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The Wellness Café: Paradigm Shifts in the Indian Corporate Dining Experience

Changing the design of corporate cafeterias can promote employee wellbeing. Image © Garrett Rowland

Having grown up listening to my mum’s controlled yoga counts of inhaling and exhaling while her children downed fruit and vegetable concoctions with regularity, the idea of “what is good for health” is a constant research question at home. In my house and the surrounding community, there’s a culture of sharing tips and recipes aimed at reducing cholesterol and promoting wellness: getting together for Yoga, furious early morning walks or even the laughing club are now seen as essential to leading a healthy lifestyle in India.

Well-being is an essential component of Indian culture—just look at the country’s history with yoga and Ayurveda. However, India’s way of living has undergone a lot of change in recent years—an agrarian economy is now rapidly industrializing with a growing knowledge sector. The IT boom, business process outsourcing (BPO) and knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) have brought more and more Indians into global corporate working environments. With this rise of new work patterns and technologies, the workforce is constantly coping with the amount of information with which they’re bombarded. And these attempts of coping can cause directed attention fatigue (DAF).

The transition into aspirational contemporary routines that accompany rapid economic development doesn’t help: passive stagnant living and poor eating habits are making urban Indians susceptible to a range of lifestyle diseases like obesity, and statistics have shown that these ailments are on the rise, leading to low productivity, ill health, and more sick leaves days. All of this translates into business loss. So Indian businesses are beginning to sit up and take notice of their role in promoting the wellbeing of their workforces.

Indian corporate businesses are promoting wellbeing by providing gym facilities, food establishments, doctors on call, and other workplace amenities. Unfortunately while other workplace spaces are being upgraded with current trends and upcoming tech, the Indian corporate cafeteria remains unchanged. These cafeterias were designed for mass delivery of meals and remain large “canteens” or halls. But as more Indian corporate workers travel abroad and get exposed to different cultures and cuisines, the Indian food and beverage industry is responding by opening new restaurants and eateries in urban centers. Unfortunately, corporate cafés remain dull and boring: they meet the function of nutrition but fail to engender an enjoyable user experience.

If Indian workplaces are to meet their goal of promoting comprehensive wellbeing, they will have to retool their cafeterias. Here are a few ways they could retool these spaces.

Colour it Green

Nothing freshens up the senses like a taste of the outdoors. Greens, yellows, blues, browns, and pastels help the user associate the space with an outdoor setting: sometimes a park or fields of gold. Even better are plants—they serve as visual calmers and help purify the air.

Make sure to keep in mind: real plants are better than artificial, but artificial plants are better than none at all.

Socio-Emotional Rejuvenation

Parks and gardens are associated with restorative qualities and mental relief for the stresses of everyday life. They are especially beneficial for those suffering from DAF. And “third places” such as cafés, diners and food establishments, that support a person’s social connections also function as sources of emotional support; they can have the same effect as a park or garden.

Many Indians still live in joint family homes and are accustomed to sharing conversations over meals. They crave similar environments at work, places where they can converse with colleagues in a supportive surrounding. Building a sense of place into corporate cafés can add restorative potential to an otherwise dull space. Businesses would be well-served by fusing the therapeutic qualities of third places and a green spaces into the vision of their cafe.

Keeping it Fresh

The sight of fresh ingredients and freshly-prepared food immediately spells healthy. It invigorates the senses and takes one back to familiar kitchen smells, spice boxes in the storage room, and flavors. To see food being cooked further champions the concept of fresh on the plate.

In live cooking environments, the meal buyer is not just a passive recipient of the meal—the buyer can provide input on what he wants in his meal and how it is prepared. This ability to choose and decide boosts one’s wellness experience of the café. In addition, it establishes a connection between the buyer and the chef. To sustain such a connection with the food, the café branding and corporate engagement strategies can tell the story of the importance of fresh ingredients, healthy eating recommendations, meal planning, and more.

“Urban Circus”

Most corporate cafés in India are just places to just eat before scurrying back to work—they lack even a hint of India’s eclectic food culture.

The Indian food experience can be seen through the lens of the country’s urban spaces, which offer a variety of culinary experiences: the chaat cart with paani puri being served in banana leaf molded cups, teenagers sitting around grabbing a cheap meal, the craftsman that left his village to weave baskets on the street, shoppers digging through street clothing, people grabbing a cup of chai and reflecting on the long day. Such settings never lack entertainment, and if such an analogy is applied to the cafe, the food is only one factor of the user’s experience of it. Variety in the multitude of cuisines, meal plans, and a robust café program filled with entertainment, celebrations, performance chefs, and music concerts can all add to the experience of the café.

Flex Choice

Competing with the “urban circus” requires café spaces to be flexible. But this flexibility needs to cater to the end user’s desire to modify the space or to be able to choose a certain quality of space per their requirement. Sometimes a user is meeting with a friend, or hanging out with a bunch of colleagues, or hosting a team meeting of 10—the design of the space needs to allow for dynamicity of multitude of functions and varying sizes of user groups.

Oasis of Peace

As much the café needs to be able to manage a variety of users, it must also accommodate users seeking a quiet, calm, and semi-private haven where they can work and grab a bite at the same time. Apart from the right furniture and setting, noise levels need to be mitigated to allow such work.

Flooring choices can determine the amount of treatment required on other surfaces. There is always the possibility of acoustic treatment on the walls and ceiling in the form of acoustic ceiling tiles, fabric, curtains, and acoustic wall panels. Spaces can have flexible partitioning to block off or contain noise. If nothing else works, provide noise-cancelling headphones.

Tech it up

Certain startups in the Indian food and beverage sector (FreshMenu, Swiggy, Zomato) use technology for ordering food, curating food experiences, and even delivering a quick meal right to one’s doorstep. Such tech can ease the stress associated with café operations: automation of meal selection and payment, updates on prep, and automatic notifications about when to collect a prepared meal adds value to the café experience. Further features include meals of the day, dietary advice, calorie intake, or even holistic living tips. In addition, one must remember that the Indian corporate worker is not without gadgets: tablets, smart phones, and laptops. Staying connected is critical to keep business moving. So equipping cafés with Wi-Fi and adequate and convenient plug points enable the workers to work at the café and not feel pressured to run back to their desks.


As the Indian Workplace begins to prioritize wellbeing, these ideas form a premise of how to think about wellbeing within the Indian corporate food and beverage experience. Indian corporate cafés are ripe with opportunity to promote wellness, and it’s time these spaces took advantage.

Kavita is a design strategist at Gensler Bangalore. She believes that a research-informed design process is key to making better people spaces. In addition to consulting and design, she is passionate about poetry, cakes and ‘minimal/invisible’ design interventions that create maximum social good. Contact her at Kavita_Gonsalves@gensler.com.

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