Food and Work: The Lifeblood of San Francisco’s Tech Boom

lunch at your desk food work

At San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, workplace wellness execs, professors of design and nutrition and some of the country’s most distinguished leaders in food and health gathered to discuss  American eating habits at a place less sexy than restaurants, less obvious than homes, but no less important or intriguing: the American workplace.

This conference, held in 2014, has stuck with me because of a startling realization I had there: many of us all but live at work. And with the culinary arms race only intensifying among San Francisco tech companies, there are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

About 700 years ago, the first mechanical clocks were installed in public squares in Germany. They signaled the start and end of the workday, and when to break for lunch. Today, for salaried employees and those holding down multiple jobs, the American work clock is all out of whack—the starting and stopping of work is far less clear than it used to be. That’s partly because of greater flexibility, but mostly because technology tethers us to work like never before. Long known for our work ethic, today we are outworking even ourselves: Americans now work 200 more hours per year than we did in 1970. From the realization that “sitting is the new smoking” to the chronic stress and the brunt we bear with our food, our workaholic culture is killing us.

As a result of longer hours, we’ve had to bring food into the office. So what is the role of food in workplaces across San Francisco, and what does eating on the job here look like today?

On one end of the corporate food spectrum is “Sad Desk Lunch.” We are more willing than ever to keep our heads down and work through lunch. Forty percent of us dine at our desks, participating in the national pastime known as multitasking. Just one in five workers in North America take regular lunch breaks. We make a point of minimizing the time spent obtaining, preparing and consuming food.

I’ve certainly been there myself—hunched over a plastic container of some premade salad, being semiproductive but mostly staring at the screen, spewing crumbs and drops of dressing across the keyboard. Glancing over at a colleague, I might see him eating any of the thousands of types of microwavable meals on the market, a food category that goes hand-in-hand with the widespread practice of solo dining. Not to mention a lack of concern for the aroma it might be piping through the office.

The entire lunch-at-work paradigm was revolutionized by the invention of two magic-inducing boxes: the microwave oven and the desktop computer. Together, they turned white-collar workers into keyboard-clogging victims of early-onset hunchback.

By 1993, more than 75% of American office workplaces had a microwave. And today, the microwave has helped transform the workplace . . . into a hotel. An extended-stay hotel, that is. With everything from high heels stored under the desk to deodorant in the back of the file cabinet, many employees today basically move into the joint, except instead of everyone having their own room, everyone has a personal pantry. People do entire grocery runs Monday morning, filling the communal fridge or freezer with their week’s worth of meals.

Once, I waltzed into the communal kitchen of a San Francisco office where I had just started working, and I saw a beige mottled blob emerge from a vacuum-sealed plastic package. Kind of like a jellyfish, minus the tentacles. I was utterly at a loss to identify the food. But that squat, cylindrical brick turned out to be a soon-to-be-microwaved serving of steel-cut oats from Trader Joe’s. This was my new colleague’s breakfast routine.

What dawned on me then was a vision of the future: an orderly lineup of sparkling stainless steel freezers in a warehouse-size office kitchen, each freezer engraved with an employee’s name, and each paired with a matching stainless steel microwave on an adjacent counter. With a freezer all to oneself, each employee stocks an entire career’s supply of frozen meals and snacks. Lives made up of days spent like zombies, every day the same pattern: from the desk to the freezer to the microwave to the desk to the freezer to the microwave, and on it goes.

What might floor you is that Sad Desk Lunch is so common, so deeply entrenched in American culture, that it even influences the design of food products themselves.

“We work more hours than any other culture, and we eat at our desks more than any other culture,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights at the Hartman Group, a firm specializing in food- and beverage-related consumer behavior. “Whether it’s ramen, or things that won’t stain your keyboard, it’s really gotten to that stage. Cupholder food and that kind of thing—so many manufacturers ask us about packaging innovation, and hand-to-mouth snacks that you can eat in your car or at your desk. Our clients are constantly requesting new products like this.”

Companies are actually inventing foods—and ways of delivering foods to us—that take into account that we eat them while at our keyboards. Especially snack foods. They are doing this because they’ve figured out that we won’t leave our computers just to eat. Ramen, you see, floats in a clear liquid. Or take popcorn: if you’re eating it at home while watching TV, you might be fine with a cheddar seasoning of some sort, but for work occasions, popcorn makers are looking for innovative flavors that won’t leave finger residue.

On the other end of the food-at-work spectrum, we’ve got the marriage of coding and cuisine. Today you can hardly say “tech company” without “free food” in the same sentence—and people want specifics. What snacks are stocked in the office kitchens? What global cuisines are represented in the cafés? What special social events are sponsored? Recognition banquets and team-building offsites like white-water rafting would be nice—but, for goodness’ sake, do they at the very least do bagel Wednesday?

Catered lunch at start-ups is now all but expected, and larger tech companies won’t flinch at hiring a full-time pastry chef. You might find just-baked cookies and boba tea at Dropbox, and frostings dyed with watermelon radishes and herbs plucked from the rooftop garden at Zynga. Twitter’s kombucha is legendary. Before being acquired by YouTube, music start-up BandPage held a Game of Thrones–themed feast featuring 16th-century recipes, the show’s soundtrack playing in the background, and crowns for all.

google cafe

Credit goes to Google, though, for first recognizing that providing its employees with food was not only an incentive for talented people to take jobs there, but also led to productivity, loyalty and happiness. (A series of studies conducted at the University of Warwick in England, for instance, found that happier workers are 12% more productive.) Googlers are pampered with copious spreads, exotic flavors from high-end chefs and the assurance that food is never more than 150 feet away. And that culinary reputation has become an indelible factor in Google’s ranking as the top company in the country to work for.

The website Glassdoor, which has a large database of job openings, salary information and company profiles, conducted an Employee Appreciation Survey a few years back, and the results were stunning: according to the survey, free food—which they termed “unexpected treats and rewards”—beat out all nonmonetary forms of appreciation an employer can provide. It outweighed personal recognition, social events like holiday parties on the employer’s dime, opportunities for career growth and being included in company decision-making.

In recent years, Airbnb—and the food at its San Francisco headquarters—has emerged as a standard-bearer for workplace dining. It has even snatched up top culinary talent from nearby restaurants. (It’s among several tech companies known for luring in cooks through family-friendly work hours and benefits. Along with an innovative corporate culture paired with tech-level resources, these perks give creative culinarians lots of room to think outside the kitchen.)

At Airbnb, the chefs are in charge. Instead of offering a food court of options aimed at pleasing every dietary demand, they curate the menu, offering just one cuisine per meal. That might mean having Brazilian for breakfast, Hungarian for lunch and Vietnamese for dinner. And for each meal, employees are greeted by a posted listing for a real stay in whatever part of the world that cuisine is from—say, a surfer’s studio in Ipanema, a loft apartment in Budapest or a bamboo bungalow in Ninh Bình province.

“The whole point of Airbnb as a company is to help people belong anywhere—to start to understand what it’s like to live in a place and experience the culture,” says David McIntyre, Airbnb’s global head of food. So that philosophy applies to the way they feed employees. “We start with the purpose of the program, which is to create and strengthen community among people in the office. It’s not as a perk to save people money at lunch or to keep them from leaving the building.”

Instead, they feel that by having that single offering, it moves employees away from “hyper personalization” and encourages everyone to come together to take a break: “We’ve found that collectively sharing a common meal helps humanize the workplace in a profound way, improves eating habits and avoids entitlement.”

Beyond fostering conviviality and drawing inspiration from hundreds of international cuisines, Airbnb is all about zero waste. “The only individually packaged thing in the building is a cough drop,” McIntyre says.

To that end, on the beverage side you won’t find single-serving bottles or containers. Instead, the building features walls of eco-friendly drink taps. With over 100 taps, you can choose from various spa waters, or recharge with a yerba mate green tea energy drink. A key difference compared to some other corporate cafeterias, though, is that one stretch of taps is essentially an open bar. That’s right: a self-serve station for beer, wine and cider. (All from California, of course.) And despite a few raised eyebrows, employees don’t abuse the free-flowing alcohol. McIntyre attributes the self-regulation to social pressure, given that everything is out in the open. At a company where people take their work as seriously as they do, being the lunchtime lush wouldn’t sit well.

So this is all quite nice. I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat at these workplaces? From Market Street to Brannan Street, from elevated grain bowls to small-batch trail mix, food has become valuable currency in the tech economy. Except there’s just one catch: an increasing number of young tech workers appear to eat nearly all their meals at work. The results of this social experiment have yet to be realized. But we might risk raising an entire generation of the workforce that can’t begin to navigate a grocery store, boil an egg or make themselves dinner—we might risk raising an entire generation of food illiterates.