Silicon Valley: where the lure for millennials is free food

Hannah Kuchler says canteens for Californian techies may be stunting their development

Silicon Valley: where lunch is on the company

Silicon Valley: where lunch is on the company


One Saturday afternoon, I was sitting on the sofa in my San Francisco apartment, spooning out the insides of an avocado. I had bought it in the conventional way, at the supermarket.

“I wish Google bought more avocados,” sighed my roommate’s girlfriend, disappointed at the free canteen’s inability to anticipate her desires. Her tech employee salary could stretch to acres of avocados, but her workplace culture had not empowered her to make the journey to the shop herself.

Silicon Valley companies are celebrated for their free canteens, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the snacks necessary for a midnight feast. Not having to worry about food is part of the lure for millennials.

But this apparently generous gift to young employees – which comes on top of high salaries and perks ranging from dry cleaning to massages – also infantilises them. They learn the exact opposite lesson from that which most parents strive to teach their teenagers: that it is good to take responsibility for feeding yourself.

“Amazing not to have to think about lunch,” writes a LinkedIn enterprise relationship manager in New York on Glassdoor, the employer review website. More than 100 LinkedIn employees mention the food.

An anonymous Facebook employee seems fearful of procuring a meal in a review from January 2015: “Free food!!! Cannot stress enough how much I love this. This saved seriously my life.”

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in their 2004 letter to potential shareholders before the company’s initial public offering, pledged not to be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” by skimping on employee benefits. These, they pointed out, could help the company in the long term by increasing health and productivity.

Other tech companies copied the idea: free food attracts staff, stops people losing time and helps to generate ideas by encouraging employees to mix at meal times. But do the arguments stack up?

The Glassdoor reviews prove the techies right: free food lures employees. But the appreciative reviewers are hopeless and hyperbolic. Nothing screams grown-up like three exclamation marks.

Does free food stop people wasting time? Probably not.

For shareholders, the evidence is fuzzy. Google, Facebook and Twitter are among the many offering meals for free, but Apple and Microsoft do not. Long-term productivity gains are not yet reflected in the share prices: in the past 10 years, Apple has risen by more than 700 per cent compared with Google’s 225 per cent. Twitter’s problems with user growth do not seem to have been solved by well-fed engineers. Microsoft did not fail to magic up a mobile strategy because it charges in the canteen.

Perhaps the best argument for free food is that ideas can spread, skipping from team to team at canteen tables like food poisoning. But in my years of technology reporting, I have found no evidence that smart ideas were dreamt up over the salad bar.

The approach may have worked better when Google was a small company, deciding in 1999 to hire its first chef, Charlie Ayers, who once catered for the Grateful Dead. It cannot work as well in canteens spread across two million square feet in Mountain View and around the world.

Instead, I hear vague assertions that food is core to corporate culture. Any anthropologist will tell you that food and culture are closely linked, but what if it creates the wrong kind of culture?

Free food rewards the not-quite-grown-up employees, while excluding staff who should be prized: those with the ability to work and hold outside responsibilities at the same time – such as fetching the groceries and parenting.

Silicon Valley worries about decision fatigue. Mark Zuckerberg uses this fear to justify his wardrobe full of grey T-shirts. Software engineers use it as an excuse to drink Soylent, the sludge-like meal replacement drink.

But instead of running away from complexity, employees and leaders should get comfortable with a hard pace of decision-making. It may even help to practise on the smaller decisions in life, like my personal achievement of buying an avocado. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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