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Michiel Bakker
Michiel Bakker poses at The Quad, a central courtyard on the main Mountain View campus that is frequently the site of company celebrations, outdoor barbecues and other team-building special events.

One on One with Google's Michiel Bakker

The investment Google makes in its employees by offering delicious, healthy and free food to them remains a hallmark of its culture.

The first time we visited Google headquarters in early 2002, the company employed just over 300 people and its foodservices operated out of a trailer parked behind the small industrial park building where its first offices were bursting at the seams. These days Google employs 38,000 full-time employees not only on its expansive Mountain View campus but in scores of other facilities sprinkled throughout the town and globally from Asia to Africa to Europe.

The investment Google makes in its employees by offering delicious, healthy and free food to them remains a hallmark of its culture. Since March, 2012, its foodservices have been overseen by Director of Global Food Services Michiel Bakker, a former senior international director of F&B for Starwood Hotels and Resorts (indeed, his resume lists advanced hospitality and management degrees from schools in the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S.).

Earlier this year we visited Bakker in Google’s Mountain View offices to explore some of the company’s newest foodservice initiatives and get an updated look at its state-of-the-art corporate dining operations.

You’ve been in this role for just over a year. How would you describe your responsibilities?

Bakker: Google supports a portfolio of over 150 cafés and 500 micro kitchens worldwide. We happily serve 10 million meals a year globally and many thousands of snacking or energizing moments daily.  

Asparagus is grilled at Google’s Hangout Bistro Café.
Asparagus is grilled at Google’s Hangout Bistro Café.

My role is to ensure that our program delivers on its core objectives and to lead our team members to ensure that our vendors and partners are able to be at their best. Google food team members develop overall strategy and a longer term vision. They make vendor tools available and define what we want from our vendors. After that, we stay out of the kitchen!

Since Google offers foodservice free to employees, is participation still a main measure of program success?  

Bakker: Food has been an integral part of the culture since Day 1 and Google sees the program as helping engage and energize Googlers both at work and outside of work. We want to create the happiest and healthiest workforce in the world and to help Googlers be at their best today, tomorrow and in the future.

Our investment in the program is an investment in our human talent base and in the Google family. The number of Googlers who have breakfast, lunch or dinner at work is very high but is so much a part of our culture that we do not track meals consumed the way many companies do.  

I’d emphasize that part of our approach is to get people engaged in helping improve the program by making suggestions and giving feedback on menus, and in selecting snacks, fruits, vegetables and beverages for the microkitchens. We also encourage suggestions for chefs and speakers for tech talks, cooking demonstrations and events. Engagement helps produce “Happy Googlers,” as we call our employees.

Free of charge

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Bicycling is encouraged on the Google campus and a distinctive fleet of bikes are in constant use between buildings.

With 38,000 people, the program cost must be significant. Are you challenged to continue food to your customers at no charge?  

Bakker: Actually, we don’t use the term ‘customers’ internally. We refer to them as Googlers, or end-users...

Like any organization, we strive for balance in terms of the allocation of our spend. We look at not just the spend onsite, but also in terms of how it can help individuals be at their best for the long term because that is good for the organization.

When you think in the long term about our Googlers’ health at home and in the community, you see total spend in a different way. For example, what if you spent X on training, so that Googlers now get training in food literacy and preparation skills to help them make better choices with their families and on their weekends?  

You cannot separate what people eat at work and what they eat at home and in their community. So we are looking at the services we might be able to extend to Googlers to help them make these better choices.

Bakker: The core of our program is that our food has to be locally relevant. It is not a matter of us here in Mountain View directing what Googlers should do in China, Japan or Africa.

But there are core philosophies that apply around the world. Regardless of the culture, it is usually understood that it’s healthful to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It is healthful to drink more water. So if we encourage these kinds of behaviors, it is applicable around the world.

Yes, there are foods that are very specific, culturally. White rice is one, and from a health perspective we would probably prefer that people eat less of it. But rather than offering whole grain only, we offer rice options such as white rice alongside brown whole grain rice and a third option in the middle. Human nature being what it is, many people will try the alternatives and often settle on the one in the middle, just as they would given some other choices.

We are looking for additional ways to help our people make great food decisions in their communities as well. We are building a teaching kitchen to help Googlers learn how to make some of our wonderful dishes at home.

We want to create an opt-in experience that Googlers can use as they see fit. But it can be a holistic model that brings teams together. Families cook and dine and clean up after a meal at home—why would you not do this in the workplace?

How big is the team here?  

Bakker: It numbers about 20. It is split into four regional teams—Mountain View, the Americas, EMEA (Europe, Africa, Middle East), APAC (Asian-Pacific)—and one global support team. The regional teams are responsible for supporting vendor partners in their regions.

A global business

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How do you manage providers you use nationally and internationally? Do you employ a global contract?  

Bakker: Our strategy is to work closely with a select number of partners around the world. That would include one or two larger organizations and a number of local partners. All are directly under contract with us—we do not sub-contract.

Compass is our largest partner. We use Bon Appètit here in Mountain View, Restaurant Associates in New York, London and Sydney, and Seiyo in Japan.

We also use local partners partly because of the way we have grown. We intend to grow those relationships but not necessarily increase the number of them. We invest in our partners to make the overall business relationships better for both parties over a matter of time.

We are looking to optimize our business relationships, to find ways to get the most out of local vendor relationships alongside the strength and depth that a global partner like a Sodexo or a Compass can bring— the expertise and global resources that smaller operators cannot afford or do not have. At the same time, local partners often have a different level of passion for the business than do larger organizations. We’ve sought to have the best of both worlds.

Arugula Salad with Lentils, Pickled Shallots and Sherry Vinaigrette.

Our local partners include On Safari in Seattle, Calihan Catering in Chicago, Parkhurst Dining in Pittsburgh, Caterspan in Dublin, and Royal Business in Switzerland and Germany. These players bring unique viewpoints and expertise to the table. Our goal is to bring partners together to help each other.

For example, in Europe, Royal Business and Caterspan have common connections with Google. They operate in different countries and do not compete directly. We encourage and facilitate their working together to learn from each other.

Another example would be Bon Appètit and On Safari. On Safari was selected by local Googlers in that region and its owner has built a great relationship with them. We would like to encourage a broader relationship between the two providers, but with clear conditions about the terms of the arrangement.

What kind of metrics do you evaluate in your program?  

Bakker: We evaluate the ability of vendors to provide services within the agreed-upon budgets. From the user perspective, we solicit feedback directly from our employees. Googlers are very active in our food committees.

We  also have an online application called Foodback that Googlers very actively use and which gives daily feedback to our vendors. There are over 35 cafés in Mountain View. I am confident that the 30 chefs in charge of them are extremely aware  of how their food is perceived by our Googlers, more so than we would be here in this room.

We are not a traditional company. There is no sense that everything has to go through the organization. The Google community can manage these expectations itself, much as a family would from family members.

What about your external communities?  

Bakker: Carol Sanford has written a book, The Responsible Business. Her message is that organizations should consider the impact their actions  will have on five classes of stakeholder: end users, co-creators such as  vendors and suppliers, the community in which it operates, the earth, and its shareholders.

Our program tries to keep all these stakeholders in mind. In the past, the focus was primarily on the end user. Now we are also focusing on the impact our program can have on the other stakeholders as well.

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