The End of the Golden Age of Silicon Valley Cafeterias



Mohammed Badri became a cook at the Tuck Shop, Dropbox Inc.’s corporate cafeteria, early in 2019. By most measures, the gig in what was then known as one of Silicon Valley’s best cafeterias was a dream job. He made such dishes as marinated ahi tuna with spiced watermelon water and pickled vegetables, and kofta flatbread with arugula salad—and never had to make the same thing twice.

Badri wasn’t a Dropbox employee, having been hired instead through a third-party contracting firm. Still, working in a tech company’s kitchen paid competitively and offered more stability than his previous restaurant jobs. He also didn’t have to do the brutal 12- to 15-hour shifts he’d endured in the conventional food industry.

Everything changed last March, when Dropbox Chief Executive Officer Drew Houston tweeted that the company would ask employees to work remotely for two weeks to help slow the spread of Covid-19. Dropbox continued paying Badri until late April. He’s been at home ever since.

Badri, 31, hesitated to take a new restaurant job, even when the Bay Area’s restaurants were largely locked down because of the pandemic, because he had a baby at home and was worried about safety protocols in unfamiliar kitchens. “It’s a scary disease,” he says.

Over the past decade, the over-the-top cafeteria has become one of the hallmarks of tech office culture, along with hoodies with corporate logos and permissive bring-your-dog-to-work policies. Tech companies have hired thousands of workers from some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area to staff their kitchens, providing them with a bounty of local produce from which to churn out breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The free meals became such a fixture in tech offices that San Francisco has considered banning or restricting new employee cafeterias, because some officials worried that in-office dining options were damaging local restaurants. At the same time, the boom in corporate dining created a new class of jobs that offered more stability than typical restaurant positions and could pay over 20% more.

Tech’s hiring spree made it hard for restaurants to hold on to top talent, says Gabriel Cole, who ran Airbnb Inc.’s global food program before co-founding Fare Resources, which designs corporate dining programs. “It also created some better quality of living for a lot of cooks, which is the upside,” he says. “I did it because I wanted a 9 to 5, I wanted benefits, and I wanted a better quality of life.”

In the early days of the pandemic, many companies pledged to keep paying their cafeteria workers, but the tech industry is now embracing remote work as a more permanent phenomenon. Cafeterias probably won’t disappear entirely, but they’ll likely need fewer people on staff and might not serve up three meals a day plus constant snacks.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google and some other companies have continued to pay hourly service workers, including cafeteria staff. A report published in November 2020 by labor group Silicon Valley Rising found that tech companies in Santa Clara and San Mateo, the two counties that cover much of Silicon Valley—but not San Francisco—still employed 14,000 unionized cafeteria, janitorial, and security workers. The group estimates that 70% of those cafeteria workers are Black or Latino.

“These cafeterias are homes for these workers,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, the campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising. Most large tech companies haven’t let their service workers go, according to the group’s report. “What does the future look like? My very honest answer is that I don’t know,” she says.

Many food service workers, both contractors and direct employees, have lost their jobs. Some, like Badri, have decamped from the Bay Area. With no job to cover rent, he recently moved his family into his parents’ home in the suburbs of Paris, where he grew up, and is applying for jobs there. He says he wouldn’t have left—at least not anytime soon—if he hadn’t lost his job at Dropbox.

A Dropbox spokeswoman confirmed that the company had ended contracts for cafeteria workers but said it kept some direct employees on in food service. She added that the company is still figuring out what its office food offerings will look like after the pandemic. Airbnb, Twitter Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., and others have also let chefs, cooks, and dishwashers go. A former manager at Airbnb’s cafeteria, who asked not to be named because of a nondisclosure agreement, says the company continued to pay its contract kitchen staff through June and offered them $3,000 grants. Airbnb declined to comment.

April Word spent five years making pasta, grilling, and working the line at the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse before joining Thumbtack Inc., the local services marketplace, where she eventually became the head of the culinary program. Word was attracted to Thumbtack because it made her an employee rather than hiring her through a contracting firm, unlike many other corporate cafeteria jobs. Her 17-person team supplied employees with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, such as pastéis de nata, Portuguese egg tarts, and elote.

At the start of the pandemic, Word’s team created a Slack channel called #ChefSupport to help homebound employees feed themselves. It also held cooking classes over Zoom. At the end of March, most of the team was let go, part of cuts that cost one-third of Thumbtack’s workforce their jobs. Word remained, but over the summer the company said her job would end in October. She spent her remaining months donating and distributing food from the company’s kitchen, making sure the grease traps were cleaned and ensuring the range hoods were up to code.

A Thumbtack spokesperson says the kitchen staff was a “beloved part of our team” and describes terminating their positions as one of the more difficult decisions the company has had to make because of the pandemic. Thumbtack expects its entire workforce to be working remotely until at least July.

Erika Sanchez, who spent a decade working in Verizon’s cafeteria in Sunnyvale, learned in August that she’d be terminated in a week. The company paid out her vacation time, and Sanchez, 46, thinks she has enough savings to make it until February or March. In the meantime she’s looking for work and volunteering at a food bank, where she also receives her own meals.

Sanchez doesn’t know if Verizon will call workers back when it eventually reopens offices. But she was happy there, earning about $19 an hour, or roughly $38,000 a year. “It’s one of the few places where I would go to work and people would say thank you for the things that I did,” she says.

Companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and DoorDash Inc. have established or expanded programs allowing employers to distribute meal credits to their staffs. Farms that previously supplied produce to corporate kitchens have pivoted to delivery boxes as well to make up for the lost revenue.

Vincent Attali, who was the executive pastry chef for LinkedIn, started a pop-up French pastry shop in San Francisco after raising money on Kickstarter. Many of his backers were LinkedIn employees, he says. Attali is also selling subscription boxes with matcha eclairs, molten chocolate crackle cookies, ube coconut mochi, and other pastries, an effort to lean into the growing appetite for on-demand food delivery.

Martin Nguyen, a former chef at LinkedIn, formed a catering company called Kraving Foods. He says starting a business during a pandemic is tough. Nguyen sold about 24 full Thanksgiving meals, but weekly orders have fallen about 50% since he opened this summer. “It’s very difficult to break through,” he says. “People aren’t getting together.” —With Kurt Wagner

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