Putting Food to Work in the Workplace

Every Friday at 1pm Stripe Partners comes together for a team lunch. Usually this takes the form of an indoor picnic – cold meats and cheeses sourced from our local M&S, and the inevitable bar (or two) of chocolate to end the meal on a sweet note. Occasionally we’ll use this time for informal presentations, aptly named ‘Food for Thought’. Mostly though, it’s an opportunity to catch up with colleagues and have relaxed conversations about anything and everything.

The staff cafeteria is by no means a new concept, but it has been pushed to new levels by Silicon Valley tech giants who have attracted attention – both positive and negative – for the edible benefits they offer their employees. If Silicon Valley start-ups and former start-ups are in the vanguard of a ‘corporate culture revolution’, what role does food play in these companies and their successes?

Far from the drab institutional setting that the phrase ‘staff canteen’ might conjure up, walking into the cafeterias of some Facebook and Google offices today feels more akin to opening the doors to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The sheer quantity and variety of options, including things like rotating street food bars and veggie-only counters, provide an often-irresistible temptation for employees who might have otherwise eaten a sandwich from Pret ‘al desko’.

Engineering Serendipity in the Cafeteria

The way in which we gather, cook and eat food is central to how we organise ourselves socially; this is true for hunter-gatherers as much as it is the modern nuclear family. Anthropologists have stressed the importance of eating together, or ‘commensality’, for fostering relationships, empathy and intimacy within a group. In his ethnography of gastro-politics in India, Arjun Appadurai argues that the many rules and rituals surrounding food among Tamil Brahmins have arisen precisely as a result of the “homogenizing” nature of food – its propensity to flatten social hierarchies. In the world of work, food also serves additional functions, such as keeping employees happy and offering competitive perks to encourage company loyalty.

When it comes to Silicon Valley’s cafeterias however, it seems that it is the space in which food is consumed, more than the substance of the food itself, which is imbued with significance. In 2013, then Managing Director of Google Dan Cobley explained that lunch queues in the Google cafe were part of the design – to encourage ‘serendipitous interaction’ among employees which could later result in new projects, and eventually, he implied, new products.

This quasi-campus-like environment echoes that of Bell Labs, the pioneering scientific organisation credited with the invention of the transistor and the first cell phone system, as well as nine Nobel prizes. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner suggests that the design of the Labs’ research complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey, helped to make innovation happen by placing everyone under the same roof, ensuring that ‘by intention, everyone would be in another’s way’.[1] 

The Who not the What of Food

Anthropologists such as Maurice Bloch have stressed the importance of sharing the same food as central to the creation of bonds between people (1999). However, this idea of ‘serendipity by design’ shared by Google and Bell Labs implies that eating in the same cafe – or even just waiting to eat in the same line – is what enables forms of collaboration which are different from more structured interactions, such as meetings. It is the lunch queue or the micro kitchen which enables innovation, rather than the food itself.

Baskets brimming with trendy ‘health’ snacks and five types of espresso on tap may help to reinforce the collective identity of tech workers. However, when it comes to the role of the food itself in fostering collaboration, what Appadurai termed its ‘semiotic virtuosity’ – the ability of food to communicate multiple different meanings – may be of limited relevance. In many ways, workplace commensality in Silicon Valley is less about what is being eaten and more about who you eat with.

More specifically, this new workplace commensality is about not eating with the people you share desk space with – those with whom you likely already have the strongest bonds with. This doesn’t necessarily lessen the importance of the quality or strength of relationships built across desks and meeting room tables. But it points to the perhaps peripheral role of the food itself in fostering the kind of collaboration that leads to innovation. 

In the innovation-driven workplace, it’s not what you eat so much as where, and who you eat it with.

// Giulia Nicolini


[1] Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory (2012), p.164

[2] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Gastro-politics in Hindu South Asia’ in American Ethnologist (1981)