There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Chris Xia

That’s about to become quite pointedly true for Facebook employees at their new Mountain View offices when they open this fall, as well as for potentially for startups building new offices in San Francisco.

In light of a movement to ban fully subsidized in-house cafeterias, it seems like a good time to examine how companies can provide company subsidized lunches to employees.

The Benevolence of Free

Before we dive into the particulars, let’s take a moment to examine “free.” Free is probably everyone's preferred price. Free is a draw. But there’s also a reason why that old saying exists, because, ultimately, nothing is ever really free. So why does a company pay for this particular courtesy of free?

The perk of the fully subsidized meals, notably made popular in the tech world by Google nearly two decades ago, has a lot of upsides.


  • Attract talent to join/stay - No one likes to pay $12-15 for lunch everyday. Over the course of a year, we’re talking around $3,500 for lunch alone. Now that the larger tech companies offer this perk, smaller ones are forced to do the same to be competitive.

  • Increase workday efficiency - Employees no longer have to leave the building and battle the lunch time traffic rush. Studies show this equates to a cost savings of 15-20 minutes every day. The timing of free meals can also be used to encourage employees to come in earlier and/or stay later.

  • Promote healthy eating - Promoting nutritious meals often ties into company-wide health and wellness programs, which can serve to positively influence both employee wellbeing and satisfaction.

Below are the most common ways we see employers providing meal programs:



In-house cafeterias are easily accessible to busy employees, which may lead to increased productivity by saving employees from having to battle the lunch time traffic rush. Alongside saving both time and money, these centrally located cafeterias allow for employees from varying areas of the company to mix and mingle, promoting the free exchange of ideas and greater organizational unity.

Restaurant Delivery

With the rise of Grubhub, Caviar and Postmates, employees can now easily order food online and get it delivered within (usually) an hour. If you’re feeling Vietnamese pho one day and your coworker wants a New York style pizza, you can order separately while supporting the local community.


Zesty, EatClub, and Foodree lead the pack for newage meal catering companies that deliver full meals to an office every day. They work with different local restaurants to prepare professionally catered meals for all employees at the office. This is a great option for larger companies that do not have the means/option to have a full in house kitchen, and do not want to have employees have to decide what to eat everyday.

Meal Cards

Meal cards are limited credit cards that can only be used towards food purchases, typically through the use of the “merchant category code.” Meal cards are limited to “Food & Drinks” merchants, which encompasses restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and more recently, on-demand food providers such as DoorDash & Caviar.

Additional restrictions may include dollar amount, hour of the day, location, or even specific restaurants. For example, restrictions can be added so that cards only work before 9am for breakfast or after 6pm for dinner for local restaurants. Companies can also limit cards to restaurants that have setup special lunch time arrangements – e.g. to-go boxes. These offer a great option for employees to explore the neighborhood and support local businesses.

Each of the meal options comes with a long list of pros and cons. Companies do not have to pick an option exclusively. A growing trend we see with companies offering free meals via in house cafes or catering is not providing that option 1-2 days a week, encouraging employees to go outside and explore the community.

So what do we do at Emburse?

We put our money where our mouths are and use our own product to provide free lunches to our employees. We give every employee an allowance of $15/day to spend on food, drinks, and snacks via an Emburse card. We encourage everyone to eat out as a team to build camaraderie and encourage collaboration.

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