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City Businesses Offer Free Lunch to Keep Employees Happy

By Amy Zimmer | August 5, 2014 7:22am
 The free lunch perk is popular at many creative companies as a way to help productivity and happiness.
Free Lunch Perk
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MANHATTAN — When Anne Ferril started working three decades ago as the in-office chef at Fifth Avenue design firm Pentagram, it was one of the few creative companies to offer free lunch in New York City.

However, since then, the perk has become more commonplace as startups sprouting across the city take their lead from Google, which is famous for its impressive employee meals, finding ways to offer staffers complementary lunches in a bid to create community and boost productivity.

"Thanks to Google, the 'free lunch' at work idea is ubiquitous in San Francisco, but it’s still a fairly new concept in New York City," said Lenny Beckerman-Rodau, general manager for ZeroCater NYC, which  delivers lunches to more than 100 local businesses including Foursquare, Tumblr, Oscar and Gilt.

"But as more and more people are exposed to it, it's catching on."

As the demand for in-office meals increases, companies are turning to a range of food providers, from in-house chefs to catering concierge companies to custom meal preparers — fueling a booming local lunch economy.

Here are three models of lunch perks.

The Private Chef

Pentagram began offering free lunch five days a week when the office opened in the Flatiron district in 1978. The area — in a pre-Shake Shack and Eataly world — was a food wasteland, Ferril remembers.

The meals give staffers working on different teams a chance to mix in Pentagram's meeting room-turned-dining room over gourmet meals including roasted salmon and pasta with fennel, leeks and peas.

"We have motivated, creative people who drive themselves hard," said partner Michael Bierut. "I think they appreciate going upstairs to grab something. It’s a little bit of that hacker mentality where people have to be reminded to eat."

Pentagram reduced the perk from five to three days a week in the 1990s and, for nearly two years after the 2008 recession slashed the food budget, Ferril only served meatless meals.

But the company has no plans to stop the tradition, Bierut said.

Ferril has been with the company so long, she's seen it grow from feeding roughly 10 employees to its current 100. She said she shops for groceries at stores like Fairway and looks for ingredients for recipes she can whip up in two hours in the in-office kitchen.

"How lucky am I?" Ferril said. "I make people happy."

The Middle Man

When the tech-focused real estate firm Urban Compass launched last year, the start-up gave its 11 employees a daily lunch allowance of up to $20 to cover Seamless orders, according to human resources head Laurice Thrasher.

But as the company grew, using Seamless wasn't "scalable," she said.

It was too pricey and food ordered from different restaurants would come at different times, meaning the lunches couldn't be communal.

So Urban Compass — now with 100 staffers —signed up with another startup, ZeroCater, that places family-style meal orders with eateries including food trucks like Souvlaki GR, Halal cart vendors and restaurants like Dos Toros, Dinosaur BBQ and Calexico, and then delivers it to the office.

Lunch is a social time, said Thrasher, noting that workers in the Union Square office gather for the meals each day at a long table in a kitchen/dining area that also has a pool table and two televisions.

"Not to be mushy or cliché, but we are really friends," Thrasher said. "The kitchen is not just a place to get water. It's a place where we sit together."

That's the goal for ZeroCater, which launched in San Francisco in 2009 and expanded to New York last year with meals starting at $12-15 per person, including tax and tip.

The company hopes to shift the pervasive work lunch culture of "getting quick takeout and running back to sit at your desk to eat," said Beckerman-Rodau. "We serve almost exclusively family-style to try and slow people down and encourage them to sit and talk to each other over delicious food."

A Rotating Collection of Chefs, Caterers and Restaurants

Artisan crafts platform Etsy has also gotten onto the free lunch bandwagon, offering employees at its DUMBO location meals twice a week.

Etsy's family-style meals — called "Eatsy" — are offered to the 350-staffer company on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and are drawn from local chefs and restaurants with an emphasis on sustainable food, Etsy officials said.

"We work on a rotating basis with a variety of local restaurants, chefs and caterers who provide a delicious, nurturing meal, sourced as locally as possible, for our hardworking staff,” said Etsy spokeswoman Nikki Summer.

Summer said the company plans to continue the communal eating process once they move into their new, larger location inside the DUMBO Watchtower building, but said the exact details are still to be determined.

"We are very excited about the possibilities and opportunities for our communal meals, but at this point it's simply to early to know if or how anything would change," Summer said.

Across the river in SoHo, at the headquarters of online eyeglass seller Warby Parker — which is a Certified B Corporation since it meets high standards for accountability and social and environmental performance — the 250 workers get lunch three days a week from another B Corporation, Mealku.

"When you don't have to go out and find lunch on your own, you have more time to enjoy a proper lunch break," Warby Parker co-founder and CEO Neil Blumenthal said, noting that when the company launched in 2010 it had no lunch perk, but later realized there were several benefits to providing it.

"Communal meals also add additional transparency between departments, a luxury that’s harder to achieve as start-ups scale," he added. "This sparks conversation and serendipitous interactions between new employees, Warby Parker veterans, and even our executive team."

Mealku's dishes come with "stories" authored by the chef, which includes information about ingredients, calories and nutritional content, company founder Ted D'Cruz-Young explained.

Mealku launched in 2012 as a food-sharing cooperative where a network of some 600 amateur chefs shared their meals across the city. The business model shifted its focus this year to serving family-style meals — many of them cooked by Mealku's original cadre of cooks — directly to roughly 300 companies. The meals cost approximately $10 per person, plus tax and tip.

Between five to eight "really talented but as yet under-appreciated" chefs a day are invited to Mealku's commercial kitchen in Midtown where they cook meals for the clients. Clients then rate the meals, which determines whether the chefs come back, a la "American Idol," according to the company founder.

Mealku's goal is helping chefs become "rock stars" without having to open their own restaurants, D'Cruz-Young explained.

"This maker meal platform is about healthful food made by someone rather than something. We’re removing anonymity," he said. "We want to make it easy and obvious to know what they’re eating where it’s coming from and what it’s going to do for them. It's infinitely better than institutional food."