washingtonpost.com
At Google, Hours Are Long, But the Consomme Is Free

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. --

Foie gras egg rolls. Just-shucked oysters. Bay scallop seviche. This is the lunch menu at Google. And it is free if you work there. That goes for breakfast and dinner, too.

The world's most pampered employees feast on meals prepared by chefs hired from some of the top Bay Area restaurants. Just before noon, workers are e-mailed the daily menus at 11 themed "cafes" scattered across the company's suburban campus.

One cafe (don't call it a cafeteria) features fresh sushi every day; another, fresh-squeezed juice and "raw" food. One serves a rotating menu from each of the seven continents, another, food from different regions of the United States. Depending on which cafe you choose, lunch can transport you -- or at least your stomach -- to an exotic locale far from the bland office park: Will today be Indian tarka dal or Mexican carnitas tacos? Basque tapas or Beijing-style braised ribs?

I know what you're thinking: We should all be so lucky to eat like the kings at Google. There must be a catch. And there is. In fact, there's more than one.

As The Washington Post's reporter covering Google, I had heard rave reviews about its kitchens well before I sampled the food myself. After the company's skyrocketing stock price, the food at Google is the second-favorite topic among journalists, consultants and others who have been there. Dare ask an employee about it, and they'll go on and on until you are sorry you did. You can hear it in their voice: Nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah! I eat at Google!

Like my own employer, most large U.S. companies still operate cafeterias that offer a mainly practical appeal: proximity, not quality. For years, firms and universities have used standard buy-in-bulk food products that deliver to the masses but often disappoint the palate.

For the 10,000 employees of Google, most of whom work at the Mountain View campus, the food has become deeply entwined with the company culture and identity. The search engine, which prides itself as an innovator in technology, takes the same approach with its food: It won't settle for ordinary mashed potatoes. No; Google supports local farming, organic produce, hormone-free meats and healthful eating.

"The quality of the food is almost unbelievably good. You tell people, and they don't believe you," said Charles Haynes, an engineering manager.

Another Googler, 29-year-old Brett Lider, is such a fan of the food that he has taken more than 100 digital photos of his meals and posted them to his blog and Flickr.com, the photo-sharing Web site at http://www.flickr.com/photos/brettlider/sets/154249. A vegetarian, he is impressed, but he tries to hold himself back.

"I have a rule: I don't eat more than two meals a day at Google," Lider said. "I don't want to get sick of it. Also, I live in San Francisco, and I love my restaurants there. I like to save one meal a day for my home town."

Now for the catch. Not leaving for meals means the employees work longer hours. Executives are honest about the fact that their goal is to keep workers productive. Google would not reveal a total figure, but executives said they spend $10 per person per day for food, plus they pick up the tab for a significant number of guests and contract workers, meaning the corporate cost easily amounts to more than $100,000 a day.

But even that is more cost-effective than having thousands of employees leave the campus, eat lunch and come back, said spokeswoman Sunny Gettinger. Nearly every employee at headquarters eats at least one meal a day there, she added. "And no one brings their lunch."

On my visit, I saw many of the usual trappings: a salad bar, buffet-style service and plastic trays. But some of the food seemed delivered from a white-tablecloth restaurant. One week, according to menus Google provided, chefs featured the "tuna tower": a collection of "mixed organic greens, carrot matchsticks, and Asian dressing topped with sliced, seared Ahi tuna, diced ginger root and lime, toasted coconut, basil, mint, cilantro, pickled cucumber and peanut praline." Earlier This month, a menu at Cafe 150 touted egg rolls "stuffed with Szechuan duck confit, Sonoma foie gras and julienne celery root . . . served with huckleberry-ponzu jelly"; Bloody Mary consomme with "house made crab, saffron, and celery gelee"; and, for dessert, potato chips covered in chocolate and sprinkled with fleur de sel.

For my first meal at Google, I sampled the salad bar spread, which included a cold Japanese udon noodle salad, grilled tofu dressed in Asian flavors and a Southwestern corn fritter. The choices were overwhelming, and what I tasted was delightful. Unfortunately, I was trying to conduct an interview at the same time -- a huge distraction.

Food -- particularly free food -- has always been a perk offered by fast-growing technology companies, especially during the late 1990s. Even today, if they no longer provide a free lunch, many big tech firms offer an impressive discounted one. And because this is California, organic, sustainable, local produce is emphasized at cafeterias at eBay, Yahoo, Palm and Cisco. But Google takes it to a level as phenomenal as its growth.

The meat dishes are nitrate-free. Seafood follows guidelines from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to prevent overfishing. Eggs are from free-range farms. And, on the rare occasions that chefs fry food, they recycle the grease into biodiesel fuel.

From the beginning, Google placed an emphasis on food. The founders hired chef Charlie Ayers, who once cooked for the Grateful Dead, to run their first cafeteria. But, like some other early employees, Ayers received stock options, and he cashed them out and moved on once the company went public. Google decided to build lots of smaller cafes, each with its own executive chef and theme.

In addition to the 11 cafes, open mostly during mealtime, 44 stations between work areas are filled with expensive snacks: four varieties of bottled water, six kinds of Naked Juice, vitamin waters and lots of bottled beverages I'd never heard of, such as litchi-flavored iced tea. Each station is equipped with an espresso machine. And when I visited, dozens of scoop-your-own bins were filled with Clif Bars, chocolate malt balls, almonds, cashews, soy nuts and Gummi Bears. It's like going to Whole Foods, loading up with whatever you want and not paying the bill.

But here's another rub: With so much good food, employees are getting fat.

The staff nutritionist's mission is to squelch the "Google 15," the weight many new employees pack on in their first year. Google's on-site doctor is handing out free pedometers. Last month the snack system was overhauled to ban trans fats, and the help-yourself bins were replaced with baskets of appropriately sized snack packets, each under 300 calories.

Some employees complained loudly on internal message boards. They missed their high-fat, high-sugar deadline treats.

They're not going so far as to boycott the cafes, though. Before lunch, employees form long lines at the doors, waiting for them to open.

Google's free lunch might not last forever. At most high-flying tech firms, "once the stock starts falling down or there's any struggles with growth, food is one of the first perks to go," said Bay Area tech consultant Tim Bajarin, who has eaten at Google. Then again, he adds, "given the incredible revenue Google continues to bring in, I don't see that happening any time soon."

Indeed, I hear that Google has five more cafes under development. That's five more reasons to stick around and eat.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company