Food, glorious food. Like adding a pinch of salt or a splash of sauce to a recipe, organizations find that breaking bread together—or throwing back a pint—can spice up the workday and feed corporate culture as well as hunger pains.
And it’s not just large or high-tech companies such as Zappos.com, DreamWorks Animation, Facebook and Google where free meals are served up. Employees at AFN Logistics, a third-party logistics provider outside of Chicago, tuck into a free lunch every Friday.
What started when employees numbered in the single digits has continued as the company has grown to around 220 people in 10 years.
“It’s a great way to bring people together,” said Kira Meinzer, vice president of HR at the 10-year-old company. “Fridays tend to be our busiest day, so it’s difficult for employees to leave [the premises], especially exempt employees.”
AFN Logistics, located in an area where the traffic “is horrendous,” started ordering lunch as a convenience for employees, Meinzer explained. It offers barbecues one Friday a month in the summer, brings in an ice cream truck as a special treat and provides a monthly catered breakfast at which employee birthdays are celebrated.
The food is not only a morale booster, a convenience and a stress reliever on busy days but also a recruiting and retention tool, Meinzer said.
“We do know the free burrito isn’t keeping them here, but it’s a nice thank you and a nice perk for all of their hard work,” she noted, estimating that it saves employees about $400 annually.
“Food brings people together in all areas of life,” wrote WinterWyman employee engagement manager Cathy Phillips in an e-mail to SHRM Online.
Employees at the Massachusetts-based staffing firm can find bowls of homemade granola and fresh fruit in the office or enjoy a healthy lunch at the annual benefits fair.
“Food will lure our employees away from their busy desks to take a well-earned break, socialize with other employees, bring a little fun to their days and help them access important company information,” Phillips wrote.
Rachel Sawyers, financial aid officer at The Art Institute of Charleston in South Carolina, thinks that the practice shows consideration for employees.
“A lunch sponsored by management or the organization does a lot, especially if it is during a busy day when staff may be pressed for time for lunch,” she said in a LinkedIn discussion. “Even something small, like fruit and vegetable trays or lunch meats, can do a lot for morale. I don’t think that everyone benefits from this, but it seems in my organization a lot of people look forward to that kind of thing.”
People don’t look forward, though, to the same menu.
“For this to remain a great perk, you have to change up the menu as often as feasible,” said Yung D. Trang, president of California-based TechBargins, which provides a free daily lunch. “The same lunch every week for six months,” he said in an e-mail, “can quickly turn a perk into a potential complaint.”
At Slide Ridge, a family-owned business in Mendon, Utah, that sells raw honey and honey wine vinegar, Michael Morgan sits down to a home-cooked meal every day. The business is in the home of the owner’s parents, and the owner’s mother whips up the meal for everyone at the office and the warehouse next door.
“When they hired me [for marketing], I was told that one of the requirements is that they feed me lunch,” Morgan wrote in an e-mail. “When outside people come for business meetings they invariably are invited to come at lunch time or [to] stay until lunch time and be fed. Business and good food are always a good mixture.
“It may not be a motivator in the sense of bringing more people to meetings, but it certainly makes everyone happy who works here—she is a great cook.”
It’s not a “premeditated job perk,” he added but “a natural extension of a family business” and the family’s sense of hospitality.
On top of that, “I have free raw honey and honey wine vinegar to take home whenever I run out.”
99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall …
Beer Fridays was a regular part of the culture at an IT and design consultancy where Jonathan Myers, PHR, once worked.
“Staff could grab a pint from the in-office Kegerator to sip on during the weekly check-in meeting,” he said in the online discussion. “While I did monitor [it] closely, no abuse of the beer privilege occurred during my tenure.”
According to Myers, the company had a “young, Web 2.0 start-up vibe,” he added in an e-mail, “and Beer Fridays were par for the course in terms of day-to-day operations of the organization,” as were the catered Friday lunches.
Debra Alessi, PHR, tries to coordinate free food with the timing of a presentation, such
as offering breakfast items for a morning training session.
“When I have my wellness seminar the HR department provides yogurt, fruit, nuts, and I bring in a juicer,” she said in the online discussion. “This is the only way I can be sure to have a group of employees participate.”
In fact, one-third of nearly 1,100 full-time professionals working for companies with 20 or more employees said it takes food to get them to show up to optional meetings, according to a nationwide poll by Seamless, a mobile and online service for ordering delivery and takeout from restaurants in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
What’s more, nearly half said the availability of free lunch would strongly influence their decision to accept a job offer, 60 percent said it would make them feel more valued, and more than 60 percent said company-provided lunches would encourage them to eat with colleagues.
“Food remains a relatively untapped perk,” said Nick Worswick, Seamless vice president and general manager, in a news release. “Free food all the time is unrealistic for most companies, but the occasional pizza party or afternoon treat goes a long way.”
Some organizations offer free food as part of their wellness initiative.
Jenny Sherman, SPHR, noted how a previous employer used edibles to increase participation in its programs.
“Initially, it was used to get [employees] to come to brown-bag-lunch presentations,” to hear a cardiologist give health tips, a diabetes professional talk about avoiding and managing diabetes, and experts give advice on being a smart health care consumer.
“We offered only healthy lunches at these events,” she said, using a local organic store.
The program’s popularity prompted the company to participate in National Fitness Day by employees doing a 2-mile walk that ended with a healthy, low-calorie lunch. This led to the employer implementing a Summer Walk program and forming an Employee Wellness Association.
“At the end of the day,” Sherman said, “we had a great workforce that was healthy, lowered our medical premiums and improved cross-function teamwork—a success story.”
Some companies, however, inadvertently send mixed messages with the free food or snacks they offer.
“My previous organization tried to use food as a morale booster, but I thought it was funny because the food served was not part of the wellness campaign,” observed Scott Tario, a consultant in the greater Philadelphia area, who also participated in the online discussion.
“Occasionally, upper-level management would come around with a cart full of candy. Departments would provide pizza as a way of saying ‘Thank you.’ I’m not really sure what it accomplished except to help us pick up a few extra pounds. It might have been better if those same upper-level managers would go around and just talk to people—say ‘Thank you’ directly. Have a short conversation about what was going on.”
Anna Chamberland fondly recalled the camaraderie that grew out of the monthly potluck lunches a previous employer hosted.
“These were wonderful bonding moments—no work allowed,” said Chamberland, who has an HR management certification from George Washington University. “And the meals were meals, anything from Radi’s pork roast with sauerkraut, Gloria’s artichoke dip, my salmon spread [and] veggies, Chuck’s 7-layer dip,” she said in the online discussion. The executive director even asked job candidates, as a final interview question, whether they could cook.
When the company moved into a building that didn’t have a kitchen, though, the potlucks stopped, she said, “and so did the bonding and camaraderie.”
AFN’s Meinzer offers these suggestions to HR professionals and employers who are considering providing free food to employees.
Be sensitive to special needs. During Lent, for example, when many Christians abstain from meat on Fridays, AFN provides a vegetarian choice when ordering takeout.
Remember the night shift. Creative thinking is required when you have a 24-hour staff, as vendors do not cater late at night, Meinzer pointed out.
“Unfortunately for them, it’s a lot of pizza, or we’ll let one person run out and get the food and we’ll expense it.”
RSVPs are important. AFN employees have learned that if the company is going to have an accurate count of the food it orders on a given day, they have to do their part by submitting their lunch form in a timely manner.
Work with the vendor. If possible, have the restaurant put the name of the employee on the outside of each order.
Order extra. “There’s always someone who forgot to order,” Meinzer said.
Establish a food budget. For its lunches, AFN estimated that it spent an average of $7 or $8 per employee and then projected how many employees it expected to participate throughout the year. Include in the budget other free food-related expenses, such as birthday and anniversary breakfasts.
Assess what’s doable. AFN’s annual barbecue, which at one time included onsite preparation, had grown unwieldy. The grill the company used was too small, and it took four hours to shop and two hours to prepare the food for its large staff, so the company hired a catering company to deliver the food and grill it onsite.
Does free food motivate people?
“I suppose,” said Myers, who worked at the company that provided free beer. “But not as much as treating employees with respect, challenging tasks and autonomy.”
“This, like most perks, is the icing on the proverbial cake ... these sorts of perks are tools but cannot be viewed as sole solutions.”
It’s something to chew on.