Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - April 27, 2012

Food for thought

Google's free lunch program aims to keep employees happy, healthy and creative

by Nick Veronin

Google's food program is often cited as one of the company's greatest perks. The search giant has 28 "cafes" in the Bay Area — most of them at the company's Mountain View campus — serving just about any style of food imaginable.

In addition to the cafes, there are snack stations stocked with prepackaged eats and bottled drinks, as well as open kitchens sporadically placed around campus, making it convenient for Googlers to grab a bite whenever they get the urge.

To the cynical outsider, it might appear to be a ploy to keep employees at work around the clock, but according to two of the company's chiefs of chow, it is about much more. Through its food program, Google aims to help employees eat healthy and sustainable products, support local farmers, give back to the needy and foster innovation.

Healthy choices

"There's not a day that goes by where you don't hear someone on campus say that the biggest part of their day was lunch," says Scott Giambastiani.

As an executive chef at Google, Giambastiani is always elated to hear when a fellow employee speaks highly of the food on campus. And he is especially happy that he can feel good about the dishes he helps curate at the cafes he oversees.

As the food program has developed, Giambastiani says, more and more of what is served comes from local, organic sources, is cooked fresh each day and is served to employees with a color-coding system. Foods labeled with a green tag are healthiest, such as leafy greens, fruit and veggies; red items are indulgent and high in sugar, salt and fat; while yellow dishes lie somewhere in between. The color codes — which follow a food pyramid designed by the Harvard School of Public Health — give Googlers "the ability to make healthy decisions really quickly," he says.

The plates are also shrinking at Google, says Marvin Tse, head of purchasing and food services. Originally, Googlers ate on 10.5-inch plates, but these days, they have the option of choosing a smaller, 9-inch dish. "You're not losing that much surface area," he says, before rattling off the equation for the area of a circle — "but it's a little more reasonable."

Another small, but significant, step the company is making toward reining in portions, Tse says he orders prepackaged snack foods in single-serving sizes whenever possible. A few years ago, he explains, many of the snack items served around the campus came with two or more servings per package. And while the company still serves junk food items, they also offer options such as Grown Up Soda and Hint flavored water — sodas and drinks that have far less sugar than their mainstream competition.

Green and local

Being healthy often also means being green — and vice-versa.

"All of the cafes we have here are built as boutique, small-style cafes," Giambastiani says. Even though the cafes are cooking for a large population, they make an effort to use the freshest possible ingredients and produce dishes in small batches. "We're only producing a small amount of food each day, relatively speaking, and the food is fresh."

Cafe 150 is an example of Google's commitment to keeping its food program green, Giambastiani says. With the exception of a few items, such as coffee and tea (which aren't grown in the United States), Cafe 150 brings in the majority of the food it cooks from farms and ranches within 150 miles of Google's campus in Mountain View.

And though not nearly enough can be produced on site, fruit, herbs, leafy greens and honey are all raised on the Google campus, Giambastiani says.

Community

Though the company tries to reduce waste upstream, with 10 million lunches served globally each year, there are always leftovers.

In an effort to make sure as little food goes to waste as possible, Tse coordinates with three Bay Area agencies — Second Harvest, the Homeless Veterans Emergency Housing Shelter and the Shelter Network — arranging pickups uo to three times each week of untouched Google leftovers.

If food cannot be donated to local shelters, Google has a robust composting program, Giambastiani says.

Creativity

Some of the most important aspects of Google's food program have less to do with the food, and more to do with where that food is consumed.

Great ideas come when you least expect them. It is said that the Greek thinker Archimedes discovered displacement while stepping into the bathtub and that Newton had his gravitational epiphany after being struck by a falling apple. Whether history or legend, these tales illustrate the fact that seemingly insignificant events can provide the spark for massive brainstorms.

Tse is well aware of this. After all, he says, his company's massively successful email service, Gmail, was initially thought up over lunch.

The food team has taken a great deal of time in designing the seating arrangements in all of the company's cafes. Some of the cafes have outdoor seating suitable for a small team meeting, while others have large conference tables that can accommodate a larger group. They have even studied how loud music ought to be in the cafes. The idea is to make lunch fun and enjoyable, but also allow for ideas to be exchanged. Tse says the food team is constantly asking, "What's the best way to foster innovation?"

"The collaboration part is key," Giambastiani says. "The food program really breaks down the barriers between teams."

There are so many offices working on so many different projects on the Mountain View campus. Ultimately, though, all of these projects are a part of the whole Google picture. "With Google's food program, the way we have these open cafes, you will see groups of people that normally would not meet with one another, sitting together and eating together," Giambastiani says. "It's not just the collaboration you hope for within a team, it's the collaboration you never expected."

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