Free Food Destroys Communities
What may be Instagram -worthy and a great perk for company employees isn’t so great for the cities that house tech campuses
Free Food Destroys Communities
This spring, Facebook announced plans to expand beyond its Menlo Park headquarters into neighboring Mountain View, which is also home to Google headquarters. In the fall, Facebook will take over two eight-story buildings in the California suburb.
Originally, Facebook’s plans included the construction of a ground-floor cafeteria for employees. That should come as no surprise, given Facebook’s culinary reputation. The company is known for delicious food on its campuses. (I can personally vouch that the quantity, presentation, and taste are all incredible.) The word “cafeteria” conjures up images of sad, ranch-soaked salads and limp white bread sandwiches, but at Facebook’s cafeterias, employees have round-the-clock access to latte-art coffees, gourmet meals, and Instagram-worthy desserts.
Unfortunately for Facebook workers at the new Mountain View location, there will be no access to the company’s culinary offerings. In 2014, the city of Mountain View added a provision to its approval for Facebook’s development stipulating that the company could not offer unlimited free food. The move by the city targets Facebook’s new building but is really a byproduct of Google’s effect on the Mountain View community. Local restaurants suffered at the hands of Google’s free food, unable to compete with the low, low price of “free.”
Google cofounder Sergey Brin reportedly once said that “no one should be more than 200 feet away from food” during construction of its headquarters. There are a handful of reasons why Google, Facebook, and other companies provide free food to employees: It keeps workers on campus, and it also ostensibly keeps them happy and satisfied, which theoretically inspires innovative thinking and constructive conversations.
But the lure of free food, as the city of Mountain View found out, also creates an insular work environment where workers fail to engage with the city surrounding their campus. Some employees at tech companies have spoken out against free food, saying it encourages them to work longer hours, and that while campus cafeterias provide free and excellent meals, they foster a college-like environment that blurs the line between work and home.
“It really was geared more around trying to make sure we didn’t have 400,000 square feet of office space with people that never left the building,” former Mountain View Mayor Michael Kasperzak said of the mandate to the San Francisco Chronicle. The rule stipulates that Facebook can’t subsidize more than 50 percent of its employees’ food, but that it can pay for their meals if they’re eating them outside of its office walls at local businesses. “If we have all these restaurants, we want this to be a successful development,” said Kasperzak. “If employers pay for it, that’s fine.”
The concept of “people that never left the building” is what is at the heart of the cafeteria issue. Google pioneered the self-contained, city-sprawling tech campus model; the company is now nearly synonymous with Mountain View. As of last year, Google employed 20,000 people in the city, which is home to some 80,000 people. Facebook has a similar relationship with its home in Menlo Park. Also as of last year, Facebook was reportedly on track to employ more than 17,000 workers in its headquarters; Menlo Park has a population of fewer than 34,000. A 2013 report found Apple employed 16,000 people in the Cupertino area — and that was prior to its Apple Park expansion. The Bay Area was colonized long ago by technology companies, and they have undeniably reshaped and even redefined the region.
Now, tech-campus sprawl is happening everywhere, though it manifests in different ways. Amazon’s Seattle expansion triggered outrage in a community divided over affordable housing, among other issues. And even in small-town Prineville, Oregon, Facebook’s growing data centers may be a boon for the local economy, but they’ve also created housing-cost challenges and inspired protestsby union workers. Cities and the tech companies that consume them are increasingly locked in inflammatory battles pitting the interests of tech businesses and their employees against those of the towns and the citizens who don’t work for these companies. To foster better relationships, some Bay Area tech companies voluntarily refuse to provide free food so as to prod employees to engage with their environment. “We don’t offer free meals, and never have. We want to encourage employees to get out of the office and be a part of our neighborhood,” Zendesk’s director of corporate social responsibility engagement, Megan Trotter, told me via email. “Stepping out of the office for lunch is good for you, [and] it supports local communities.” Zendesk is located near San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, and in addition to encouraging employees to eat out of the office, the company hosts three walking tours every month and a “Lunch in the Loin” event at small local restaurants.
Zendesk’s location certainly aids its efforts to stay involved with its neighborhood. The Tenderloin is a metro area, and walking to and from restaurants and coffee shops is an easy feat. It’s obviously a more difficult endeavor in suburban areas. “This is a nuanced issue and I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Trotter, who admits Zendesk’s policy may not work outside of bustling downtowns.
The urban-suburban divide is a major point of differentiation. Ethan Goodman is the founder of Seattle Tech 4 Housing, an alliance of Seattle tech workers advocating for affordable housing. He said that concerns about tech offices and campuses manifest differently on different campuses. “With Amazon here in Seattle, I think there have been all sorts of good things and all sorts of bad things about their urban campus downtown, but one of the good things is they don’t have cafeterias, they don’t have free food, and it’s completely revitalized downtown,” Goodman said. “There are restaurants on every block and people out on the streets, and that wasn’t the case 15 years ago.” Goodman doesn’t know whether Amazon’s decision stemmed from the company’s sense of civic responsibility or whether it was simply the more frugal choice. “Either way, I think it’s had a really good effect and it would have really been a detriment to Seattle if the downtown buildings had cafeterias in them.”
The concern, then, is a much bigger one in suburban areas like Menlo Park and Mountain View, where employees don’t have the option of walking out and dining in the vicinity of their offices. “Companies like Facebook and Google, those are mostly closed off spaces surrounded by parking lots that are a separate reality from the rest of the world,” Goodman said. “So I do think it’s a very real concern, the notion of whether employees are sort of sequestered from the environments that they’re in. It’s going to be less of a problem in an urban campus than in a suburban campus.”
Goodman, who worked at Facebook’s office in Seattle as well as in Menlo Park and fondly remembers the company’s food, agrees with Mountain View’s provision against totally free meals, but points out that it’s something of a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. “This proposal is good, but it costs the city nothing to do it in terms of money or political capital, so I don’t think it’s really a sign of courage,” he said. Creating affordable housing and addressing the gentrification that prices long-term residents out of their homes are bigger fish to fry. “Housing reform takes real courage and real political will, that’s where you really have to fight for what’s right. I’m glad they did it, but it’s not to be confused with bold policy change.”
It’s important also to consider the potential community downside to putting limitations on tech companies and their campuses. They employ not only executives and well-paid engineers, but also lower-income locals who work on their janitorial, maintenance, and, of course, food-service teams. Facebook’s cafeteria workers unionized in mid-2017, a protective and positive move for the labor force. “That’s a great thing, in my opinion, but if there aren’t as many of those jobs, that’s a bad thing,” Goodman points out. “So there is a conflict there to some extent.”
This conflict is quite modern in one sense, but hardly new in another. One historical example that comes to mind for urban planner Corianne Scally is the type of company town that sprung up to house railroad workers around the late 1800s through early 1900s during the Second Industrial Revolution. “That’s kind of the reverse here,” Scally said. “The community exists around [tech companies] already, and so you think, ‘What are the implications on that community?’” The best recourse is for cities and businesses to work together in order to determine how campuses can benefit the community. “I think it’s important for these places to think about the impact that they’re having on the economic viability of surrounding business,” Scally said. And she points out that employees’ housing and transportation are part of what affects this viability. “Where are your employees coming from and where are they returning to at the end of the day? Are they leaving the office as opposed to pulling a cot out and sleeping there?” The 24–7 mentality that so many tech companies foster can contribute to insularity. Scally’s husband works for a tech company, and she’s well aware of the distinct tech mentality of keeping employees together in the service of constant creative dialogue and synergy.
A more recent analogy is how tech company campuses and their surrounding areas in many ways experience challenges reminiscent of those in university towns. Many cities home to college universities are forced to deal with what are commonly known as “town-gown” issues: arguments over land use, taxes, congestion, community resources, and perhaps the most prevalent, lifestyle differences. “The party atmosphere of many college environments is perhaps the issue that can place the most strain on town and gown relationships,” said an article from the American Society for Public Administration. “This is an issue at many colleges from community colleges to Ivy League ones.” The atmosphere cultivated at tech campuses can resemble that of colleges, so it’s hardly shocking that they each experience the same friction.
Scally doesn’t believe the burden should fall entirely on the companies to find a working solution. She said cities also need to look at their land-use decisions and consider what makes a healthy city economy for everyone living and working there. “If they really are wanting to encourage employees to better integrate into the community business infrastructure, it would be helpful for them to be making sure there is a healthy community business infrastructure, be that food establishments or what have you, that are accessible to employees who are working at these campuses as well,” said Scally. “It would take some degree of cooperation between the cities and the businesses.”
It’s crucial to consider all of this before a campus invades. Silicon Valley wasn’t given a choice; tech businesses were born there. In a very “building the tracks while the train’s coming” sense, the region adjusted. Scally lives in Arlington, Virginia, near where Amazon is considering locating its new headquarters, and she hopes the city will do its due diligence. “What does it mean for these new jobs to enter our community? What is the effect going to be on existing community infrastructure?” she asks. “Where will these people live, what will they be participating in? What community resources will they be needing and using?” She hopes the city and Amazon, should it choose Arlington, will negotiate in the interest of both the new lives it brings and those already there. Cities will continue to grapple with these various issues as tech companies get larger and larger and expand across the country. For now, the battle over free food and its effects is at least one conflict they’re learning how to compromise on.
Free Food Destroys Communities
Free Food Destroys Communities