Food At Work: 4 Thoughts
You can tell a lot about a company’s growth pattern by how easy it is to get food on-campus around 5:30-6:30PM.
This is an old observation of mine, but not sure I ever wrote it down beyond some bar discussion. I noticed it in around 1998, when I was a summer intern at Bell Labs. At the Holmdel Campus1, it was very hard to find food after about 2:00pm, when the one (paid) cafeteria closed. The nearest restaurants were quite a distance away, and there was never any discussion of dinner service. (There may have been breakfast service at the cafeteria. I was commuting through New Jersey traffic, and never got there in time.)
Elon is wrong about the price of lunch, over the course of a year. This probably shouldn’t be that surprising that he made some wild claim, and then doesn’t either apologize or back up the assertions.
My Fermi estimate2 is about $50 per person per day for food, including snacks. I start with an assumption of about 14,500 employees for dining service (remember, on 30 September, there were about 7,500 FTEs, and a similar number of contingent workers). I assume about 10% are coming into the office; this is a pretty key assumption around the price per person.
I’m using my experience at Meta as a guide: there are four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks; and the relative “participation” in the four meals as 50%, 90%, 40%, and 90% respectively. I used rough estimates of how much the meals cost relative to a daily per-person spend; these were 30%, 40%, 30%, and 10%.
I’m going to use a number for food service at Twitter that was discussed in the thread linked earlier, USD $13M3. Putting this all together, I got a per-person, per-day cost of about USD $50. (Since these are all estimates of people, attendance, and relative costs, I’m not make this seem more exact than it really is.)
To be honest, USD $50 seems a bit high, but not unreasonable. As I played with different numbers, I couldn’t really get this more than about $100 per person per day. So, Elon’s tweet of $400 per meal per person is wrong in the general. Now, because so much of food service is around estimating number of portions needed, I could believe that a few post-layoff meals cost that much. However, that’s just because Elon is a horrible manager and can’t do layoffs properly. It should not be attributed to Twitter’s culinary team.
I’ve also seen a lot of tweets about how the only reason the meals are served is to keep people chained at their desks longer. I’d like to suggest two, more positive interpretations of the free meal policy. First, it’s an amazing recruiting tool. It shows care on the part of the company, and at scale, it’s really not that expensive.
The second one is more subtle, but I think more important. In a traditional company, either with paid, on-campus food, or (worse) off-campus food only, there is a lot of friction around getting lunch3. That means people are less likely to have an ad-hoc meal with colleagues, and you may never have an opportunistic lunch with a colleague. However, when lunch is virtually friction-free, it’s cheap from a time and attention perspective to have a meal together. (Of course, all of this has changed since the pandemic brought remote work.)
These opportunistic meals are important for the company, because it’s where ideas and concepts first jump from one team to another and where new ideas are often first developed. Now, this doesn’t happen in every meal, but it doesn’t need to. Going back to Twitter’s $13M yearly food expense, if one of these ad-hoc meals per month generates a $1M idea, the entire program is basically revenue-neutral. Now, I don’t have a great sense of how often a $1M idea comes along, but at a company like Twitter or Meta, it’s probably at a pretty regular cadence. And once in a while, maybe not even every year, there will be a $100M or $500M idea. This is the real reason to have free lunches.4
The larger issue here is about culture. Musk is trying to radically change the culture of Twitter, and he’s trying to do it very fast. This is a huge culture shift, from a culture where it is expected for you to call out your boss on issues, to a culture where the boss is always right. I keep on seeing people on Twitter saying things like “I don’t have free lunch, so neither should you.” But, that’s missing the point of culture change.
One way to think about it is that the Catholic Church provides a snack during service5. Most Protestant denominations do not. I doubt any of the Twitter commentators would be happy to suddenly be forced to have a free snack during Sunday religious services, even though it is, objectively, an improvement. Culture change is hard, and people rarely enjoy the process.
The Holmdel campus was never quite as famous as the Murray Hill campus; Murray Hill had things like the transistor, the laser, C, and UNIX has major accomplishments. Holmdel was left with the Big Bang, and an Eero Saranen building. ↩
“Fermi Estimate” sounds much more scientific than “wild guesses” ↩
This friction was high enough that I considered making my dissertation about solving this problem. For a team off-campus lunch, there are three questions that need to be answered simultaneously: first, “when are we going to lunch;” second, “where are we going to lunch;” and third, “who is coming.” The challenge is that there is no orderly progression of these questions. Instead, one person’s answer to one question may change other people’s answers to any of the questions. For instance, John has a 13:00 meeting, but Rita doesn’t wrap up until 12:30. Further, Rita had Mexican the day before, and Chris detests John. Plus, all of this has to be solved by 11:00am every. single. workday. ↩ ↩2
Of course, if you really wanted to make this work, you would mandate one day a month where you get randomly matched with someone else for lunch. Meta has something like this, Chowbot, but it’s not used too frequently. ↩
Technically, through the miracle of transubstantiation, it’s cannibalism, but religion is weird. ↩