University City

Office park offers new perks to cubicle crowd

It's Thursday, and brokers Lisa Reynolds and Diane Sands have spent the morning as usual, with ears to their phones and eyes on their computer monitors at Aon Hewitt, making a series of lightning-round trades for their clients.

When their lunch hour comes, instead of reheating last night's dinner in a stark, bland break room or rushing to their cars for a quick lunch out, they step outside their offices onto the grassy front yard, where a virtual farmer's market is waiting for them.

Reynolds' and Sands' workplace, Aon Hewitt, is housed in the newly renovated Innovation Park, the former IBM mini-city off W.T. Harris Boulevard. Ever since BECO Management bought the site last year, employees whose companies lease offices there have been reaping a healthy helping of perks.

On Thursdays, the white tents of a farmers' market rise outside, with pyramids of apples, bins of green beans, beets, and whatever else is in season, underneath them.

Judging by the scores of employees thumping cantaloupes and hoisting pumpkins back to their desks, the weekly event has become a success.

"In all of the places we've worked, we've never had anything like this," said Reynolds, picking up a handful of half-runner beans and placing them on a scale.

"It helps. I don't have to go to the store tonight," said Sands. "I've got red and green peppers for my stir-fry."

Jason Stone of Unity Farms in Denver has brought his fresh produce and that of his neighboring farmers to the park every Thursday all summer and fall.

"It's nice for the people that work in corporate parks to be provided a service like this," said Stone. "They're working Monday through Friday, which only gives them Saturday and Sunday to run out to do stuff."

It helps Stone, too, giving him another day to sell besides weekends, when farmer's markets see most of their customers.

"We pick every day of the week," he said. "I have to be able to sell more than one day of the week."

Across from Stone's tent, Arthur Duke peddles his son's homemade breads.

"Today I've sold 74 loaves in a matter of a couple of hours," he said, wrapping breads for customers in line.

The aroma of fresh rosemary, sea salt and Gorgonzola breads drifts from his tent into open office windows, calling to even the most dedicated worker bees in the middle of their business day.

"This gets me out and up for air once in a while,"said Sid Alvis, a project manager for Siemens Energy, which moved its nuclear instrumentation and control division into Innovation Park last year.

For as long as he can remember, Alvis has taken his lunch at his desk, working in a bite of sandwich between phone calls and a gulp of a soft drink before rushing off to his next meeting. Now, at least on Thursdays, he has begun to stray from his desk during lunch hour to browse among pumpkins, gourds and fragrant muscadine grapes outside his building.

As the market closes down for the season this month, workers at the park wonder aloud what's coming next. Innovation Park, they say, always has something planned for them. Innovation Park representatives are keeping tight-lipped as to what is coming up next.

"Every time they surprise us," said Lisa Trill, an analyst with Aon Hewitt. "They've done so much. ... They have a gym for us. I don't even know if I could ask for anything more."