We all know the Googles, the Apples, the Facebooks - the quintessential Silicon Valley startups that started technological trends as well as set the bar for office experiences. They offer extravagant perks to their employees, like car washes, luxury shuttle services, massages, and haircuts. Startups have followed this trend in an almost competitive fashion to gain a competitive advantage. Modern offices have ping-pong tables, beer coolers, and meditation rooms.

But in the rush to create inviting workspaces, many companies have overlooked a staple of human happiness: food.

If executed correctly, complimentary meals are one of the easiest and most affordable ways to improve employee productivity, morale, and even weight loss. For example, a study by Staples showed that coffee and snack runs account for 2.4 billion hours in lost productivity in their U.S. stores each year.

Buying the office lunch is a nice thing to do from time-to-time, but is a far cry from a corporate food program. A food program is carefully planned to achieve maximum results and becomes an integral part of corporate culture.

To learn more about how starting a lunch program helps an organization's bottom line, I spoke with Christine Marcus, founder and CEO of Alchemista. The corporate catering service delivers locally sourced meals to events and companies in a cost neutral way. Alchemista works with companies like Splunk, RueLaLa, and Wayfair. I asked her to share the three biggest pain points corporate catering can solve when executed correctly:

Improve Company Culture

Millennials are the largest workforce in this country since Baby Boomers, and while there might be a new study every week on how to best appeal to them, Marcus says creating a lunch experience is high on the priority list for this demographic and employees across the board.

"Creating an experience around food is one of the easiest things a company can do to increase employee morale and overall company culture," says Marcus. "Using assorted menus that appeal to a diverse workforce brings people from different corners of the company together at one time into the lunch room."

When it comes to employee perks, few things are as simple and gratifying as free, trendy, delicious farm to (lunch) table food.

Neutral Cost Influence

Business owners have been slow to adopt food perks for a number of reasons. Some view food as something they already pay their employees to acquire, others that it is not as cost effective as other benefits that also raise morale.

Marcus makes the point, "If you pay an employee $75K a year, that's roughly $35 an hour. Summer is almost here, if an employee spends an hour out getting lunch, you could have had that catered for less than half of that cost. Food programs have a surprising ROI from the first meal."

"Employees who bring their own food (BYOF) regularly eat alone at their desk or leave the office. If it's raining, that is a miserable experience and if it's sunny, lunches tend to last longer - all of which are productivity killers," she says.

Additionally, the health and tax benefits companies report after implementing healthy food programs are impressive.

Businesses can often receive a tax deduction for the money they spend on lunches. In general, when an employer provides food on the premises, these costs can be 100% deductible and does not count as employee income.

In terms of a healthy workforce, a Harvard study has shown that medical costs fall by approximately $3.27 for every $1.00 spent on wellness programs by helping employees stay healthy and productive. In short, ensuring a healthy workforce provides about a 300% return on an employer's investment.

"By creating healthy, desirable food experiences at work, employers significantly impact what their workforce eats and, in turn, their overall health," says Marcus.

Forward thinking Programs

People are selective about food, and that is truer today than ever before. Healthy food is becoming mainstream with 45% of Americans saying they include organic products in their diet.

Food waste is also an issue, so a catering service needs to have technology built into their system to allow for portion control, proper food sourcing, and customer feedback.

"The only thing worse than not having a food program is having a failing food program," says Marcus. "Many companies are providing food that is less than healthy, lacks in selection, and doesn't highlight the city that employees work in. That can be detrimental."

Companies like Alchemista are making a push to modernize office food catering. They are doing that by playing on major trends both in corporate culture and in food culture. Employers who want cost effective means to improve productivity and healthy food may be the answer.

Published on: May 26, 2016