Startling Facts about Munchies: The Pros & Cons of Office Food

A light hearted (stat rich) look at why office food is a priority for most businesses and the different models that companies can try to deliver delicious fare for their employees

It’s a ploy to limit how much they eat.”

I was rather shocked when the words came out of the well groomed lips of the CEO I was interviewing.

I quickly checked his eyes. Nope. They were flat and without a hint of humor.

The man was giving me the hard truth.

This was way back in 2013 when I was conducting real time Skype interviews with the C Suite officers of Human Resource startups.

The responsibility was to create a report that elaborated how HR software companies treated their employees differently.

After all if they were selling solutions that were geared to sky rocket productivity and profits by handling talent better, they had to have processes in place to practice what they preached.

One of the chosen brands had caused quite a stir by bringing in an expensive dietician with a best-selling course to evaluate the calorie intake of workers and craft a “menu” of snacks and meals that could improve their eating habits.

So naturally I was excited to launch into a conversation discussing why the company had taken the decision and invested the dollars.

But the answer, “It’s a ploy to limit how much they eat” rendered me speechless.

Was it just a way to disarm me and stop me from digging further?

Or was it the actual gospel truth – that the veggies and the fruits and the nuts (all organic) would actually encourage employees to consume smaller portions?

I never found the answer to that one.

But the endless interviews did enrich me with some startling insights into the different types of office fares that are available today and the pros and cons of office food. 

Office Food: A Source of Debate

Let’s start with the numbers and the happier side of the story.

According to Snack Nation 67% of employees with full time access to office snacks claim that they are “extremely” or “very happy” at work.

These same employees also happen to be 12% more productive than their peers who don’t feel that the office hours are pleasant for them.

Workers who are satisfied with their company perks (including the free snacks and meals) also tend to be 37% better at meeting sales targets.

I mean a bagel, it seems, goes a long way in boosting revenue.

Moreover Seamless conducted its own survey and found that 60% of employees believe “free office food” is a token of appreciation of their hard work and contributions.

Since only 42% of workers actually believe that reward programs are effective, many managers often conclude that snacks might improve their relationship with their employees and foster company loyalty.

60% of employees believe “free office food” is a token of appreciation of their hard work

But the narrative doesn’t end here.

The fried food, the delicious pizzas and pastas and the cups upon cups of sweetened tea may create a high that pushes workers to get more done but studies have found that most employees who have access to free office snacks tend to gain considerable weight – often up to 15 pounds because it is easy to give in to the temptation of munching on a cookie – especially if everyone else is snacking with impunity.

So in the long run workers who do not exercise regularly may actually succumb to obesity because of the close proximity to high calorie meals and the whole point of introducing the food – reducing turnover and creating an atmosphere of relaxed productivity – is defeated.

67% of employees with full time access to office snacks claim that they are “extremely happy” at work

Offices also present the perfect brew to trigger binge eating.

A combative peer, the stress of grappling with deadlines and the fatigue of long hours cause people to resort to guzzling – even if they are not hungry.

In the face of such dilemma what should companies do?

Should they walk on the path of precedents set by Google and have the 150 feet rule – that no employee should ever be 150 feet away from a food station.

Or should they be like the brand I interviewed and actually lead their office menu with healthier alternatives of salads, nuts and low sweet, low salt snacks?

And “free food” also comes laden with connotations.

Does it mandatorily include fully stocked meal counters and canteens or are snack bars with yoghurt tins enough?

Should the fare be catered by a third party or do the CEOs and managers give snack subscription boxes a shot?

So many pertinent questions!

Let’s answer at least some by going over the various snack and meal options available to companies.

The Four Categories: Pros and Cons of Office Food

By now we are all on the same delicious page.

Office food isn’t just a perk that the management should think about.

Since competition for talent is becoming more aggressive and there are proven links between meals at the workplace and job satisfaction, companies need to look into what is available and take the decision around providing free meals sooner rather than later.

#1. Corporate Catering

Corporate catering is obviously the most convenient and mess free way to go about the deal.

In this setting the management signs a contract with an independent caterer or a restaurant of repute and hands over the responsibility of rustling up the daily fare to a third party.

The providers may set up their meal stations at the canteen and serve the food to the employees.

Or the hot parcels are delivered to the office premises and the in-house team takes over, unpacking the items and facilitating the distribution.

Corporate catering comes with the following implications:

Budget is the obvious elephant in the room.

The management needs to be confident that the money it spends on the annual contract with the provider will result in considerable increase of employee satisfaction and thus the overall performance of the workforce.

It is better to survey workers and gauge their preferences before investing in this course of action.

If they are more interested in the camaraderie and the sense of togetherness that eating in groups inspires then snack bars are a more effective option because corporate catering puts the focus on the “taste” and the “experience” of eating the food rather than enjoying the company.

Objectives like variety and healthy eating are simpler to achieve.

Since the in-house hospitality team isn’t tasked with actually preparing the food, the management can vet a vendor (or a brand) that has experience providing exactly what it wants.

From seafood items to dairy free desserts and even vegan lunches, the office fare can be simple or sophisticated dictated by the budget and the workforce culture.

There are no slip-ups.

Come rain or shine the meals are delivered on time and piping hot.

The best part about the model is the fact that there are professionals who can be held accountable if the employees aren’t fed.

This knowledge about the presence of a third party vendor separates the company from the meal provider.

Workers do not feel disappointed with their employer if there are delays or other mishaps.

The dissatisfaction is directed at the caterer instead.

#2. In-House Cooking

Some companies and establishments actually invest in setting up a kitchen and pantry to serve meals and snacks to their employees.

They have a hospitality team overseeing the cooking, the stocking and the hygiene considerations.

This option is fairly popular because even though there is a fair level of stress involved in coordinating the lunches, there are advantages as well.

  • After the initial expenses of furnishing a working kitchen, canteen and pantry are out of the way, the monthly investment is far less than what a standard contract with a third party vendor costs.
  • Snacks don’t have to be purchased. The off-cuts from the main meals can be used to create mouthwatering cold snacks and sandwiches that employees enjoy at all hours.

Since the set-up of the kitchen is already present, no special preparations are needed to serve snacks.

Even soups on rainy days and freshly fried chips are not off the menu!

Most companies that go with corporate catering have snack vending machines instead of hot and cold items, just to eliminate the hassle of the kitchen from the equation.

But on the other hand:

  • A plethora of licenses and permits must be procured to ensure that the kitchen and the pantry do not violate office safety rules.
  • A janitorial team has to be put on daily duty to clean the dustbins, the counter tops, the refrigerators and the ovens. These services are notoriously unreliable and if they do not do a thorough job, surprise inspections may cause the food license of the company to be revoked.
  • A code of ethics and separate policies need to be drafted for the hospitality team so that the ritualistic cooking of meals and the clean up afterwards don’t descend into chaos.

#3 Breakfasts & Snacks

If serving meals seems like a giant commitment, companies might also consider introducing their employees to healthy breakfasts and snack bars instead.

Hearty morning fares including waffles, pancakes, eggs, bacons or lean cereal options can be ordered from third party vendors or prepared in the office kitchen.

Throughout the day workers have access to fruit baskets, diabetic snacks, baked chips and granola bars to keep their energy high and the motivation strong.

Liquid refreshments running the gamut from diet cokes to sodas are also easy to dispense.

This is a less elaborate approach but it warrants consideration.

In fact some office meal experts believe that sit-down lunches and dinners formalize eating.

They reduce the number of friendly interactions that co-workers can have in a day and thus snacks and breakfasts are the wiser way to go.

Maybe this is the reason why Google likes longer lines at its canteens and snack counters.

The wait is the perfect catalyst that sparks innovative ideas as workers from different departments brainstorm together.

#4 Subscription Food Boxes

This model is relatively new and it is a perfect fit for smaller teams.

Yes, food delivery is involved but the meals or the snacks come pre-portioned and in handy eat-out boxes.

Employees can take them to the common room and enjoy the mid-meal conversations.

Or if they have a lot of work to catch up on, they might want to have the food in their cubicles.

The mess involved is minimal since the boxes provide eaters with napkins as well as the needed cutlery.

It’s a matter of consuming the items and then throwing away the package in the waste collection bins.

Some subscription companies actually distribute the boxes to the workers and others hand over the food to the hospitality team.

This option:

  • Allows the management to choose the kind of meals and snacks they would like to serve employees;
  • Is affordable, especially for smaller teams;
  • Is flexible when it comes to variety. Subscription boxes change their menus often and generally stick to non-GMO, local produce.

Rules of Thumb for Happy Office Meals

Free food is great. And widely appreciated.

But it is an investment and needs to be optimized for returns.

Here are three things the management can do to ensure that workers view office food as the lucrative perk it is.

1. Think about the generous portion eaters.

Employees are wonderful and unique. Some workers love to try a whole smorgasbord of snack options. While others want to take in their fill of the food they like the most.

It is important to satisfy the cravings of the big eaters so that they do not feel left out. Variety is great. But volume shouldn’t be overlooked either.

2. Allow for some privacy.

Often employees might like to leave their snacks in the refrigerator and return to them later in the day.

Supply food safe post-it notes or markers so that people can scribble their name on their share and save others the embarrassment of biting into someone else’s grub.

3. Respect worker preferences.

Ask people what they would like to eat. And listen to their inputs. Food is an intensely personal choice.

The management needs to toe the line between honoring popular sentiment and catering to special cases.

If most of the employees vote vegan, give it to them. But for those who prefer meat and dairy, incorporate meal choices that live up to their expectations.

Deliberating the pros and cons of office food might not seem productive to companies.

But they need to bear in mind that the Boomers are retiring in record numbers and the Millennials are the talent of tomorrow.

These driven individuals value company culture and office perks that add to their sense of well-being and overall job satisfaction more than the pay check itself.

If food is the way to reach their hearts then “bagel or salad?” is a very loaded question indeed.


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Written By

Trina Moitra

Trina is a part of the CakeHR content team. She is a marketing funnel creator who has worked with 5 reputed HR SaaS startups and established ventures over the past several years. She has experience understanding how HR software should be sold and uses persuasion based strategies to generate results.