Forty years ago, Philadelphia's Aramark Corp. won its first Olympic prize - it was hired to feed the athletes at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
It has been the caterer to the Olympics ever since, wherever in the world the games have been held. The customer, as it is this year in China, has been the host committee, not the international Olympic organization itself.
This long-running Olympic role has become part of the culture of privately held Aramark, which employs 240,000 people in 18 countries and reported $12.4 billion in sales last year.
Vice president Marc Bruno, 36, has helped manage four of Aramark's Olympic operations, dating to 1996 in Atlanta. The games, he said, have provided a way for the company to test new overseas markets and recruit people who can work well with coworkers and customers from varied cultures. Feeding 10,000 people an hour - in temporary facilities - helps the company develop the poise and focus of an athlete.
The games, Bruno said, have become a quadrennial opportunity to test and refine the company's information-technology and logistics systems. They are also a time for many employees - 7,000 this summer in Beijing - to network with people in distant parts of the company.
Aramark, a multifaceted service enterprise, provides uniforms, operates facilities, and manages a multitude of other tasks. But it is best known as a food-service provider - an operator of company cafeterias, hospital kitchens, college dining centers, prison mess halls, school lunchrooms, and catering operations at conference and cultural centers. Its food is also part of the fun of ballparks, national parks and amusement complexes.
At the Olympics, chef Douglas Bradley said in a telephone call from Beijing, Aramark will provide healthy food to fuel the athletes' performance "and tastes and smells that remind them of home."
Nearly a year ago, Bradley and his team began testing more than 600 recipes for this year's games. Most of the work was done in Philadelphia.
"We waited until we got to Beijing to test the Chinese dishes. We wanted to make sure they were authentic," Bradley said.
The food for 3.5 million meals served over the 17-day event will be prepared by Aramark chefs from the 18 countries where the company has operations. "When the athletes see a chef from their own country, they feel good," Bruno said.
The biggest challenge is making sure that the food arrives at the right time and in the right quantities, and that it is kept safe from tampering and at the right temperature. The system is able to track shipments, minute by minute, "from the grower to the plate," Bruno said in an interview at the corporate headquarters in Aramark Tower, 1101 Market St.
Knowing the precise amount needed at each hour is critical. "We do not want to run out, and we don't want waste," said Bradley, who once prepared meals at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Wachovia Center.
Aramark has developed a database and software that can analyze real-time data and forecast demand at each hour of the round-the-clock operation.
But there are also personal challenges, Bruno said. Working games in places as diverse as Mexico City, Sarajevo, Seoul, Barcelona, Sydney, Montreal, Lake Placid and Los Angeles, among others, has taught a lot about negotiating business transactions in different cultures.
"Negotiating with the Chinese is very different from the Western style," Bruno said. Their processes, he said, are deliberate and careful, with more specific defined areas of responsibility and central controls.
"Meals during the negotiating process are extremely important to them, an important gesture of trust," he said.
Working the Olympics teaches respect and the importance of remaining flexible, Bruno said, adding: "The last thing we want to do is barge in and say, 'Here's how it is going to be done.' "