At Google, employees nourish big ideas over lunch

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Lunchtime at Google’s Kendall Square headquarters is an epicurean’s delight.

Dispensers of water, which is infused with ripe fruit like watermelon and pineapple, are first in the line of sight. Freshly squeezed vegetable or fruit smoothies are nearby. Bowls in the meze station brim with olives, red pepper feta dip, hummus, and more. This day’s specials are Moroccan sweet potato soup and Prince Edward Island mussels with saffron and fennel, which join a small serving of veal breast topped with creamy sunchoke, fennel, and clementines. The vegetarian station offers lentil cakes with ratatouille relish. Build-your-own Bao Bao steamed buns can be filled with Korean pork belly or pulled chicken. The grill station will cook a venison, veggie, turkey, or beef burger. There are sandwiches for the traditionally inclined. Desserts are tucked in the farthest rear corner: sweet goat cheese and pear tart, frozen yogurt, or citrus salad shooters.

Everything is free and can be taken to go or savored in a spacious, light California-style dining hall of soothing earth tones with ball-shaped light pendants.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“We take a holistic approach toward health and wellness, and eating is part of that,” says Kim Huskey, a Google food director based in New York. The company’s largesse includes a more modest breakfast and dinner. What they’re nurturing, she says, are “moon shots — the big ideas.” Huskey says the food is part of an “overall mission of enabling Googlers to be their best.”

There is nothing arbitrary about the food. Extensive data analysis, academic studies, and employee surveys have gone into the thinking on what to offer, including seasonality, sourcing, and presentation. Dining creates opportunities for “casual collisions,” as they’re called — brainstorming sessions among employees from different divisions — that have led to products such as Gmail. The food program, some say, is a model for how companies should engage employees — and perhaps make them more productive. The average day for the 800 workers varies by team and function. But Google acknowledges that eating onsite reduces time lost in leaving work in search of a meal. Most employees take advantage of the offerings.

“Food is symbolic in the home. It’s a way of showing interest, care, concern, love,” says Leigh Hafrey, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. Google’s “practice falls into the category of care for people who share in the community of employers and employees. It’s a way of the future,” he says.

Scott Dobroski of Glassdoor, a careers website that ranks the best places to work based on anonymous reviews, says, “Google has been a trailblazer of the free food revolution, but what Google does is not applicable for every employer. Every employer needs to figure out how to tackle it and what their budget is.”

Steve Vinter, head of Google Cambridge, says food is “not what makes people excited to work at Google,” but acknowledges it is part of the company’s enriched working climate. “Our goal is to provide the best-quality food we can find,” he says. “We spend a lot, but it’s not wasted.”

And it’s valued. Jonathan Ostrowsky, a technical writer at Google, writes in an e-mail that the food service creates “a camaraderie that I’ve never experienced at other companies.” He says it’s comforting to know “that truly exceptional food will be available throughout the day – and that you’ll be able to enjoy it in the company of your friends and colleagues.”

Google Cambridge is primarily devoted to search and travel products. It is the fourth-largest Google site in the country. The campus, spread over three adjacent buildings, has two cafes: the Grace Hopper, named after the pioneering computer scientist, and the more intimate West End Bistro. (By comparison, Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., has about 25 cafes.)

Last year, the Kendall Square site hired Anthony Marco and Sean Callahan, two chefs with local cred, to craft menus. Marco, the Hopper’s executive chef, did stints at Harvard Business School and Upstairs on the Square, in Cambridge, and Lineage, in Brookline. Callahan, who heads the bistro, was recently executive chef at Ten Tables and its sister restaurant, Grass Fed, both in Jamaica Plain.

Callahan says that cooking at Google “is a nice change from loading butter and cream into recipes,” which he did for years. “Now I use purees, olive oil, and some acidity, like lemon, to brighten the taste.” He and Marco also value the more regular work hours. “I have real work-life balance for the first time in 13 years,” says Callahan, a new dad.

Many prominent corporations such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn offer all kinds of free food, snacks, game rooms, and gym facilities. But they can afford to.

In this region, Newton-based TripAdvisor ranks high in Glassdoor surveys when employees mention food. The company, which has 600 Newton employees, caters three lunches weekly from local vendors, which are offered without charge, and its Wall of Snacks, all free, is available daily. “Our lunches are a great way for employees to step away from their desks, take a break, and be social with their peers,” says human resources director Kate Forrestall, who sees them as part of a wellness program. Sharon Francis, the office manager, says fruit is the company’s most popular snack even with candy nearby.

Candy is also offered in the nine micro kitchens scattered around Google Cambridge. The company doesn’t tell employees what’s good for them; instead it offers details behind the food selection. “Googlers are data-driven people,” says Rebecca Ginsberg Rutkoff, a public affairs manager. “They want all the information and will make their own decision.” Ever since the company put M&M’s in inconspicuous opaque jars, consumption has dropped. Soda is located on the refrigerator’s lower shelves; drinking waters take prominence.

Googlers can also initiate change. That’s how Barismo, an Arlington roaster, began providing coffee beans a year ago. “Basically, employees there felt empowered enough to say, ‘We want better stuff,’ ” asking for specific brands, says Barismo manager Tim Borrego. So far, he has held two coffee-brewing seminars at Google. “They have a lot of really good questions. They’re looking at how they can deconstruct the brew and do it at home,” he says.

Huskey and Rutkoff of Google decline to say how much is spent on meals, but the company is soaring financially. The market cap value earlier this week, was over $395 billion. Marco and Callahan say, with a touch of awe, that they have access to any provisions needed and are never short of kitchen staff. Local chefs come in and cook; Marco and Callahan offer cooking classes.

There are a number of practices at Google that home cooks might imitate. One is smaller plates (they use porcelain) to reduce portion servings. Another is eliminating large glassware to encourage moderation, even of fruit juices, offering an array of fruits, giving priority to drinking water, nuts, and dried fruit over soda and candy. Food can also be categorized with Google’s “stop light” system, marked with small signs: green (healthiest), yellow (good for you), and red (least healthy) as visual cues.

On the seventh floor of one building, where a reporter was taken on a tour, employees arranged in bright open clusters are working at sitting or standing desks. Neo-futuristic furniture, some for lounging, is scattered about. Exercise balancing balls abound. A puppy plays in a hallway near two amusement park-size teacups waiting to be taken for a spin. At various Google sites, Rutkoff says, one team brings in authors or bands, others handle yoga or barre classes, or happy hour.

When site director Vinter recently took a prospective employee around, it was the Hopper cafe that blew the candidate away. “The candidate was so amazed at all the free food,” says Vinter, who was startled by the reaction. “After a while here, you lose that wonder.”

If only employees everywhere became jaded for the same reason.

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at mphernan1@gmail.com.