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by Vault Careers | March 10, 2009

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You're working. You get hungry. And as most people can attest, mixing food and work makes for some strange habits and pungent observations - and that's exactly what we got from Vault's Crumbs on the Keyboard: Food in the Workplace survey.

More than 40 percent of survey respondents' companies provide a cafeteria or other dining facility on the premises. Of those who do have an onsite eatery, nearly half visit it every day. The corporate cafeteria exists for several reasons, only one of which is to make employees' lives just a little bit easier. Another major incentive is more bottom-line oriented. By keeping employees in the building for longer periods of time, employers can expect gains in productivity.

Among employees with company cafeterias, the resounding reaction to the food was "eh." Seventy percent of respondents described the food as passable, 20 percent as excellent and 10 percent as gross.

Reynolds gets a bad rap

One company cafeteria uses plastic wrap on almost everything they sell, making the food taste like chemicals, says one respondent. Another says there are "too many experimental things," perhaps an elegant way of saying the food sucks.

But others choose to accentuate the positive. "Most excellent pizza and roast chicken to die for," says one rah-rah cafeteria-goer. And with others, well, you win some, you lose some: "Very good panini. The rest is swill."

Were these donuts made fresh this morning?

As the saying goes, if you build it they will come. But if the food is dreadful and the furniture caked with unidentifiable crud, really, who's going to eat there?

Indeed, many survey respondents question both the freshness and cleanliness of their corporate cafeterias.

"Except for the black hairs I always find, the dried cranberries are good," says one respondent adding "every time I attempt the salad bar, I find strange odors or bugs or slime."

Too much of a good thing

Some cafeterias think they have it all figured out. When they happen upon a best-seller, they run with it, day after day after day. Overkill, say several respondents.

"The most popular (i.e., decent) meals are repeated every day," says one corporate diner who's bored with the same-old. "Let's get hip," says another. "The same thing day after day is unbearable."

More than a quarter of respondents agree that the selection is wanting and even offer up advice on how the kitchens can improve. At the top of the suggestion list are more ethnic cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Mexican, as well as more personal items like a baked potato bar. One would-be healthy eater wants to see more steamed items and light, fresh food. "You get tired of eating salad every day," says another bemoaning the lack of healthy options.

~Putting your money where your mouth is

For the quality of the food they're getting, 24 percent of respondents feel that the prices are ridiculously high.

"They're always trying to pinch every corner," gripes one metaphor-mixer who doesn't mince words. Another agrees that the nickel-and-diming is out of hand: "Butter is 10-cents extra. A side of vegetables, maybe two forkfuls, is 95-cents."

But not everybody feels like their wallets are being ravaged. Nearly half say the cost is standard. And then there's 30 percent who find their troughs reasonably priced.

"We get gourmet quality food for less than you would pay at Burger King," says one respondent whose company defrays costs by subsidizing the cafeteria.

Free trumps subsidized

"You can't beat free," gloats one respondent. Some lucky employees even get free dinner when they stay past 6:30 -- incentive to work late! Another employer caters lunch for its staff every Monday.

If you like to play with your food, check out one company's marketing gimmick. If you accurately guess the weight of your frozen yogurt, it's yours, free of charge. Here's a tip: Get the exact same amount each time and commit the weight to memory and you'll never pay for frozen yogurt again.

Losing our appetites

More than 30 percent of respondents would like to give their corporate dining room a makeover.

Many cafeteria-goers leave their desk just for the change of scenery. But going from a cheerless cube to a dingy cafeteria does not a happy employee make. As most restaurant-goers can attest, appealing decor can make the same meal go from so-so to super-duper.

"The tables are rarely if ever cleaned and garbage remains on the tables for days at a time," gripes one employee.

The pendulum swings the other way with 9 percent saying the decor is plush. One even cites "sweet diva couches with mood lighting."

An agreeable setting means airy and spacious with lots of light and windows and even a plant or two. And of course, cleanliness goes without saying. Not such a tall order, but apparently many companies seem to botch it up. ~

Deskside dining

Whether crunching on a deadline or simply having no place else to go, many American workers are eating lunch at their desk on a regular basis. More than 24 percent of respondents say they eat by the glow of their monitor every day and another 38 percent 3-4 times a week.

In fact, some employees are tethered to their chairs, while others are prohibited from eating a mere morsel within 20 feet of their cube.

"They feed us, fetch takeout for us and keep us chained to our desks as much as possible," says one domesticated employee.

"We are not allowed to eat at our desks. Drinks must be in a can, cup or bottle with a lid," says another. In fact, the company issues water bottles to all new associates and expects them to be used when imbibing liquids at their desks.

Not only is eating at your desk depressing, but the potential for calamitous spills and damaged office equipment (not to mention important paper documents) are exponential. Yet, surprisingly, less than one-third of respondents fess up to having spilled a beverage on their keyboard. And here we thought that keyboard spillage was a cubicle worker's rite of passage.

Vending machines

More than two-thirds of respondents say they have access to vending machines at work. Filled with the usual snacky items - "junk food, soda and sandwiches fit for a gas station" - some respondents wish the office manager would rethink the product selection to include healthier options.

After a bunch of employees complained about the lack of healthy food in their company's vending machines, the selection improved - quite drastically. Thanks to the powers that be, they now have brown salads and bruised fruit. Hey, thanks for listening!

When asked to describe the offerings, here's what we got: "Nasty chips nobody has ever heard of," "stale sandwiches and spoiled milk," and "refrigerated strange things." One oddly specific customer says his company's vending machine offers "no gummy bears, but everything else." Everything? Wow! Must be some selection.

That's sick!

To the dismay of several employees, their company got with the program only after several of them fell ill from eating sandwiches from the vending machines.

"A number of people were getting sick after eating them, so when we stopped buying them they took the machine out." We wonder which they noticed first -- that sales were down or that employees were turning green?

Food for thought

One respondent who knows how to pawn off unwanted vittles to unsuspecting colleagues offers this advice: "Rid yourself of stale leftovers by leaving it on the kitchen counter. Somebody will eat it, no matter what it is!"

Another respondent agrees saying, "people will randomly bring in bagels, cookies, what have you -- [which are] then attacked like locusts on a cornfield."

Free isn't always better

More than 80 percent of respondents report they get the requisite free coffee complete with little sugar packets and those lovely plastic stirrers that bend ever-so-slightly from the warmth of the brew. Of course, you get what you (don't) pay for, as one respondent testifies -- "we get all the disgusting freeze dried coffee we want."

~Thievery and other misdemeanors

Some guy at another company was stealing other people's lunches and "pinching juice boxes from someone's stash without asking," reports one respondent. Apparently, that office is a hotbed for some seriously bad manners: One coworker likes to hover around the kitchen table chanting "you gonna finish that?" This vulture in human clothing "would take the last two bites of your sandwich if you didn't want it, lip marks and all," says the appalled respondent.

Who needs food?

One respondent is mystified by fellow workers who survive on air alone, whom she refers to as "air people": "I have never seen some of these people eat. They work through lunch and piss off mere mortals like myself, since they make us feel guilty eating our lunch or snacking."

Here's one perk that most of us will never have the luxury of experiencing. One company's owner also happens to be a gourmet cook. "We have wonderful food available every day. Actually, she would make us anything we request and does," boasts one well-fed employee.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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