What Google’s Cafeterias Can Teach Us About School Lunches

Silicon Valley employees routinely get the best and healthiest food at work. Doing something similar in our schools isn’t as crazy as it seems.

What Google’s Cafeterias Can Teach Us About School Lunches
Peter Oumanski

Fifty years ago, a cheap lunch ladled onto a tray was a decent enough perk at premier American companies, such as Ford or Eastman Kodak. Today, that wouldn’t do in Silicon Valley, where in-house “cafés” have become a microcosm of modern cookery: a dedicated staff of bakers at Cisco, for example, or an Indian chef at eBay preparing curries spiced by decades of experience.


It’s tempting to conclude that American firms have simply gotten richer, as have blue-chip workers. But this shift from an industrial approach towards food, in favor of one that’s more handcrafted, illustrates how American ideals about labor have changed—and also, how institutional food went haywire in the bargain. “Food service used to be purely about workplace productivity,” says Fedele Bauccio, the founder of Bon Appétit Management, a company that quietly staffs many of Silicon Valley’s swankiest corporate cafeterias, including eBay, Oracle, and Yahoo!, and over 200 universities. “Now, it’s about creating a sense of community.”

Google, for example, says that its legendary free meals are meant to keep people happy and healthy over the long haul–and, of course, working longer at Google. Meanwhile, the setting, with tables for seven to eight as opposed to 40, is intended to provide the right climate for offhand brilliance. “The cafeterias are designed to make food social rather than fast,” says Jennifer Kokowski, who is one of Google’s in-house social scientists and studies the company’s food programs. “We recognize that innovation requires serendipity, and the lunchroom is the best place for that.”

This emphasis on food as a medium for sharing ideas is a marked contrast to the attitude once common among companies of the 1950s. Cafeterias then operated much like factories themselves, reducing cooking to rote processes, providing workers with the speediest, most efficient way to refuel. Schools and prisons, looking to feed their denizens cheaply, followed a similar template. Along the way, they discarded the actual chefs.

Thus, the biggest food innovation at eBay or Google isn’t in the all-you-can eat perks, but rather the return of actual cooks to an institutional setting. The benefits pile up when you consider the granular expertise of someone like Bob Clark, eBay’s executive chef. “My whole approach is to make people excited about what they’re eating,” he says.

For example, he has created menus to maximize a bumper crop of strawberries, using strawberry in salads one day and an infused water the next. (Bon Appétit actually requires Clark and all its chefs to buy 20% of their produce from local suppliers within 150 miles of their kitchens.) Sometimes he’ll sacrifice on one ingredient to buy a nicer cheese to make a meal memorable. And he’ll highlight a single color in one day’s vegetable lineup, since people often decline a fruit or vegetable when it’s mixed with too much variety, thus “giving them a reason to say no.” After all, a good chef is an expert at getting people to like what they do not already—including what’s good for them.

All this is impossible in your typical high school cafeteria, where menu items are dictated months in advance. Yet Bauccio insists that this decentralized approach to food service is replicable and estimates that it would require only a 5% to 10% labor increase for most institutions, with some savings coming from smart, direct buying. “Maybe it’s a little more expensive,” he says. “But it’s not, when you factor in everything else that improves.”


Read more about Google’s cafeteria hacks.

[Illustrations by Peter Oumanski.]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.