Stylistically, Campbell Soup Co.'s sleek new employee center in Camden is about as different as it can be from the company's redbrick headquarters, which is built like a 1950s high school.
The 80,000- square-foot Campbell Employee Center, opened Monday for the first time to most of the company's 1,300 Camden employees, is dominated by glass and, at night, by light.
"I'm very impressed," said Louise "Lou" Perseo, an executive assistant who has worked at Campbell for 44 years. "I feel like I'm at a fine hotel," she said Tuesday in the building's cafe while trying to decide what to have for lunch.
Campbell plans a grand-opening celebration Thursday with state and local political leaders. The food manufacturer, whose brands include Pepperidge Farm and V-8, said it was spending up to $93 million on the project, including a proposed office park that has been delayed by ongoing litigation over the fate of the former Sears building on Admiral Wilson Boulevard. The long-vacant Sears building, which is a national historic landmark, separates parts of the proposed park.
"It fits into my vision of Campbell and Camden. It also says, 'We're proud to be here.' You can't make those letters much bigger," Campbell president and chief executive officer Douglas R. Conant said, pointing toward large white letters that spell "Campbell's" on the employee building's 280-foot-long wall of red that is visible from afar.
But Conant, who will reach his 10th anniversary as Campbell CEO in January, is not entirely satisfied.
"I get excited about what we've done when I'm looking" toward the employee center, he said during an interview in his office, which remains in a corner of the adjacent headquarters building.
But as he pointed toward the Sears building and land already cleared for the office park, he added: "When I turn around and look that way, I'm incredibly troubled because we have the opportunity of a lifetime."
The employee center is the first addition to Campbell's Camden campus since a research-and-development center went up in 1992. The headquarters was built in 1957.
Campbell announced plans for the center in 2007, before the nation's economic crisis took hold. The plan included an estimated $26 million in state, county, and city money for new road, water, and sewer upgrades, the company said then.
The building, which is open to company retirees, contains a gym with 30 exercise machines, a credit-union office, and Campbell University for employee training.
Some features of the new building, designed by KlingStubbins, of Philadelphia, and built by general contractor Torcon Inc., of Red Bank, were developed with the input of employees.
Those include a store, where busy parents can buy milk, saving a stop on the way home, and aspects of the cafe, such as a vegetarian grilling area. A campuswide vote was held to pick the cafeteria chairs.
To keep waste to a minimum in the cafe, scoring points toward the building's "green" certification, employees who eat in will use white china plates. Takeout is in recyclable clamshell containers.
So what did Perseo, who is retiring this month, choose among the new cafe's many temptations: paella, one of many grilled sandwiches, or freshly baked pizza?
No, she went with her lunch standby: soup, picking Campbell's Select Harvest Light Italian Style Vegetable from among the 11 varieties offered.