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For some workers, there is such a thing as a free lunch

The CEO of Intercon Solutions provides a catered lunch for his workers every day.

By Eve Tahmincioglu

During tough economic times there are still employers making sure their workers eat lavishly, or at least get a square meal, during the daily grind by providing food freebies.

Facebook, DreamWorks Animation and Google are among the top companies offering food their employees love, including everything from chocolate-themed lunches to energy drinks, according to research from Glassdoor, a career website that offers company reviews by employees.

“It’s a unique perk,” said Samantha Zupan, a spokeswoman for Glassdoor. “At a lot of companies, you might get a free soda or a candy bowl, but when it comes to a full spread of food that’s a unique value proposition for employees today.”

Indeed, it’s particularly unusual at a time when so many employees face layoff fears, benefit cuts and furloughs, and most are opting to spend less time and money on lunch and snacks on the job.

But for some lucky ones, bosses are chiming: “Let them eat cake,” or at least a sandwich.

A list of the top 10 companies with good eats was culled by Glassdoor from 375,000 employee reviews and released earlier this month. The list includes Susquehanna International Group, a financial institution, social networking site Linkedin and travel site TripAdvisor. The list also includes financial research firm Factset, business news service Bloomberg, semiconductor maker Marvel Technology and social game developer Zynga.

Zynga’s web page about employee benefits states the following:

“Zynga workers are a well-fed bunch. Our great culinary staff provides meals for our entire workforce five days a week.”

Companies are offering grub at these firms mainly because they want to boost morale and company loyalty, Zupan said, especially given the dire predictions that many employees are going to jump ship once the economy turns around.

“Employers are doing what they can to juggle costs and keep employees happy,” she noted.

And some seem to be happy. Here’s a sampling of comments from employees provided by Glassdoor:

“Free food! Beautiful place to come to work every day. People are generally happy and friendly (when not in fear of being laid off after a bad movie release.)”
-DreamWorks Animation employee.

“It is really easy to gain weight with all the delicious food.”
-Google employee.

Some lucky employees are chow-hounding, but most workers have to fend for themselves. While 77 percent of employers provide free coffee and 47 percent have vending machine snacks and beverages, only 26 percent offer food or a subsidized cafeteria as an employee benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Unfortunately, many of you are bypassing lunch or quickly eating at your desks.

A series of surveys by Right Management, a talent management company, found 35 percent of workers almost always take a lunch break, down from 47 percent last year, and more are staying at their desk to eat when they do, with 34 percent saying they do, up from 20 percent last year.

“Workers may feel devoted to their work, which is fine, but given the level of stress in today’s workplace I wonder if the reluctance to take a break is an expression of devotion or a negative consequence of the unrelenting pressure some organizations are exerting on their workforces to get more done with fewer resources,” said Michael Haid, senior vice president of talent management at Right Management.

The decision not to go out to eat can also be about saving money.

Edwin Narvaez decided to leave his job as manager of a Starbucks in 2009 for the non-profit world and is now a manager at Arriba Juntos, an employment and training organization in San Francisco. He took a $4,500-a-year pay cut and found it much more economical, and healthier, to bring his own lunch.

He makes extra for dinners and packs the leftovers for himself and his wife to take to work every day.

“It really was a decision of being smarter about our finances as you know that going out for a majority of meals can be expensive and with this economy it is not a good idea, and also I needed to get healthier as I was almost 300 pounds,” he explained, adding that he’s now 234 pounds.

Tough times also have led to some workers unable to afford a solid meal for lunch, even if they pack it themselves.

That’s one of the reasons Brian Burndage, CEO of Intercon Solutions, a computer recycling company in Chicago Heights, Ill., decided to keep providing free catered lunches for all his 50 employees every day instead of getting rid of the perk, which his accountants suggested.

“Unfortunately, our lunch has turned into probably one of the best square meals for some workers,” he said. “You have couples who now have a single income. Times are tough all over.”

While the company has seen sales growth slow in this economy, Brundage still feels compelled to spend $150,000 annually on the employee lunches.

“We’re trying to do the right thing by our staff,” he said about the meals where all employees, including everyone from warehouse workers to sales staff to upper management, sit together to break bread.

“The family that eats together stays together.”