How Companies Are Making Free Food At Work Safer In The Wake Of COVID-19


Anyone who works in an office will know that food is an important aspect of the 9-to-5 corporate life. For instance, some companies provide daily buffet-style lunches as a perk, while others use free food to lure their employees to long meetings or reward them for a job well done.

Indeed, many experts agree that free food does make for a happier workplace, which means that this trend likely won’t be going away anytime soon. The rise of COVID-19, however, raises an important question: how do we make communal food setups safer for everyone?

As offices throughout the US welcome back their employees, health and safety have become top priorities. Pre-pandemic company practices are now under scrutiny, including how staff get access to food.

Employees of the company review website Glassdoor previously enjoyed catered lunches and access to free snacks and beverages across its six offices. Now, senior director of global real estate and workplace experience Rick Friedman says that the company is considering boxed meals, to be either distributed at specific times by individuals wearing masks, gloves, and face coverings or picked up by employees at designated locations in the office. The use of hand sanitizer and paper towels will also be required when getting drinks from the fridge.

Convene, a co-working space with locations in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, has updated its operating standards to ensure members’ safety. This has included offering individually-packed meals in place of buffets, providing single-use cutlery and condiments, and discontinuing their spa water and drip coffee offerings. Kitchen staff will also be subject to temperature checks and must practice social distancing and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times. The company has also reduced the number of vendors they work with to limit the number of people that enter their doors.

Increased awareness about viruses and the spread of disease could also spell the end of the communal coffee pot. To discourage employees from convening by the coffee maker, Angela Simpson of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) says some companies have started giving employees gift cards or discounts to local coffee shops instead.

Crowded cafeterias may also become a thing of the past as more companies shift to individually-packed meals and staggered lunch breaks. Team breakfasts or lunch outings may be reduced or eliminated, along with shared food at meetings.

Some employers, meanwhile, have turned to technology to keep their workers safe. 

Boston-based ezCater, a corporate catering startup, has launched an app called Relish, which allows customers to place orders at certain restaurants. Orders will arrive at a specific time and will be delivered at a designated space like lockers or shelves to ensure contactless pickup. The company says that they have seen a fivefold increase in orders for individually-packed meals since March.

Employers who use the app can also choose to subsidize their employees’ meals. According to ezCater’s head of marketplace Diane Swint, the majority of employers have so far chosen to cover their employees’ meals, though some have already expressed the intention to eventually lower their subsidies.

Chowbotics, a company based in California, reported that the inquiries they’ve received for “Sally” — a robot that can prepare cold meals such as salads, grain bowls, and yogurt — quadrupled in June of 2020.

Chowbotics CEO Rick Wilmer says that before COVID-19, Sally was mainly seen in hospitals and college campuses. Since the pandemic, however, sales have jumped, and Sally is now present in company cafeterias all over the US and Europe, replacing the traditional salad bar.