Amelia Ekus has hospitality in her blood. As the daughter of a cookbook agent, she was always going to have a career in food. But if you’d asked her about the corporate dining world before she became general manager at Twitter’s corporate cafe in New York, she might have scoffed at it.
“If you told me a few years ago I’d be working for a corporate dining company I would never have believed you,” Ekus says. “My perception was food coming out of bags, microwaved, and lunch lady-ed onto a tray. I was definitely a bit of an elitist about it.”
Now she’s serving 350 people free breakfast and lunch, five days a week, at one of the top tech companies in the country.
Ekus remembers dining with some of the big names in the food industry early in her childhood. Her mother, Lisa, was always inviting clients over for dinner. And while Ekus couldn’t cook much back then, it was her job to set the table.
“That’s where my love for the front of the house and hospitality come from. All of it stems from when I was really little; we’d have Emeril [Lagasse] or Julia Child at the house and I would do the napkins or the flower arrangements — that was really my weird, nerdy hobby.”
While it was unusual, she says, it meant that she grew up with an incredible respect for the hospitality industry. “We were raised to have proper manners, to make sure we looked presentable, and that we knew which fork to use and which knife to use,” she recalls.
That weird, nerdy hobby became the start of her hospitality career. Ekus attended the Gallatin School at NYU, where students can make their own majors. She titled her degree “Food Activism,” and added a minor in social entrepreneurship. Early on, she was interested in the role that food plays in social issues, including everything from sustainability — like using compostable straws so sea turtles don’t get them stuck in their noses — to industry issues like healthcare and equal pay.
“All of those things contribute to what goes onto your plate, and I want to find a way to have the folks that go out to dinner — by the very act of going out to dinner — contribute something to society,” she says.
And that was part of what drew her to Twitter. As a brand, their commitment to social responsibility excited her. Guckenheimer, the dining company that headhunted Ekus for the job, works with her on what they call the “100-mile initiative” to make sure they’re sourcing as much as possible from local farms and communities.
“They really value service and quality on the same level of restaurants,” she says. To Ekus, it’s important that the restaurant community recognize that the corporate dining world can have talented people doing things that are a little out of the ordinary, too.
She gives a lot of credit to the in-house chef Mark Gandara, who worked at Red Rooster and Union Square Cafe before coming on board with the tech company. Gandara hasn’t repeated a single dish in over a year since the cafe opened. And there’s not just one menu each day — there’s three to four stations, which translates to about 27 different menus every week. And it’s up to Gandara and Ekus to keep things creative.
“We have to make sure that there’s not just something for everybody, but that there’s something everybody is going to love,” Ekus emphasizes.
The biggest difference between the Twitter cafe and her previous jobs, which include a gig as front-of-house manager at Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto in the West Village before she went on to launch the food program at New York’s Neuehouse, is that her current workplace is not quite a restaurant, but it’s not quite a cafeteria either. She’s firm about that: “I hate the word cafeteria. I don’t let anybody say it — it’s banned from the lexicon here.”
Ekus says finding that middle ground is a fun challenge — while the meals may be free at Twitter, she doesn’t work any less hard than she would at a traditional restaurant. In fact, she says she has to work harder to make a real connection with her guests, which means she has to use her service background in nontraditional ways.
In the morning, she’ll often tweet a photo of that day’s breakfast or lunch from the @twEATS account. She says that employees frequently tell her that those tweets were the only thing that inspired them to go to the office that day. “It directly correlates with how happy people are in their day job,” she says. Ekus also helps spearhead initiatives like playful takes on seasonal menus. At the Twitter coffee shop, which she says has a speakeasy sort of vibe (complete with a secret door), the team candies pumpkins and makes its own spice blend for a take on the pumpkin spice latte.
In her downtime, she educates herself on other parts of the industry, pushing herself to learn more by attending conferences and striving to learn more about wine. She’s building for her future, which includes her lifelong goal of owning her own restaurant. In the meantime, having a corporate schedule gives her the flexibility that the hours of a traditional restaurant would not.
“When you’re serving hundreds of people a day, it’s impossible to know everybody,” Ekus says. But it’s small moments of service she tries to find at work: “You have to seek out these opportunities to engage with people and to really make their day,” she says. That, Ekus notes, is what really motivates her.