The local-services-enhancing startup Thumbtack once had a crazy idea: What if they hired a full-time chef?

They did and soon enough Thea Baumann was helping boost company-wide productivity by baking things like this insanely delicious chocolate cake.

And also preparing healthier dishes, such as this king salmon for lunch.

Mushroom and black olive pizza--with a side of $6 million in funding.

Baumann is a culinary-school trained chef. Since she came on, Thumbtack has taken off.

“If you start with the notion that having a quick sandwich at your lunch is productive in the sense that it takes less time, that’s true,” says productivity expert and author, Bob Pozen.

“But we don’t want a hard and fast rule," Pozen adds. "We want a functional rule.”

Steve Jobs designed Apple's offices to increase the likelihood that employees would bump into one another. So why not have them bump into one another over lunch?

"All of your coworkers are coming together everyday and actually having a conversation," Arram Sabeti, CEO of Pandora-for-food startup ZeroCater, says. "It’s just kind of shocking that so many companies let this option slip by."

Besides, who doesn't feel better after a cupcake?

Friday cakes. It's a thing. Really.

If You Think You're Productive During Lunch, Think Again

Got a case of the brown-bag blues? Time to rework your approach to lunch--which can be the most useful time in your day, if you do it like San Francisco startup Thumbtack.

About three years ago, Thumbtack was a startup in a house high atop a San Francisco hill. There, the local-services-discovery company's original six employees lived, worked, and schlepped to lunch.

With every noontide, the decidedly pre-revenue startup lost an hour to the lunch trek. Soon they had a crazy idea: What if they ordered in? They tried one day a week, and like the research suggests, they worked way better after eating well. Then a crazier idea: What if they hired a chef?

Thea Baumann

They did: Thea Baumann, culinary school-trained preparer of ultra-fresh deliciousness.

After three years, $6 million in funding, and a ten-times growth in staffing, Baumann is still Thumbtack's full-time chef. While it sounds extravagant, cofounder Sander Daniels says chef-prepared, family-style meals make business sense. He emailed us the reasons:

  • Meals build community: Everyone on the team eats together every day
  • Meals build networks: On Wednesdays they have an open dinner where recruits can hang with the company
  • The team is more productive: People aren't leaving the office to wait in lines or scrounging around for food
  • Everyone is eating awesome food, so everyone is healthy

Thumbtack takes their gastronomy seriously: Read their startup food manifesto.

But what if you’re not an ultra-progressive Silicon Valley startup?

Two-thirds of Americans eat lunch at their desks. The Atlantic wrote a definitive guide to the practice. And though it exposes you to more germs than a toilet seat, the desk lunch often feels like the best option--how else are we going to get to our families, friends, and happy hours faster? How could actually taking lunch actually be more productive?

For the extremely productive Bob Pozen, what you do about lunch isn't about the meal itself, but the function that it serves.

“If you start with the notion that having a quick sandwich at your lunch is productive in the sense that it takes less time, that’s true,” the author says. “But we don’t want a hard and fast rule--we want a functional rule.”

The desk-lunch efficiency might not be worth it, he says, if you could gain more from stepping away.

You could eat alone--perhaps away from a screen. Pozen says that since you’ll sometimes have a very full day, eating alone can help you restore your personal resources. And don’t pull out your phone: An absence of stimulation encourages associative or integrative thought, spurring your creativity. As well, if you have an idea that you’re working on in your head, eating alone allows you to continue uninterrupted.

Another option is to address the afternoon energy crash: You could take a walk or hit the gym, or, alternatively, you could take a 20-minute nap. What works is individual, Pozen says, so it might be a good idea to experiment with a few different approaches.

But eating is also social. Companion, after all, is Latin for person-you-eat-bread-with. Etsy Design Lead Cap Watkins recently wrote about how his career took off after a fortuitous coffee. The lesson: Eating forms connections, connections beget opportunities. And it'll make you a better negotiator.

But beyond and before the job hustle, sharing meals bolsters trust within a team. Pozen says that if you're a manager, you can use meals as a way to check in with your reports. It's like having a meeting, but instead of wasting time, you eat.

Lunch is a city

When Arram Sabeti, the CEO of Pandora-for-food startup ZeroCater, wants to explain the value of eating together, he brings up a legend of unplanned collaboration.

Back when Steve Jobs was planning the Pixar campus, he made sure to put the bathrooms in one central place, so that people from different disciplines would run into each other, which would mean that their ideas would too. It's the same sense of cross-pollination we find urban centers: As cities become more dense, they become more productive. Sabeti's pitch, then, is that taking lunch together can make your company more of a neighborhood.

"All of your coworkers are coming together every day and actually having a conversation," Sabeti says. "It’s just kind of shocking that so many companies let this option slip by."

Bottom Line: Have your lunch around an office table every once in a while--or you’ll be leaving money on it.

[Photos by Anastasia Tumanova]

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8 Comments

  • Gary

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. Similar to the newly popularized
    "unlimited vacation time" touted by start-ups, lunching everyday with
    your co-workers is another way to manipulate employees to conform and
    work even longer hours.  Most roles in modern workplaces are already
    "social."  By stealing workers' lunchtimes, start-ups can squeeze an
    extra hour from employees and prevent them from leaving the office and
    having other interests outside work.  Borrowing the idea from company
    stores of yesteryear, modern employers want the same dull,
    loyal, trapped employee to spend their lives working, working,
    working...Individuals need not apply. 

  • Ramone

    Nope. Just cubes here. We each eat at our desks alone, except for payday when 4-5 of us wait in long lines at restauraunts outside the office. That's a special treat!

  • Collietammy

    I find there are great social benefits to networking lunches.  People are more relaxed and conversation seems to flow without tension. Exercising in my lunch break also heps me clear my mind and re-focus on some of the trickier tasks.

  • Cari Turley

    My office provides catered lunch every day, right after a daily nine-minute, all-hands meeting. It's a really effective combination for us. We get a brief check-in on the state of the company, and if anything comes up that people want to discuss, there's an immediate and informal forum to do so.

  • polaspilates

    During over a decade in advertising, I rarely ate lunch away from my desk, unless I was meeting with clients. My stress levels were high and finding time to actually make it to lunch with a friend or a workout durning lunch was impossible and left me riddled with guilt. This was, in part, the reason I began bringing Pilates to co-workers in their location. The team building, friendships between departments, support, and laughter generated by sharing a class twice a week is incredible. They bond over their love/hate relationship with me, support each other in gaining strength and wellness, and drag each other to class from meetings. Because classes are tailored to how they use their bodies all day, they have tools to combat stress and physical strain. They don't have to leave the office to get to class, and I always show up, rain, shine, snow storm, and have even been called essential personnel. Although I'm not sure they wouldn't trade me in for a personal chef given the choice! The companies that are encouraging this (some even paying for the classes) are truly walking the walk - it really just takes some creativity to find ways to have a happier, healthier team.

  • Jaye Roth

    I did some temp work for a company that not only provided lunch, but it was expected and assumed you would eat the provisions.  It was never stated, but understood that nobody would leave. The food was high carb and repetitive. Having said that, by two weeks in I was a believer-the benefits far outnumbered the downside. Everyone ate together regardless of rank-giving everyone chances to network. Much of the talk was non-work related, giving everyone a chance to relax. The primary goodie was that  you could get stuff done in a sentence that might have taken a meeting somewhere else. I'm sure if I stayed I could have brought some salad into their family culture.

  • Catrina

    Great article! We do this too at eZanga.com. Eating definitely forms connections and encourages interaction. If employees are comfortable communicating over food - they are more comfortable working through challenges together.