How the Pizza Party Became the Symbol of Bad Bosses Everywhere
There's no such thing as a free lunch—and there's no fooling employees with empty "perks"
When I was in elementary school, I used to get a coupon wheel with every good report card. Inside were freebies and discounts sure to appeal to any ’90s kid: tokens for Chuck E. Cheese. Fries from McDonald’s. Entry to the Miami-Dade County Regional Fair and Exposition. (We called it The Fair, and it had a dangerously catchy jingle.)
Most coupons changed seasonally, but one was always in regular rotation: a free, medium-sized pizza from Pizza Hut.
The association with pizza as a reward or incentive starts young. You’ve probably had a teacher promise an end-of-term pizza party if the class hits a specific target. Or maybe you were like me and legitimately stressed out if you got a bad grade on a test because you wouldn’t get your pizza coupon.
I stopped getting coupon wheels when I went to middle school, but pizza rewards haven’t disappeared. Instead, they’ve graduated. Today, pizza parties are so ubiquitous in the context of toxic workplaces that they’ve become a two-word punchline, a ubiquitous meme, universal shorthand for poorly run businesses.
How long has this trope been around, I wondered? I noticed that using pizza parties as an expression of poor leadership has showed up in plenty of articles about management practices. In 2019, employees at Slate Coffee Roasters in Seattle, Washington, walked out of work, citing delayed paychecks and hostile work environments. I anecdotally remember a pizza party being one of the ways the owners tried to win their staff back, but I couldn’t verify that fact in any articles online.
In all this thinking about how “free food” like pizza shows up in the workplace, eventually I found my way back to Google.
I moved to the Bay Area in 2015, and that’s when I found out about food perks at Google and other tech companies like Facebook and Apple. Employees are given free meals, and can take food from the dozens of micro kitchens on the company’s campus at any time of the day. This, along with other perks—like free gym memberships and shuttle services—helped Google be named the best company to work for by Fortune Magazine year after year during the early 2010s.
I’m sure those perks were well-known at the time—and there are plenty of other, more attractive incentives, like high salaries and flexible PTO, that made working at Google and other tech companies desirable. But as the decade wore on, there began to be more questioning about the intent behind these benefits. In particular, the tech world’s generous food incentives began coming under scrutiny. (If you’re interested in going deep on this topic, I’d recommend Jesse Dart’s new book, Feeding the Hustle: Free Food & Care Inside the Tech Industry.)
This scrutiny came through in layers. In 2015, Forbes called the view that Google gave its employees free food “pessimistic.” In 2017, a Medium article called “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, Even for Google Employees,” explored the potential harm of integrating personal needs and professional life together (but admitted that this system can work for some). By 2022, former tech employees were on TikTok explaining how Google scheduled its meal breaks to keep people in the building longer.
It seems like our understanding of food as a workplace incentive has moved from seeing it as a desirable perk to an openly manipulative tactic—and one where the stakes are higher for low-wage workers. It might be hard to feel empathy for a Google employee making six figures who complains about their work perks. But on the other side of the coin, a worker making around minimum wage being offered a pizza party instead of a $.50 or $1/hour raise is a big deal.
As Shelly Fagan writes: “A sad pizza party is nothing more than the illusion of doing something nice, which fosters greater resentment as meaningful proposals go ignored.” Throwing a pizza party to show “appreciation” isn’t just a measly gesture—it can actually increase dissatisfaction among workers, and for good reason. It doesn’t address the realities of struggling to get by on a low salary, and it makes managers and employers seem out of touch.
At worst, it feels like the kind of deflection tactic you’d use to manage a toddler—except adults can see through the bullshit. Instead of talking about a scheduled raise, let’s have a pizza party! Who needs overtime pay when you can have free pizza once a month? You can’t be mad when we completely ignore your six-month raise because we gave you a couple of slices of pizza.
Sure, most of us love pizza. But that doesn’t make it a substitute for fair workplace practices.
In other news:
You may have seen me post this on social media, but I’m thrilled to share that I was selected to participate in Substack’s Food Writers Intensive Program!
Our program started last week with an amazing lecture from the legendary food writer Ruth Reichl. I told her how I’ve recently been inspired by her late colleague, LA food critic Jonathan Gold, to examine what makes me love coffee, and how I can share my excitement with you folks.
With that in mind, I’d love to share more moments of joy and enthusiasm with you. But I’m not sure what form that should take, and so I want to throw it out to you: What would you like to see from me, and from Boss Barista? How can we connect better? Would regular live chats or shared threads—I loved seeing all your recent stories about your first coffee memories—be meaningful to you?
It’s been so exciting to be part of this program, especially because the last few months have been emotionally hard for me. (I haven’t talked about that much here, but I’ve been more open about my well-being on Instagram.) During a discussion this week, led by Bailey Richardson, I had a realization: I have the power to cultivate community here, and find ways to kindle shared moments for us. Until their talk, I hadn’t realized how my mental health can distance me from the beautiful joy that connecting with readers can bring.
One of the tips we got in our Substack Food Writers Group was to write a unique call-to-action at the end of every post. (I thought I was so clever when I wrote a uniform one I could copy and paste each time.) So with that in mind, please share your thoughts in the comments below about how you’d like to connect with me and the wider Boss Barista readership, and share this post if it resonated with you.
Maybe also tell me if you’ve had any cringeworthy pizza party moments at work. I want to know about those.