A former Morgan Stanley banker recently described his weekend food-ordering ritual at the height of the recession. While pulling Saturday hours, for example, he'd log onto the bank's account on Seamless, the online food-ordering service, and redeem his meal allowance—plus a few allowances from phantom coworkers who weren't actually in the office, allowing him to eat well above his pay grade. Sure, someone could have cross-checked actual office attendence with the online orders, but is such effort worth the investment bank's time?
"If people weren't around, it was totally acceptable to take their allowance, and pool it together when you ordered," the banker recalls. "Almost every weekend I was at the office, I'd have a $90 dinner of steak, lobster, mac & cheese, and calamari."
Until several years ago, corporate giants like Morgan Stanley made up roughly 85% of Seamless's customer base. That figure has now tipped in favor of individual consumers, but enterprise clients still represent a significant (and growing) part of the New York-based company's revenue—companies offer Seamless as a benefit to those who typically work long or late hours. But for employees of these roughly 3,500 corporate Seamless customers, the benefit represents a huge opportunity to game the system. And no one has worked the system for financial gain better than Wall Street hustlers.
"Abuse of the system was rampant," recalls another former Morgan Stanley staffer. "I added up how much I ordered in my first year: It was more than $3,000 of food."
Here's how it works.
Typically, junior professionals are allotted about $25 per meal at the office. But there are tricks to leverage this cash on Seamless. If employees want to order dinner, for example, they have to stay until 8 p.m. "But you could still order for a 7 p.m. delivery at 6 p.m., then call the restaurant directly and tell them to bring it right away," one employee says. "So I'd finish work around 6:30 p.m., hit the company gym, and then grab my sushi—spicy tuna rolls—on the way out."
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Top Seamless Fiend
According to Seamless' statistics, the highest ordering corporate user placed more than 2,600 orders in 2011, or more than 7 meals per day.
2// Top Cuisine By Industry Employees
Investment Bankers: Sushi;
3// Top Ordering Patterns
Corporate dinner-orders in New York's Financial District peak at 8 p.m. In Midtown, corporate orders peak at 7 p.m. Corporate dinner-orders are higher, on average, from 4-5 p.m. and lower between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Ordering groceries on Seamless was—and likely still is—another practice. (Representatives at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have not responded to requests for comment.) One employee, who lived by Morgan Stanley's Midtown offices, would even remote into her office computer from her apartment, place an order on Seamless, and then call the restaurant and change the delivery address to her apartment. The lobster-loving Morgan Stanley banker's take on that old switcheroo? "Classic."
Another trick: Since employees aren't allowed to order beer or alcohol on the system, it's not uncommon to pool money together, place a large order for random items, then call the store and request that they bring beer instead.
"We definitely get a lot of random orders," says Seamless CEO Jonathan Zabusky. "Once in a while, I'll sit on the customer-care desk, just to get a feel on the pulse of what's going on. You see these orders come through, and you're like, 'Why are 20 rolls of toilet paper going to 200 Vesey Street [the World Financial Center]? What the hell?'"
One former employee at Morgan Stanley said he wasn't sure how pervasive the "switch-for-beer order" was at the investment bank, but said he personally pulled the move several times. "Wow, I feel so lame now because when I'd order from Seamless, I'd just get dinner," says one former Goldman Sachs employee. "I never heard of anyone else pulling a fast one [like that], but that doesn't mean it never happened."
The daily Seamless stipend is considered sacred for employees, and any abuse of the system appears generally overlooked by higher-ups. When Lehman Brothers went under, for instance, Morgan Stanley lowered the Seamless limit from $30 to $25, much to the anger of workers. "People went nuts," recalls a former employee. "Every so often there were these fireside chats with [Morgan Stanley CEO] John Mack 'Da Knife' and a collection of analysts. One of the women on the call asked Mack to raise the limit to $30 again. Mack, not really having paid much attention to expenses, was surprised to hear it had been reduced. Concerned, he asked her why she needed $30 instead of just $25. She said that with the new reduction, 'I can't order my Perrier anymore.'" The next day, as legend has it, there was an entire case of Perrier on her desk—courtesy of John Mack. "What a baller," an employee says.
Zabusky is sure abuse exists on Seamless, but says it's not likely that widespread. "I think it's pretty funny," the Seamless chief chuckles. "I mean, I know it probably frustrates a CFO at Goldman, who is giving these guys $25 to order while they work on deals, and they're ordering toilet paper and jars of mayonnaise and all this other stuff. But in the overall scope, it's probably pretty small."
Small as the abuses might be in terms of Seamless's bottom line, there's no doubt it has a big impact on the morale of employees, who seem to take pride in manipulating money one way or another. According to Seamless's statistics, for example, the highest ordering corporate user placed more than 2,600 orders in 2011.
"There's nothing grosser or more magnificent than eating $25 of delivered Taco Bell under the fluorescent, sober lights of an office building," says one employee. "Do you have any idea how much baja sauce you can get for that money?"
[Image: Flickr user a.has]