Some companies use food as a competitive weapon. Take Google. Since opening its binary doors in 1999, it’s had the policy of offering free food for all the brainiacs who work there. When Google decided to make food free, they did it big. First, they installed more than 130 free mini-7-Eleven snack rooms they call “micro-kitchens” that they pride on being within 100 feet of every single employee. These have all the snacks, cold drinks, coffees, and fruits you can imagine, and they say the average Googler is never move than one hundred feet away from food. It’s all free, free, and free. Before work, during work, and after work (but don’t take it home).
Second, they have amazingly super cool cafeterias that serve almost anything you would imagine (sushi, BBQ, curry, burgers, chili, Jell-O, dessert bars) and some foods you wouldn’t imagine (kale and pumpkin pizza). Grab a tray and pile it high. Go back for seconds if you wish. Repeat until you feel like your stomach is about to explode. And again, it’s all free, all the time. Management isn’t shy about saying why:[i]
• It’s a recruiting and retention plus.
• It keeps high-salaried software engineers on site rather than driving around for an hour looking for restaurant.
• It encourages good “accidental conversations” with other Googlers.
• It reduces bad “accidental conversations”--those involving trade secrets--with pesky neighborhood competitors.
Unfortunately, there’s also something called the “Google fifteen.” It’s the fifteen pounds new Googlers--they’re called Nooglers--are rumored to gain shortly after joining the clan. This isn’t unique to Google. There’s also the M&M/Mars fifteen and the Nabisco fifteen that happen at other headquarters. In fact, this probably happens at any company where there’s lots of tasty, widely available free food.
Some of the first steps to make the Micro Kitchens more slim by design were pretty straightforward. Armed with our cafeteria research findings (described in the next chapter), a student whose dissertation committee I was on, Jessica Wisdom, took a job with Google in People Analytics and started nudging things around.[ii]We knew that the three things that determine what a person eats in a free food environment: 1) what’s most convenient, 2) what’s most attractive, and 3) what’s most normal.[iii]So here’s what was done:
• All the healthy snacks--like fruits, baked things, and granola-ly things--were put on the top shelves and the less healthy snacks--like Kit-Kats and Peanut M&Ms--were reduced to the smaller “Fun Size” and put on the “I-can barely-see-it-from-here” bottom row.
• All the bottled waters and calorie-free flavored waters were put at eye level in the coolers and soft drinks at the bottom--water intake increased by 47 percent and drink calories dropped by 7 percent.
• Fruit bowls are now about the first and last thing you see.
• Candy is in opaque bins and not out in plain sight--9 percent less candy was taken in just the first week. [iv]
The challenge with the Google Fifteen was to also figure out what to do about the massively tempting cafeterias. Our interviews with Googlers showed four complaints. Too much tasty variety led them to overeat, they wasted all sorts of food, they thought this was irresponsible and unsustainable, and they gained weight before they knew it – they had gained a Google Gut faster than they could say “The square root of 170 is 13.038.” Some small changes we recommended include:
• Putting the salad at the front of the line and the dessert at the back.
• Offering small plates to diners so they would take less--32 percent chose the smaller ones.[v]
• Downscaling the size of desserts to just three bites. They could still take a second or third helping, but not many do.[vi]
One approach would be to reduce the variety of food. Sure, if Google only offered beans and rice, people won’t overeat . . . there. They’ll go off-campus to overeat--bad news. A better solution would be to make it less easy--but not impossible--to pile a four-foot stack of food on a tray. This could first be done by breaking that massive cafeteria into four smaller cafes based on the style of food--Asian, Vegetarian, Italian, and an American Grill. You could still pile on a four-foot stack of food; but you’d have to go in and out of four different doors--probably too much of a hassle for most people most of the time. Analogous to the 100-calorie pack, each time they left one of the four cafes, they’d have to ask themselves if they really wanted to visit the next one. They couldn’t blame Google for restricting their choices, they’d just think,Uhh . . . this is enough.
As for the complaints about irresponsibility and unsustainability, Google had a stoplight rating system for certain foods. Green was healthy, red was less healthy, and yellow was in-between.[vii]Most people seemed to ignore it, so here’s what we suggested. Since every Googler has an ID card, they could have a debit account linked to it. For every Green-dotted food a Googler buys, it’s free. For every Yellow-dotted food they buy, their account gets charged 50 cents and Google matches that 50 cents and donates it to charity--such as the theoretical “Hungry Kids Without Wi-Fi Foundation.” For every red-dotted food they buy, this goes up to a matched $1. Googlers could still have anything they wanted, but they’d have to pause for a second to think about how badly they wanted it.
To tackle the “I gained weight before I knew it” problem, one of their software engineers, had an idea. Have you ever seen those iPhone or Android apps that let you upload a photo of yourself, and it shows you what you would look like if you were twenty or forty pounds skinnier or fatter? This would either motivate or scare the bejesus out of you. John figured there might be a way to have a “food scanner” set up that could scan someone’s tray and a camera and screen in front of them would take their photo and instantly display what they would look like in a year if they ate this much food every day for lunch. Way cool.
[i]From Ricky W. Griffin and Gregory Moorhead, Organisational Behaviour: Managing People and Organisations, South Western, 9thEdition, pp. 522-524.
[ii] An account of our work can be found here: Cliff Kuang (2012) “In the Cafeteria, Google Gets Healthy,” Fast Company, April 2012.
[iii]More at David R. Just and Brian Wansink (2009), “Better School Meals on a Budget: Using Behavioral Economics and Food Psychology to Improve Meal Selection,” Choices, 24:3, 1-6, and at Brian Wansink(2013), “Convenient, Attractive, and Normative: The CANApproach to Making Children Slim by Design, Childhood Obesity, 9:4 (August), 277-278.
[iv]The basic study was first shown in James E. Painter, Brian Wansink, and Julie B. Hieggelke (2002), “How Visibility and Convenience Influence Candy Consumption,” Appetite, 38:3 (June), 237-238. The 9% drop was reported by Jennifer Kurkoski and Jessica Wisdom to Cliff Kuang in Fast Company, April 2012.
[v] The general figure our research has discovered is closer to 22% for the average person, but this 32% increase was reported by Jennifer Kurkoski and Jessica Wisdom to Cliff Kuang in Fast Company, April 2012.
[vi]This is a great way to eat smaller snacks – eat only ¼ as much and distract yourselve for 15 minutes returning phone calls or straightening up: Ellen Van Kleef, Mitsuru Shimizu, and Brian Wansink (2013), “Just a Bite: Considerably Smaller Snack Portions Satisfy Delayed Hunger and Craving,” Food Quality and Preference, 27:1, 96-100.
[vii] A major drawback is that they are very subjective in where the line is drawn – is 1% milk a red light or a yellow light? When consumers think there is too much subjectivity, they either ignore it or react against it.
For 30 years my Lab and I have done research to discover useful, win-win answers to everyday questions related to health. These answers are useful to companies that want to profitably make their customers or employees healthier and happier. Please share whatever you find useful.