Free lunch? Such a thing, daily

Dietz & Watson employees gather round free lunch meats at the company cafeteria in Tacony. The family-owned company solicits workers' reac- tions to the products for research and development and quality control.
Dietz & Watson employees gather round free lunch meats at the company cafeteria in Tacony. The family-owned company solicits workers' reac- tions to the products for research and development and quality control. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

Dietz & Watson puts out a spread for its workers, and it's BYOB - bring your own bread.

Posted: November 22, 2011

Shortly before noon every weekday, people in long cotton jackets enter the cinderblock break room at the Dietz & Watson meat plant in Northeast Philadelphia, spread out sheets of white paper, and lay out a picnic-worthy spread of cold cuts, including roast beefs, hams, salami, maybe London broil, and Muenster and American cheeses.

Minutes later, about 150 dayside plant workers on their lunch breaks, many still in safety helmets, hairnets, and heavy overcoats, pick up tongs and divvy it up. For those who need bread, there's a vending machine filled with hot dog rolls packaged in plastic bags, two for 50 cents.

A similar ritual plays out in a break room amid the offices on the other side of the sprawling plant in Tacony. No two days' deli trays are the same.

Free food - whether it's take-home bread for bakery employees or the staff meals served at restaurants - is a common perk of the industry.

At Dietz & Watson, one of the larger local companies with an organized free-lunch program, it's billed as crucial to the overall operation, said Louis Eni, whose grandfather, sausage maker and German emigre Gottlieb F. Dietz, founded the company in 1939. ("Watson" was early partner Walter Watson, whose name was tacked on because it sounded good, says company lore.)

Besides extending a nicety, "it actually allows our employees to do something for us," Eni said.

That favor is quality control, with some research and development thrown in.

Workers in Dietz & Watson's lab - a room buried deep within the sprawling plant that frequently smells like a cookout as assorted sausages take a spin on those steel roller-type cookers - solicit feedback from the line workers, some of whom are eating products they packed that morning.

How is everything? they are asked. Bob Seaver, a lab manager, says he can tell each product's batch and will research any issues with the products on the spot.

The R&D side comes into play almost organically at the privately held Dietz & Watson, run by Gottlieb Dietz's daughter Ruth "Momma Dietz" Eni, and her three children, Louis and Chris Eni and Cindy Yingling.

Dietz & Watson's Buffalo chicken was developed several years ago after Louis noted Buffalo wings' popularity.

At a holiday party last year, someone delivered "way too much" tomato sauce for an Italian dish, said Louis' daughter, Lauren Eni.

Shortly after, seasonings were sourced, and the lab was redolent of an Italian kitchen as workers tested chicken parmigiana, ribboned throughout with cheese and sauce, that could be cut on a deli slicer.

It reached the marketplace last spring. (Such flavored roasts are made not by injecting flavorings into the meat but by cooking smaller roasts together, along with other ingredients like cheese and tomato sauce; in the cooking process, they naturally bind together as a luncheon meat ready for the slicer.)

One recent day in the executive break room - after the octogenarian Ruth Eni shooed away her grandson's dog - the office workers got a treat beyond the deli meats. It was a hot turkey dish that managers were loath to discuss because it was in development.

Louis Eni said employees can buy packages of meat at a substantial discount at the company store. "Sometimes I pack whatever I had for dinner the night before, but some days, I bring a salad and top it with whatever they have," said Sheron Barrett, who works in the packing room.

Coworker Gina Brazzillo usually goes the BYOB route - as in bring your own bread. For a change of pace, she brings crackers to pair with cheese and hard salami. "Someone usually has mayo or mustard, so it's all good," she said.


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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