More than a perk: Businesses find benefits to offering food at work

March 11, 2019

Brenda Wade Schmidt, for SiouxFalls.Business

When management at Gage Brothers Concrete Products started planning a new plant on the city’s northeast side, they wondered where employees would eat.

With a half-hour lunch break, the location at 2400 N. Bahnson Ave. is too far from places where employees could buy food. To solve the problem, Gage Brothers has added daily lunch as an employee benefit.

“The feedback we have gotten so far has been good,” said Cassie Nicolai, human resources and safety manager. “They’re pretty excited about the lunch. It’s a big motivator.”

The company will expand the lunch offerings to a full cafeteria line with hot-lunch options with a daily salad bar once it’s fully staffed with about 250 employees at the new location early this spring. For now, the catered meal is a box lunch.

The company anticipates a list of benefits that having meals on site will provide. For employees, it saves them from eating fast food or gas station fare, and they don’t have to pack a lunch. “The biggest thing for them is the convenience and the affordability,” Nicolai said.

Workers pay $2 for each meal, an amount that is taken out of their paycheck.

“The company is taking on a majority of the cost as a benefit for employees,” Nicolai said.

With healthier food choices, the company also thinks that will show up as healthier workers who have good energy to be productive on the job. But the company also hopes that lunch will bridge connections between office staff and plant workers, who will be in two separate buildings at the new location, Nicolai said.

People will be able to sit in the cafeteria area and get to know each other better, for example.

What began as a staple of Silicon Valley offices, business-provided lunches and other food throughout the day are growing in popularity as a way in which companies are doing the very thing Gage Brothers considered.

The food isn’t just a perk but is a way to improve work culture and give employees a benefit similar to employee health care or a wellness membership.

Nicolai said the lunches match the goals of a robust wellness plan the company has had for 10 years. A majority of the employees are men who perform physical labor, and they have been pleased with the portion sizes of the lunches, which include two meat options daily. One option has to be something other than pork, she said, because there are employees who don’t eat that meat for religious reasons.

The company talked with its caterer when setting up the lunch contract and indicated the employees’ diverse backgrounds of national origins, Nicolai said. That employee information helps the caterer match the menu interests of the employees as a group.

Nicolai said company catering is one way Gage can keep employees at its plant.

“We want to use it as a recruiting and retention tool,” she said.

Caterer and restaurant owner Dan Myers knows the importance and benefit of providing food to local company employees. His catering business, Elite Catering, has grown to be bigger than his deli business on Philips Avenue.

“We do daily catering for several larger companies in Sioux Falls,” he said. “By May, we will be feeding 600 people a day.”

Menus include options such as chili, pot roast, a pulled pork bar, Chinese food, Mojo pork sandwiches and Mexican food. “We find out what goes over best and what they like most,” he said.

The menu also depends on what the employer wants to spend on each meal and whether it’s willing to include fresh vegetables and fruits. “With all of our daily catering, I encourage them to do a salad bar so there’s always a healthy option,” Myers said.

Some Sioux Falls employers have been providing meals through catering or restaurant delivery for years. It’s a daily benefit for the crew that provides public safety software and support at Zuercher Technologies, now called CentralSquare.

At Blend Interactive in downtown Sioux Falls, lunch is something that has been done each Friday since the company started with three people in 2005 and has continued as the website design and development firm has added employees.

“As founders of the company, we’d use lunchtime on Friday to discuss how the week went professionally and to catch up with each other on a personal level,” said Karla Santi, a founder and CEO. “As a startup, the hours were intense, and weeks flew by quickly. Friday lunch served as a way to stop for an hour, find our feet and breathe a bit.”

The office has a spreadsheet to track the order from one of 40 restaurants each Friday, which is based on businesses that deliver or are a part of Food Dudes. With a large group of people, the spreadsheet is essential, Santi said, and includes each employee’s name with a slot for the entree, side choice and any special instructions. Staff members have until 3 p.m. Thursday to update their orders or they will get the same thing they ordered last time.

The lunches aren’t intentionally meant for talking about business, and no important meetings are held during lunch, Santi said.

“Setting aside time to sit shoulder to shoulder as a team has a positive effect on maintaining open dialogue as we grow and insuring that people don’t feel divided, even if we’re all working on different things,” she said. “It’s the conversation and connection that occurs by setting aside this time each week that impacts our company culture.”

Farmers Business Network also does a once-a-week meal for its employees as a perk on Tuesdays, something that the company does at its sister office in the Silicon Valley, said Kaylie Leuthold, office manager. The company also prefers to order from a restaurant that will deliver, and the menu has included sandwiches, wings, barbecue, Chinese, Italian and a baked potato bar.

Farmers Business Network provides a daily grab-and-go snack bar and beverage cooler, “which is something that is really hard to find in this area,” Leuthold said. It contracts with Premium Food & Beverage to stock it.

“They were on board 100 percent and ready to set us up with something that would work best. They’ve been fantastic,” she said. “They bring in everything from chips to milk and bread and yogurt, granola bars, and they take requests and are super easy to work with.”

The employer also has fresh fruit, fruit snacks, snack mix, mac and cheese, and oatmeal available, along with a snack dispenser on the wall.

“You can easily walk up to the wall, turn the knob and grab a handful of M&Ms or pretzels. It’s a little too convenient sometimes,” Leuthold said.

“It’s been a nice perk for our employees because throughout the day you get a little hungry and need a little snack, and it’s a nice perk for those people in the office to keep them happy.”

Job applicants are wowed by the extras, she said. And employees have been respectful about not overdoing it.

“I think they know how valuable this is to their day-to-day jobs, and I think they really do appreciate it.”

More than a perk: Businesses find benefits to offering food at work

What began as a staple of Silicon Valley offices has found growing support from Sioux Falls businesses: Free or almost free food at work.

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