You could say that great food has been a part of Google’s DNA since the very beginning: Before the company even established an HR department, the Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant had had already hired its first chef.
In those early days, Google’s foodservice program was squarely focused on using delicious meals to create a stronger sense of community. “It was about finding great chefs and food products and bringing people together,” says Google Food Director Michiel Bakker.
That began to change in 2013. Instead of just giving Googlers unlimited free access to delicious, gourmet food, the company’s focus expanded to making it easier for its employees to make smarter choices. “Food has an impact on a person’s happiness and well-being, both short- and long-term,” Bakker says. “We felt it then and more so today that we have a responsibility to guiding people to make great food choices.”
Naturally, that meant offering a wide array of healthy options—from beet and seaweed poke, to quinoa fruit breakfast bowls, to squash and pecan dumplings. But at Google, promoting healthful eating is about more than just serving things like chia pudding or kale smoothies. It’s about shifting the way that employees think about food—to improve their own health and help them do their best work. Here’s a look at how it’s done.
Building food literacy
Before you can get people on board with making great food choices, you have to teach them why it’s so important. To that end, Google has started offering a wide range of free programs aimed at helping employees learn more about food and cooking. “We thought that would be an additional perk to offer, to help people acquire food literacy skills,” Bakker says.
Chief among them are the cooking classes that Googlers can attend while at work. “We offer them with the notion of, if you know more about food and have an appreciation of cooking, there’s a better chance that you’ll make better food choices,” Bakker says. Currently, Google hosts regular classes in six teaching kitchens, which are designed with the same kind of equipment that employees have in their kitchens at home (as opposed to restaurant kitchens, with their industrial equipment).
And because food literacy goes beyond just home cooking, Google also hosts talks with chefs, cookbook authors and other food experts; trips to local farmers’ markets; and even internship opportunities where employees can spend time working in Google’s kitchens. By learning about different cuisines, food philosophies or even supply chains, Googlers can see food in a broader context—and use that information to make more informed choices.
Making the smart choice the easier choice
Of course, many customers still won’t always pick the salad or the smoothie, even if they know why it’s a better choice. “Even if I tell you eating fries might not be optimal, if you see great-smelling, crispy fries, you’ll likely still pick them more than you should,” Bakker says. So in addition to arming employees with the right information, Google employs food choice architecture that makes the healthiest choice the easiest choice.
That doesn’t mean getting rid of less-nutritious options like sugary drinks or pizza. “It makes more sense to say, each individual should have freedom to pick what he wants to,” Bakker explains. “But you can help him make the optimal choice by how those products are offered.” Plain water, for instance, sits in plain sight, while diet soda and sugary drinks are stored behind frosted glass. In the snack areas, fresh fruit is placed on the counter while chocolate bars are kept in a drawer. And at self-serve bars, fresh greens are one of the first foods on the line—so Googlers can fill more of their plate with vegetables before being tempted by other options. “Clearly, people who work in our environment understand how it works. But even when you know, it still works,” Bakker says.
The lure of free, healthy, high-quality food isn’t the main reason that workers come to Google—but it certainly helps. “By offering our food program, we help HR attract and retain top talent,” Bakker says.
That’s not all. In the short term, eating healthy meals and snacks boosts performance, helping Googlers do great work. “It’s to help people be at their best—not work a gazillion hours,” says Bakker. “So you can use the hours you do work in the most productive, positive way.”
And in the long term? Giving employees the tools to smart food choices can support—or even improve—their overall wellness. Over time, “you change the perspective of what people expect,” Bakker says. “The longer you work at Google, the more you eat a healthier diet—the data from our biannual surveys shows that.”