Credit: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

There are so many rituals, practices, and beliefs that are petering out in our post-pandemic working lives. The handshake. The necktie. The notion that workers can’t be trusted to be productive when they work at home, or in a cafe, or anywhere else they can land a laptop. (This text was drafted on an Airbus A321.)

In the next few years many employers will be delegating another decades-old amenity to the dustbin: the company cafeteria. Instead of one sprawling (and likely pretty empty) destination, there will be many smaller ones designed to entice workers to gather at any hour to connect and collaborate.

This prediction comes from Fedele Bauccio, chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Bon Appétit Management Company, the food-service provider that shook up company cafeterias across the country by partnering with the likes of Oracle and Google and collaboratively pioneering new concepts like ethnically diverse food and free meals. Bon Appétit’s clientele swiftly grew to include organizations like Best Buy, Starbucks, and MIT; while its fortunes, unsurprisingly, took a significant hit in the pandemic, it remains a billion-dollar enterprise whose 1,000 locations cooked and served 200 million meals last year.

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Some takeaways from our recent conversation with Bauccio:

  • The traditional cafeteria is a thing of the past. “Those days are gone,” he says. In its place: “smaller, unique concepts placed throughout the campuses. There are pods of places where they can experience different concepts and different kinds of seating.”
  • Taking action on corporate values, which includes issues like climate change and animal welfare, has never been more critical for companies looking to recruit and retain younger workers. “How do we support community? How do we support farmers? If you go on our website, you’ll see a lot of messaging going on. Young people care about those messages,” Bauccio says. “They care about where their food comes from. They want us to support community within 150 miles of our kitchens all over the United States. That’s a big, big deal.”
  • Companies are using food not only to lure workers to offices, but to encourage them to collaborate once there. “Clients and employees have told us that, although it’s nice to be able to be at home, they miss the collaboration and miss coming together. Part of that is food because that’s when they come together to share their ideas, collaborate, and create innovative solutions.”
  • Workers, particularly those in the food-service industry, are worn out from the pandemic. “All over the country, people are struggling to get enough employees, and we pay more than a living wage and full benefits for everybody. People are exhausted and burnt out, and they want to do something different.”
  • We’re getting bored with burgers. “There’s been a huge change in terms of more authentic cultural foods, whether Indian food or Filipino food, other than the hamburgers and deli sandwiches,” he says. “People want to experiment with their food, and they seem to experiment at work more than they do at home.”
  • Plant-centric meals are healthier…and easier to procure in a supply-chain crunch. Supply-chain issues are “why we try to stay away from animal protein and try to do more produce and grains,” Bauccio says. “They’re not only healthier and better for you, but they’re also easier to source.”

As companies around the country struggle to figure out how to convince workers to head back to headquarters and how to reconnect them once they’re there, food—with its ages-old power to motivate and to build community—is becoming an increasingly valuable tool. A recent event at Microsoft with food trucks offering fried chicken and Korean barbecue for free was reportedly packed. Ford said its workers, which just started a new hybrid-work program, are praising its beefed-up cafeteria and bean-to-cup fresh coffee. JPMorgan Chase, which recently, and rather reluctantly, announced that many of its workers will work a hybrid schedule, unveiled plans for its new headquarters that includes a state-of-the-art food hall.

On the other end, cutting back on the provisions can spark a swift—and surprisingly sharp—backlash. Former Dropbox workers griped to Business Insider that the company decision to axe the gourmet cafeteria damaged company culture. Meta got publicly slapped for its decision to start its free dinner meal at 6:30pm rather than at 6:00pm. And most recently, Goldman Sachs—known for taking a particularly hard line on its stance that all workers should return to working in offices five days a week—generated headlines when it scrapped the free breakfasts and lunches it began offering during the pandemic. (The bank upped its “out of hours” meal stipend by $5 and said it was replacing the free meals with other “new experiences and offerings.”)

Read a transcript of our conversation with Bauccio, which also included discussion of the state of the job market and how growing up in the kitchen with his mother shaped his career.

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