Let Them Eat Lunch

American workers don’t take enough breaks. That’s why every company needs a cafeteria.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat.
Tastes like a wise business decision.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat

Among Washington’s wonkish set, the American Enterprise Institute is known for its ideas about limited government and free markets. Among young and hungry local professionals, though, it’s known for its white-tablecloth cafeteria. On a recent afternoon, the buffet options included octopus, steak, and lightly sauced skate. The fries were crisp and seasoned with paprika, the salad leaves a dewy green. A meal costs employees about $5. Guests eat for free.

If only we all had it so good. But for most American workers, lunch is sadder by an order of magnitude. Less than 20 percent regularly take a “real lunch break,” according to one study. Working parents between 25 and 54 spend on average just one hour eating and drinking during a 24-hour workday, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other surveys suggest that most people hurriedly eat lunch at their desks, or skip it altogether.

There’s a simple solution that can make workers less harried and companies more productive: Nearly every company—even small ones—should have a cafeteria.

Company canteens are hardly novel, of course. Hallmark, based in Kansas City, Missouri, has had one since 1923. But while companies like Apple and Bloomberg try to outdo their competitors with luxe culinary options, just 18 percent of employers have cafeterias, and only 14 percent provide subsidized meals on-site, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Following the recession, workers are reporting eating more and spending more at the company mess, when there is one, according to NPD, a market research firm.

Management-theorist types will tell you that cafeterias work magic for employee morale and save time by discouraging long lunches away from the office. For decades law firms have been supporters of the in-office meal—more billable hours—although there’s currently some debate over whether on-site dining is really worth it, says Robert Rizzi, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a prominent D.C. law firm.

There is certainly evidence that cafeterias save time: A new study of Silicon Valley firms done by Towers Watson, a management consultancy, found that tech companies that offered food saved employees between 30 and 60 minutes at lunchtime. Indeed, the hours I spent schlepping to lunchrooms around D.C. last week (for research!) would surely have been enough for me to produce a whole other article had I been sitting in a cafeteria downstairs. Sadly, our building does not have one.

Could Slate’s modestly sized D.C. office manage to support a canteen? Larger employers are more likely to have food services than smaller firms. SHRM estimates that more than a quarter of firms with 100 to 2,500 employees have on-site cafeterias, while just 11 percent of smaller firms do. This is unsurprising, since most companies contract out their food services. (AEI has an in-house kitchen staff, which is unusual.) A bigger account is more scalable, cheaper, and likely gives the company more bargaining power. Cooking for a smaller office is a challenge, says Richard Arakelian of Sodexo, one of the world’s biggest food services contractors. Having fewer workers means more menu changes are needed to keep patrons coming back, which makes things costlier.

But contractors can work out pricing to accommodate smaller offices, Arakelian says. In some buildings, multiple tenants could pitch in for a shared cafeteria. The difficulty would be that “few offices would want to bear the costs of having to coordinate things between disparate parties with disparate interests,” says Eric Abrahamson, a Columbia Business School professor who studies management techniques. A collective watering hole where employees mingle at a big company might help foster “culture” and creativity—Gmail was born in a lunch line at Google, goes a company myth—but it’s harder to see where the benefits lie when everyone else in the building is a competitor or a stranger.

Still, having a shared cafeteria still seems like “a reasonable management innovation” for smaller firms with adjacent offices, says Abrahamson. Obviously, employees save time by staying in for lunch whether their company is big or small. Moreover, for a small firm where the greasy pole is considerably shorter (where there is “less opportunity for upward growth,” in management-speak), keeping talent takes a bit more coaxing. Perks help boost retention rates and make employees “more engaged,” suggests Towers Watson. Arakelian estimates that about 10 percent of Sodexo’s clients are multitenant offices with a shared cafeteria.

For evidence of the wisdom of lunch canteens, there’s proof in the pudding (served at every dessert counter I visited): Growth for contract hospitality services is going along at a steady pace, about 2.4 percent a year. IBISWorld, a market research firm, predicts 2 to 3 percent annual growth between 2014 and 2019, with most of the demand driven by corporate clients. But the industry is still innovating, lest employers jettison a seemingly nonessential cost or newer delivery services like Seamless start eating food contractors’ lunch. Sodexo collects demographics data and consults behavioral research to offer better menus. “We’ve learned that people behave differently when they’re in a cafeteria dining setting,” Arakelian says. Employees aren’t as willing to pay a premium in the corporate mess, which is why company food usually costs less.

Some firms specialize in niche markets, such as gourmet cuisines for particular industries. Eurest Services—a subsidiary of Compass Group, the largest food contract conglomerate—caters to the armed forces. In Washington, the World Bank Group, the House of Representatives, and the Senate share the same dining provider: Restaurant Associates, an upmarket arm of Compass. At the World Bank, you can enjoy a lunch of alternating global foods (I learned that I prefer North African to Balinese—or at least, Restaurant Associates’ interpretations of them), halal, Indian, sushi, and a number of other options. Meanwhile, congressional eateries include an “American Bounty” section plus the usual array of soups, salads, and sandwiches. A large bowl of Senate Bean Soup in the Dirksen Café, a Senate cafeteria, costs $3.60. That’s quite a bargain, considering that in the Capitol Visitor Center, which is also run by Restaurant Associates, the same soup costs $4.85.

Companies are often loath to discuss the costs of running a corporate canteen, although Washington City Paper reported that a cafeteria can cost a D.C. law firm up to $200 per hour. Still, Abrahamson says that employers he’s talked to believe messes deliver values to justify their costs.

That’s not to say cafeterias don’t come with other problems. When the D.C. Department of Health briefly shut down the Washington Post’s cafeteria after finding “evidence of some mice activity,” it was a PR migraine. A contract bidding war at the United Nations once set off a food riot. And though it’s unlikely that American work lunches will ever rival the midday degeneracy of Europe, hiding out in the café isn’t a bad strategy for shirking work.

But then, Americans already work too many hours. Perhaps we should take more time to chow down at noon and languish lazily over breakfast—another meal whose sad reduction needs fixing.