There's no such thing as a free dinner. A worker at Google tells us the company is taking evening meals off the menu: "Google has drastically cut back their budget on the culinary program. How is it affecting campus? No more dinner. No more tea trolley. No more snack attack in the afternoon." The changes will be announced to Googlers on Monday. Workers at the Googleplex will remain amply fed, with free breakfast and lunch — dinner will be reserved for geeks only — but it's still a shocking cutback.Last year, when we aired the mildest speculation about Google cutting back on free food, commenters were outraged. Google has long milked its cafeterias for their publicity value; company executives have crowed about the company's resistance to recessions and its commitment to coddling its employees. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin even promised shareholders they'd add perks, rather than cut them. In 2004, they wrote:
We provide many unusual benefits for our employees, including meals free of charge ... We are careful to consider the long term advantages to the company of these benefits. Expect us to add benefits rather than pare them down over time. We believe it is easy to be penny wise and pound foolish with respect to benefits that can save employees considerable time and improve their health and productivity.
What went wrong? For one, Google handed its restaurants over to an outside management company, Bon Appétit, which runs many Valley corporate cafeterias. The change did not go well, with Google and Bon Appétit constantly clashing — even over minor things, like whether kitchen workers could use Google's foosball tables. Star executive chefs like Nate Keller and Josef Desimone left. Desimone, who was recruited by Facebook, took many chefs with him. The departures left Google's kitchens understaffed even as it undertook an expansion of its cafes to Alza Plaza, an office complex close to the Googleplex it acquired last year. Bon Appétit simply didn't have the staff to keep offering dinner, and Google didn't want to foot the bill to hire more. Could this all stem from a change of heart by Google's formerly perk-crazy founders? Sergey Brin is said to have complained about employees' overweening sense of entitlement to "bottled water and M&Ms," a comment company flacks denied he made. Regardless of what Brin precisely said, it makes sense that he'd rethink his generosity. Brin has made his billions already. Spending to keep his employees motivated at startup levels won't pay off. Tightening the belt to keep profit margins high? That, and not free dinners, will preserve Brin's outlandish wealth. The savings from cutting dinner, as well as some snacks, should be substantial. By one estimate, Google spends $7,500 a year on food per employee. But the phrase "per employee" is used loosely here. Employees often took their spouses and children out to dinner at the cafes, or wrapped up food to take home for the family — on shareholders' dime. Fine, some Googlers abused the perk. Even then, consider the message Google is sending to employees: Go home and have dinner with your families. What will Thunder Parley, Google's self-appointed in-house food critic, say? This is a slashing of benefits Google executives can't sugarcoat. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))