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Free Food Is a Tasty Benefit at Some Companies

A man sitting at a table with a laptop and chips.

A company fridge stocked with craft beer, bowls of snacks in the break room, "bagel Fridays"—free food and beverages are mouthwatering perks at some organizations.

At iHire, a recruiting firm in Frederick, Md., an entire kitchen cabinet is stocked with single-serve bowls of cereal. In 2018, employees consumed 286 bowls of cereal.

"We take free food so seriously that there is even a dedicated Slack channel for food requests," said Michelle Emmons, iHire's marketing director. Employees can use the internal communication thread to communicate preferences—including for gluten- and dairy-free food—with the office manager in charge of placing food orders.

This company is not alone in offering free grub. The Centers for Disease Control conducted research over a seven-day period in 2018 and found that nearly one-fourth of 5,222 working adults enjoyed this perk.

"Food is love," said Bret Bonnet, co-founder and president of Quality Logo Products in Chicago.

"And since we love our employees so much, we make sure they're all well-fed" by giving each department a food allowance.

Some of the more unusual employee requests have included sugar-laden Fun Dip candy and a particular type of crumpet available only in the United Kingdom. Although the crumpets are pricey, Bonnet's company has ordered them online and had them sent by airmail to the office.

When company meals or outings are planned, Quality Logo Products also offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections.

"By surveying employees ahead of time, we're able to address most of everyone's dietary restrictions, and when we can't, we tend to make up for it with an abundance of alcohol, so they can drown their sorrows" with always-available cheap wine and several growlers of craft beer in the refrigerator.

And there's always free food at MyCorporation, said Dana Case, director of operations at the legal services firm in Calabasas, Calif.

"We cater lunch at least once a month, have potlucks every three weeks, host 'bagel Fridays' and always keep two large bins of trail mix and snacks" in addition to the desserts and other dishes employees bring from home every week.

A 'Way of Life' 

Food freebies is a benefit that is on the rise, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) 2018 Employee Benefits report. The percentage of employers offering snacks and beverages rose significantly to 32 percent in 2018, up from 20 percent in 2014. Findings were based on a February 2018 survey of 3,518 HR professionals who were SHRM members.

And the CDC found that free food accounted for 71 percent of all calories consumed at work. But woe to the employer that serves only healthy options.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Wellness Programs]

"Once the office manager tried replacing the custom food orders with a curated healthy snack-box delivery service, and there was an officewide revolt," Emmons recalled. "Apparently, as much as people enjoy the occasional baked sweet-potato chip or flaxseed cookie, they like a stocked candy bowl even more."

Rob Faulkner, managing director at Datadial, instituted a weekly delivery of free fruit to the London, England-based web design and online marketing firm. 

While employees are grateful for any free food, he said, "I have to admit that when the free [cookies] are on the table, or the birthday cake and prosecco, you better act quickly, as they only last around four minutes, tops."

Onsite snacks and weekly breakfasts are a "way of life" at Perfect Search Media, according to

Nicole Green. She manages HR and employee engagement at the Chicago marketing and advertising firm.

Employees at Perfect Search enjoy a constantly stocked refrigerator containing carbonated water and juices and graze on energy bars and other treats. However, it can be hard to keep up with demand while also adhering to budget requirements, she noted.

"Cold-brew [coffee] is our office obsession of late. We stock the fridge to the brim with $150-plus worth [of it] on Monday, but by Tuesday at the end of the day, it's gone. Folks refuse to drink regular brew. They submit multiple requests for restocks in our suggestion box, but we can only do so much before it becomes too much, so unfortunately when it's gone for the week, it's gone."

Ground Rules

It's important for employers to set boundaries and remain within budget, said Beverly Friedmann, content manager for ReviewingThis, a product-review website based in New York City.

She said at one company where she worked, employees could order free lunches daily within a set budget.

"There were definitely those who went above the limit and used plenty of crafty tricks to do so," such as explaining that they were celebrating a work accomplishment or needed a bigger lunch because they forgot to eat breakfast. "Over time, these expenses quickly added up and can unfortunately eat away at other company benefits and expenses," she said.

"It may also be wise to provide meals only on certain days of the week or to pre-emptively tell employees [your] rules and regulations on food policies. If it is a real problem for your company, it may mean a budget cut in this department could be helpful—or at the very least making an addition to the company handbook and sending out a policy memo."

Beware, too, that some employees may scoop up more than their fair share of goodies.

Rich Franklin, founder and president of KBC Staffing in the San Francisco Bay Area, recalled a client whose new employee treated the company's free weekly lunches as his personal feeding trough.

"During the first free lunch, the man brought an empty Tupperware container and began to fill it up with the sandwiches that had been provided after no more than a quarter of the office had had an opportunity to take some food," Franklin said.

When another employee confronted him, the new employee explained that his wife and children really liked the sandwiches from that restaurant, and he wanted to take them some.

"Suffice it to say, this was just one of many problems that quickly emerged. He did not make it past his probationary period."

At Quality Logo Products, HR heard complaints that there wasn't enough food for everyone, or that some people took more than their share.

"Heck, there was even a food ring, where some employees were intentionally ordering stuff to take home to their loved ones instead of enjoying or sharing [it] at the office," Bonnet said. "We've reduced this unnecessary drama by always ordering double what you'd anticipate any normal human could eat on their best days."

A sign is posted at ThatShirt, a customized-apparel company in Ontario, Canada, indicating how much of the free food each person may take. That has created what the company's director, Mike Sheety, calls "a friendly environment" where employees monitor one another. The employee who spots a co-worker taking more than his or her share gets dibs on that co-worker's share the next time there's free food.

"It becomes rather entertaining when the employees are watching for someone to take more than they should," Sheety said.


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