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For Some Facebook Employees, Free Food Is Coming To An End

People walk into the cafeteria at Facebook's main campus in Menlo Park, Calif., May 15, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images
People walk into the cafeteria at Facebook's main campus in Menlo Park, Calif., May 15, 2012.

For years, tech employees of companies in Silicon Valley have enjoyed free meals around the clock. That's changing — at least in Mountain View, Calif., where the city is banning the social media giant Facebook from offering free food in its newest office building.

Currently, Facebook's main campus in Menlo Park, Calif., is the stuff of lore. The 430,000 square foot compound offers perks like an onsite cleaners, a dentist and free food — basically a smorgasbord of anything your heart desires — custom omelets, braised beef, handmade sushi and desserts often made to order by trained chefs.

For the company's employees, you really never have to leave the office. It's what lured Ben Werner to California all the way from France to get a tour of the campus. He wanted to see for himself all of the perks he's read so much about.

"I'd like to have those things taken care of," Werner says. "I guess it would mean I'd spend more time at work, but then I guess it's a two-way street that benefits us both."

But about 8 miles away, in Mountain View, Calif. — also the home of Google — free food, at least at the new Facebook campus — won't be on the menu.

"We believe these companies are part of our community," says Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel. "A growing number of their employees live in our community, and we want them to be a part of our community."

Siegel, a Democrat, says that for years, restaurant owners have complained that employees of Google never come out to eat or shop. So when the city learned that Facebook would be opening a new office in the fall of 2018 at a building project known as the Village at San Antonio Center, the city passed a project-specific requirement that bars the company from providing free daily meals to employees at any in-house cafeteria. The company is also prevented from providing deeply discounted meals.

Along with the internal cafeterias, corporate catering companies have also come to rely on serving food to big tech companies.

Under the terms of Facebook's lease, meals within Facebook offices can't be subsidized by more than 50 percent on a regular basis. However, the company can fully subsidize meals if employees go to restaurants that are open to the public. Mayor Siegel acknowledges there are still a few kinks that need to be smoothed out.

"Facebook is a global company and some of their people work in the middle of the night," Siegel says. "If all the restaurants are closed, maybe I would be open to considering food service in the middle of the night."

Facebook spokesperson Jamil Walker says the company is still working out the details of what this new arrangement will look like. "We found the location attractive because of its proximity to public transportation, housing and public-serving amenities like shops and restaurants," says Walker.

Siegel says Facebook has suggested ideas like turning the ground floor into a food court with local restaurants that are open to the public.

Erika Rasmussen, the manager of Milk Pail Market, an open air grocery store next to the new building, is looking forward to figuring out the best way to serve the 2,000 employees expected to converge on the area when the new office opens. "We don't want Facebook to overwhelm this area, but we do want Facebook to support this area, because we will need their patronage to survive," Rasmussen says.

Deepak Rao, a tech employee at a startup in Silicon Valley, says perks aren't the defining reason he and his colleagues do the work that they do. But sometimes, he says, when you're working long hours, perks like free food, feel like a necessity.

"To go out and drive, eat whatever, that could take an hour and a half, which you might not have," says Rao. So for tech companies, it's been worth it to keep employees at work, for as long as they can stay, by providing food in-house. These new laws will change what's become a given in Silicon Valley work culture.

The city of San Francisco is also considering a similar measure that would ban cafeterias in all new office buildings, forcing tech employees to venture out and share a bit of the wealth outside of their walls.

Copyright 2020 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Corrected: August 14, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of the Web story referred to changes in Facebook's meal policies for employees as the result of an agreement between the company and the city of Mountain View, Calif. The terms are between Facebook and its office developer, which made the agreement with the city.
Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.