success is a little anticlimactic from a customer’s standpoint because we don’t want them to notice a difference,” she said.
Microsoft did have to forgo some food stations including Indian menu items (for one thing, there’s no commercially available electric version of a tandoor oven), and it skipped a pizza oven, although that was more related to employee food purchase patterns, Westwater said.
What remains the same is Microsoft’s “open” cafeteria designs, which provide diners with a view of the food as it is being cooked. The company intends to use that exhibition-style set up to help educate employees about all-electric cooking. “We’re excited about the ripple effects that this might have,” Ross said.
Moving forward, Microsoft intends to construct all new kitchens with all-electric equipment, but it’s still determining the retrofit plans for existing food service operations and there’s no public timeline on those projects, Ross said.
When the company started evaluating all-electric kitchens four years ago, there were still many unknowns for Microsoft to navigate including how long the equipment will last compared with natural gas equipment and whether it will fit in the same space footprint. While some of those questions have been resolved, questions remain about the future maintenance that will be required, she acknowledged.