We often hear about the exotic lunch perks that big companies offer to their employees to help boost retention amidst the current talent crunch, and/or to compliment a health and wellness program. For instance, as CNN reported at the end of 2007, Google offers its employees three free gourmet meals a day. And staff members at New York-based auditing and tax services firm KPMG get a “Barbecue Bonanza” gift of steaks, chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers every Fourth of July holiday.

But big companies aren’t the only ones complementing their benefit packages with lunch-oriented incentives. Close to 40 percent of the Finalists in our 2007 Top Small Workplaces recognition program reported offering one or more practices in this area – all of which are fully paid for by the company. The leadership at these companies say these measures strengthen the company culture and interpersonal ties, improve employee health and job satisfaction, and help lower turnover.

Tips from Those in the Know:

  • Designate a point person – arrangements will be made more smoothly
  • Employees will respond best to highly anticipated (not mandatory) events
  • Know your staff – what unique approach will engage them most?
  • Keep an eye on your budget – no need to break the bank here
  • Plan ahead and allow for suggestions (your staff will have many of the best ideas)
  • Encourage new talent to speak up – what better way to gain experience?

Until recently, Finalist Chief Enterprises, an Illinois-based, 17-year-old distributor of electrical components for vehicle manufacturers, offered free daily lunches to all employees. The company scaled back to a once-a-week schedule (every Wednesday) to ensure that any and all of their staff of 35, including their families, and any on-site contractors could attend. Administrator Marci Chartrand says the longstanding practice improves workplace communication. “It’s a good chance for everyone to be together at lunch who wouldn’t otherwise see each other,” she says.

Another 2007 Finalist, global logistics provider Logistics Plus, also offers a free weekly lunch to the 65 employees that work at its corporate headquarters. Although the company doesn’t serve lunch in-house, employees don’t have to walk far – the Erie, Pennsylvania-based company shares office space with a local pub, “The Brewerie,” in a historic train depot building. Founder and CEO Jim Berlin uses the practice to encourage cross-departmental communication – “Everyone’s so tied to the computer and telephone, even people who work right across the hall don’t see each other,” he says – but also as a chance to welcome internationally based new employees (the company employs another 85 workers in 12 countries). A common sight at the pub when team members from around the world gather together is a cavalcade of national anthem recitations.

Learning and Skill Building

Some of the companies have experimented with transitioning their free lunch programs from mere social events to learning and on-the-job training opportunities. For instance, The Fuel Team, a Colorado-based developer of web-based software for business and nonprofit communicators, holds weekly “Lunch ‘n Learn” sessions covering industry trends and sales status reports and even include client showcases and webinars. Managing Partner Karen Meyer says the company occasionally brings in a paid speaker, but more often the Lunch ‘n Learn serves as a venue for younger or lower-level workers to hone their public speaking skills, helping to prepare them to deliver presentations to clients in the future.

Jerry Kathman, President & CEO of LPK, an 89-year-old, Ohio-based design agency that helps build leadership brands, echoes Meyer. Besides helping to improve their employees’ comfort levels in a group setting, LPK’s free lunch program, referred to as “Knowledge Noshes,” complements its open book culture. Kathman says this practice, which has been in place for five years, currently draws around 150 employees, or about 43 percent of the workforce, each week. The lunches range from employee-delivered client case studies to those in which thought leaders from various industries come to the site to delve into the hot topics or trends in their specific industry and how they relate to the brand design work that’s LPK’s mantra.

Knowledge is power, the company’s leadership has found – the power in this case being an increased ability to meet the firm’s desired business outcomes with the help of these Knowledge Noshes. After scaling back on promotion of the events this past summer, Kathman noticed that the drop in scheduled lunches and presentations coincided with slipping results. “We found it harmed us having fewer lunches,” he says. “This is about the social fabric of our group. It’s about our business.”

The Cost Factor

What are the costs associated with implementing a free lunch program? Kathman says he spends about $7 to $10 per person for a boxed lunch and a little more in administrative costs to pull the sessions together, plus more when outside speakers are invited. But he heartily says the return is worth the investment. “In an industry known for high turnover, we’ve found that it more than pays for itself,” he says. Berlin of Logistics Plus feels the same way, saying he “doesn’t even consider” those costs. “In the end, it’s about giving our employees a break; it’s about making them feel welcome,” he says.

Your small organization might consider the ROI of offering your workers some form of a “free” lunch. Although it may be free to them while the organization foots the bill, if you find that employees tend to stay at the company longer and form closer ties, and if you can mix a learning or training focus into the practice, you, too, may find that it fits your culture.

This last point is perhaps the most important one: Match a lunch practice to your existing culture and workplace, not the other way around. “You couldn’t have a closed managerial style and initiate something like this and then expect much,” Kathman says. “It’s got to be part of the whole package.”