Companies pride themselves on classy health-insurance plans and generous vacation policies. But with those benefits now nearly ubiquitous, how might one company differentiate itself from another? Try beverages.

In the past most companies have offered employees free coffee and springwater, with juice and soda available in vending machines in an employee lounge or cafeteria. But now the competition to offer workers the best liquid benefits is heating up. Dan O'Connor, a sales manager with Boston Bean Coffee Co. -- which supplies offices with coffee -- says that his customers are getting ever more gourmet with their selections. A growing number of businesses are stocking break rooms and kitchenettes with high-priced tea and coffee. "We can all thank Starbucks for that," he says.

Some companies even strive to emulate the ambience of Starbucks as much as its caffeine delivery. Cronin and Co., a $50-million, 60-employee advertising agency in Glastonbury, Conn., built its own in-house coffee bar last year.

"We're a sandwich market," says president Bill Cronin. That's sandwich as in stuck between Boston and New York, two cities with big, sexy ad agencies that lure top creative people. To keep his employees in Glastonbury, Cronin set aside $30,000 of a larger expansion project to build the Cronin Perk, a swanky employee lounge with hardwood floors, soft lighting, leather club chairs, and a Swiss cappuccino machine. Jazz wafts through stereo speakers as employees slug back their espresso shots.

Cronin says it's all part of his strategy to recruit and retain clever minds -- not just because they live for latte but because the space itself is a place to engage in creative brainstorming. "We can't win this with money," says the CEO. "It's about giving people the opportunity to grow professionally, and one little piece of that is the work environment."

So will more companies use valuable office real estate to caffeinate their workers? Kristin Bowl, spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management, maintains that the fervor for more unusual benefits may simmer down with the economic slowdown. "Don't get caught up in the fancy perk," she advises. "Keep your eye on the larger picture. Are you going to spend a fortune on all these, or invest to make a more significant difference in employees' lives?"

Hands On

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