Free lunches prove popular, if elusive, at B.C. offices

A 2015 study from Cornell and Dartmouth found that people who are hungry are more likely to feel entitled; food in the office, then, could prevent conflicts

There is such thing as a free lunch, and it may make your employees more productive

B.C.’s growing tech sector has had a lot of meaningful influences on the local economy, but perhaps none hits closer to home (hits you in the gut, actually) than the free lunch (or snack or juice). Across the province, the stodgy cafeteria lunch is slowly giving way to in-house bars—touted for their added health benefits—and subsidized meal cards. According to a recent survey, 45 per cent of respondents said that free lunches would strongly influence their decision to accept a job offer.

The perks at B.C. offices

Bull Housser: A full espresso machine
Best Buy: A 20 per cent subsidy at the cafeteria, which includes a salad and noodle bar
EA: Free meals for employees who work overtime or evenings. Chicken lasagna is popular
SAP: Pre-paid lunch cards for Yaletown restaurants including the Yaletown Brewing Co. and Urban Thai Bistro.
AbeBooks: A hot soup bar
United Front Games: Beer on tap
Hootsuite: Cereal bar and cold-pressed juice fountain

Few workplaces can afford to offer perks like Facebook’s resort-like buffets for staff, which cost the company around $15 per employee per day. When it comes to meals, credit at local restaurants has emerged as a popular alternative. Foodee, a Vancouver startup, allows offices to order in meals from local restaurants with the help of a simple online menu and a phone concierge. While Foodee’s primary market is one-off corporate catering (the domain of mixed-bag sandwich platters), companies including Mozilla and Sony Image Works offer employees credit for office deliveries. SAP, in Yaletown, also runs a similar meal credit program for its employees, launched when it scrapped its cafeteria in 2011.

Cody Irwin, founder of Natural Source Snacks—which has installed snack bars for companies including Plenty of Fish and Kabam Games—makes the pitch that free snacks can save a company money on lost productivity: if an in-house lunch keeps an employee making $30 an hour in the office even just a half-hour longer, then a company can save $2.50 to $4.50 per employee per day, for a $15 lunch; snacks or juice, even less. (Worth noting, however, is another study from 2011 that found 50 per cent of employees either don’t take lunch or eat at their desks.)

But if you’re introducing food to save employees time, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reason, according to Cori Maedel, president of Jouta Performance Group, which has advised small businesses looking to introduce food programs into the office. The question managers should ask: does a free meal fit with the company culture? “The idea of breaking bread carries a lot of significance,” she says. “A meal can become a social endeavour to bring your employees together.”

It can also calm nerves. A 2015 study from Cornell and Dartmouth found that people who are hungry are more likely to feel entitled; food in the office, then, could prevent conflicts—or so argue the study’s authors. There is, however, one rule that employers should keep in mind, says Maedel: it’s a lot easier to introduce free food than it is to take it away.