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Google Feeding Its 4,000 Employees Local & Organic Food Three Times a Day--For Free

Google is a company that enjoys its mystique. A bit of the shine may be off its stock, but it remains a formidable internet technical, financial, market and market powerhouse, making very impressive amounts of money for company only a few years old.

Google is now is a culinary powerhouse, too.

Google has gone gourmet. Olivia Wu of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a virtual case study worthy of Harvard Business School, of a company using food service as a key element in its management strategy. She lays out many of the pieces of the puzzle explaining why Google spends so much time and money on employee dining. Photographer Craig Lee's 14 pictures do an excellent job of conveying the nature of the people, places, and food in the story.

Universal food care coverage Google provides three meals a day, for free, to all employees. It has opened a succession of what amount to theme restaurants with names like Cafe 150, Charlie's Cafe, No-Name Cafe, Charleston Cafe and Pacific Cafe, all over the
campus. Employees get their food in cafeteria lines and sit at tables with no linen service because self-service imparts a sense of equality congruent with the company's image and self-proclaimed values. But otherwise, the dining looks and sounds like the food experience in many chi-chi restaurants in Berkeley, San Francisco, or Palo Alto.

The company is spending whatever it takes to bring healthy, fresh, delicious, made-from-scratch organic food to its employees at a the Mountain View, California campus. No outside contractor dishes up hamburgers and fries. Well-compensated company employees in Chef outfits emblazoned with the Google name take extraordinary care to bring top cuisine.

Before you dismiss the move as simply a typically flaky California indulgence of food fads, consider the strategic advantages the company is reaping from the investment in on-campus cuisine.

A strategic vision from the start Sergei Brin and Larry Page, Google's founders, have taken an active role in setting the direction of the company's food service strategy. Back when Google had about 50 employees, they hired Charlie Ayers, formerly the caterer to the Grateful Dead, to cook for them. Such chefs do not come cheap, but evidently Messrs. Brin and Page believed from the start that they should endeavor to remove the topic of food from the worry list of those working long hours for them. Evidently, they intended to treat their valued employees like rock stars. What could be more Silicon Valley?

Everything is taken care of, three times a day. Instead of a burden, requiring planning, shopping, traveling, or even cooking, eating became an opportunity to mix with other Googlers (that's what they call themselves), and to enjoy interesting and varied food that would help them maintain their health.

"We eat here because it's better food than in restaurants, it's healthy, there's variety and it's more casual," says 23-year-old software engineer Jason Byers, lunching recently at No-Name Cafe with Manish Gupta, 30, and Dmitriy Portnov, 28. It's also "an opportunity to talk casually," says Gupta, a vegetarian.

By the time Ayers left Google last May, to start a chain of restaurants, he was supervising food service of about 1,500 employees, and was already a multimnillionaire from his Google stock options. The company won't say exactly how many employees it has now, but 4000 is offered as a reasonable guess.

John Dickman, Google's food service director who succeeded Ayers, says that the company's on-campus dining serves 125% of its employees. In other words, instead of employees leaving the campus to meet friends or associates for a meal, the friends come over to Google and enjoy a gourmet meal that's good for them, for free.

Google employees don't have to waste time and energy navigating traffic to have a business or social meal. They are not going to jam their arteries with cholesterol, and if they are watching their weight they have low fat and low calorie options that taste good and are satisfying.

A healthy employee is a productive employee, and nutrition-related health problems are one of the greatest causes of employee health risk.

Moreover, Googlers accumulate social capital within the intense local culture of Silicon Valley. Everyone wants an invitation to come and eat on campus, so Googlers (already an elite) become particularly prized associates. A company which thrives on information, ideas and innovation has a very direct interest in seeing that outsiders are anxious to bring topics of interest to Googlers, something that might merit a lunch invitation. Google is famous for insisting on hiring the smartest people, and for putting prospective employees through somewhat unorthodox screening procedures. Money, stock options and prestige are the primary drivers bringing excellent people to compete for getting hired. But the company's food policies are another great lure,enhancing the sense of being a special elite, removed from the cares of ordinary mortals, and in possession of a special privilege, unavailable to those not chosen for the elect Googler
Club. Some things money can't buy. Providing them instead of money can be economical.

Fusion cuisine The menus and ingredients chosen by Google reflect the incredible ethnic mix of Silicon Valley. East Asian and South Asian ingredients mix with Latin American, European, and Californian food, techniques, styles of presentation, and cooking methods. I confess: I would love to eat there for week straight.

Fish sauce, harissa, lentil flour and young coconut juice are likely to appear somewhere on campus on any given day. The flavors suit the engineers and other employees who, to an outsider, collectively look like a youthful United Nations.

Vegetarian food is widely available, but carnivores are equally served. The current orthodoxy of Good Eating as it is understood in food-crazy Northern California is, however, enforced. The beef is grass-fed. Maybe a little less tender, but much more flavorful. Or so they say these days. Want a shot of kombucha or fresh-squeezed wheat grass? The trend, as they say on Wall Street, is your friend when dining at Chez Google.

The company makes a fetish of serving nothing grown more than 150 miles from its campus, indulging the fashionable belief that local, fresh-grown food is better. This is a much easier restriction to live with in Northern California than, say, at 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. In fact, the stricture provides local PR benefits.

The sheer size of the market Google provides has proven a boon to local growers of organic produce, makers of (for example) hand made Chinese sausage and organic ketchup. In fact, Google accounts for as much as a quarter of the revenue of certain suppliers of upscale, hand-made and organic foodstuffs. Enjoying a more steady business base, they are able to expand and improve their operations, generating good will for the company throughout the local food scene. Almost everyone in the Bay Area business establishment talks about food, eats out regularly, and is to one degree or another bathed in the foodie scene.

Fitting in with the local culture Google's food policies would probably not go down as well in Dallas as they do in Mountain View. But they are very well-matched to the culture from which springs the creative and high end technological employees Google seeks to hire, retain, and work hard for at least 50 or 60 hours a week.

If Google were in the industrial fastener business, there would be no point in taking all the time and expense the company does, beyond a genuine concern for employee welfare and happiness. But in the high tech business niche it occupies, recruiting the best employees is critical. And so is the ability to share information, within the company, but also from selected outsiders.

The veneer of politically correct eating is also in tune with local sentiments in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company, which has legally resisted some domestic anti-terror efforts while capitulating to Chinese demands for web censorship, is becoming known as a bit of a liberal-left outpost, so it is likely not troubled by such associations.

But I take the company at its word that it is truly interested in doing well by the employees who do well by the company. And the company remains flexible in adopting catch phrases arising even from evangelical best-selling authors. Food service director Dickman sums it up well:

"We create menus with a thought and purpose in mind. Whether it's your health, conservation or incredible flavors, we have become a purpose-driven culinary team."

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.