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REPOST: 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"
Hi friends! Still off for September, so I’m sharing one of Boss Barista’s most popular articles, published in April 2022—it’s about pizza, but kind of. I think the title says it all.
I published this story when the newsletter had half of the readers it does now, and that made me think about analytics and how I measure how well a story is performing. So if you scroll all the way to the end, I go behind the scenes and look at performance numbers. If you care! I like that stuff!
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.
Most of my articles get about 2,000 views. When I published this story nearly a year and a half ago, it story got over 10,000. I’m not 100% sure why. I wrote an article about the fourth wave of coffee that also got 10,000 views, but that story was shared by a few coffee folks with large followings. I don’t think this one got that bump.
I think what’s cool is that this story got a ton of views at a time when Boss Barista had just shy of 1,200 subscribers—now we’re at 2,800. And a few folks just joined the party after my follow-up story on Madison Sourdough and how unionized workers feel as contract negotiations crawl along. So hi, hello!!! Thanks for being here and thanks for reminding me that folks care about workers, supporting unions, and telling bosses that crumbs like pizza parties instead of raises or meaningful workplace changes will no longer cut it.