Live by the fork, die by the fork. Now that Google is cutting back on its free food, where will its flacks woo journalists? Morale in Google's kitchens is rock-bottom, as leaderless workers try to keep understaffed cafes running, even as Google management insists they open new eateries. The last place Google's PR staff should want to entertain a reporter is in their cafes. The tragedy of it all: As we learn more about how the Googleplex's food operations fell apart, it sounds like Google executives' ego got in the way of thinking about the needs of employees — or the workers who keep them fed.The trouble started when Google hired John Dickman as its director of food operations. Dickman is married to Lisa McEuen, an executive at Bon Appétit. At the time, Bon Appétit and Google were two of the largest buyers of organic and sustainable food in the region; by picking up Google as a client, Bon Appétit gained considerable purchasing power. A source in Google's kitchens says that Dickman was "the reason Bon Appétit got the Google contract." But in exchange, Bon Appétit, a division of Compass Group, got a very testy client. A former Google chef who had his own ideas about how to run the cafes profitably said he tried to get founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and CEO Eric Schmidt interested, but they didn't listen "because I didn't have a Stanford degree." Google's ethics cops have never looked askance at, say, Schmidt hiring his girlfriend for a high-profile PR gig, or Brin getting Google to invest in his wife's startup. But Dickman's marriage to a Bon Appétit executive raised eyebrows, and he left the company in January. Two top chefs followed him out the door. Josef Desimone went to Facebook, in March. Dickman himself went to Apple, and Nate Keller, a protégé of Google's first chef, Charlie Ayers, followed him there. Both Desimone and Keller took several members of the kitchen staff with them. "All management staff has quit within the last three months," says a source at Google. That may be an exaggeration, but if so, not by much. One issue that's been underplayed: The behavior of rank-and-file Googlers. "Pride is all cooks and dishwashers have," says a former Google chef. But Googlers, whose sense of self-aggrandized entitlement is already legendary in the Valley, have been taking out their frustrations on the people who dish out their food. Kitchen staffers are "invisible" to them, says a Google food worker — except when they somehow displease Googlers who expect free meals and servile deference, too. Google's cafes have always been at the heart of its PR strategy, helping to portray the company as generous to employees, dedicated to doing things differently, and caring about Mother Earth. Google PR director David Krane took on the replacement of original chef Charlie Ayers as the task he worked on in the 20-percent time Google gives employees to work on side projects. I can't remember the number of times Krane cajoled me to enjoy a free meal, courtesy of Google. He wouldn't want me there now. A Bon Appétit executive said in May that the company was planning to drop Google as a client. Arrogant, tightfisted, and argumentative, the Googlers were more trouble than the food-service contract was worth. Even so, Bon Appétit has been scrambling to patch things up. "The two founders of Bon Appétit come on site at least once a week," says a Googler. "Other representatives from Bon Appétit headquarters are on site every day — as visitors. It's a very sticky situation. The kitchen staff isn't being told anything. When dinner is cut how many jobs will be cut, too? The thing that really gets me is that the Googlers have no clue and will be asking us questions when dinner and other programs stop. They won't know the truth either." The company seems uninterested in letting Googlers know the truth. It's telling that Google PR won't go on the record to deny the cuts, though they're happy to persuade reporters on background that the cuts are limited. A spokeswoman, conveniently unnamed, told CNBC's Jim Goldman that the company had no idea where the rumor came from. Here's an idea for Google PR: Go down to a kitchen, and talk to the people who actually make the food you love to eat while chatting up reporters. They seem to be better informed than you are. (Photo by Jeromy Henry/Fortune)
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