2014-05-29

Co.Labs

The Cottage Industry Of High-Energy Food That Keeps Silicon Valley Buzzing

When you're on a programming sprint, not just any caloric intake will do, and catering companies are learning to adapt.



Techies are big customers for the food industry in the Bay Area. The food keeps coders fueled, and coders keep the eateries running. Now many places are specializing in options that keep energy levels up without any of the personal health implications of drinking two Red Bulls an hour for a whole weekend. No matter what size company, whether it's a studio office of 20 people or a large tech campus, I found in the course of this article that many of the dining habits of Bay Area tech people are focused on the same few companies. Here's a look at the cottage industry of energy food service that keeps Silicon Valley buzzing.

Typical Take-Out And Hangouts

“A lot of startups are competing over the quality of their lunches, and there is an entire swath of catering startups that have emerged because of it,” says John Dvorak, data scientist at NodePrime. Some notable options he mentions are SquareMeals, 415Catering, and SpoonRocket.

SpoonRocket typically delivers curbside within 10 minutes after a customer places an order on its website or through mobile. It caters toward people who don’t have much time to cook, which personifies most tech engineers. “We are their personal chef,” says Ashley Wong, head of product at SpoonRocket. Most of the company’s meals center around fresh ingredients, with salads, pastas, and meat dishes that change daily.

Larger companies are notorious for having gourmet food onsite, a perk that programmers at startups only hear about, including Dvorak. “Those people are of another tribe. They have free time, and buses,” he says.

Facebook has one of the most well-known food establishments in Silicon Valley that is, of course, free for all its employees. In her book, Dot Complicated, Randi Zuckerberg wrote about how everyone at Facebook would incessantly check the Facebook Culinary Team’s Facebook page when pages on Facebook first became a thing. Indeed, the page is open to everyone in the public to gawk at. It regularly showcases the team’s West Coast take on the Juicy Lucy, Tex-Mex dishes, fresh smoothies, and food truck offerings in Hacker Square and other locations around campus.

Although Facebook people don’t typically take advantage of Bay Area food services during the day, they still make a good showing outside of normal business hours. Hackathon organizers traditionally order nighttime snacks from Jing Jing, a Chinese restaurant that Facebook hackers have been ordering from for the last eight years. “I think we’re so large now that whenever we place an order, they have to close down for the night in order to make enough food for us. They’re delicious,” says Bob Baldwin, software engineer at Facebook and hackathon co-organizer.

Pedram Keyani, engineering overhead and hackathon co-organizer at Facebook, gushes over Jing Jing’s food. “Honey walnut prawns are killer. I mean those things go so quick. And they have these cream puffs. They come, they’re frozen when they come, and then within an hour, they’re just like--I’m getting hungry,” he says. When the organizers don’t order in, local food trucks set up on campus.

The café culture is big in the Bay Area techie scene, mainly as places for casual meetings but not hours-long coding sessions. A couple of years ago, local cafés started instituting laptop-free days, where they regularly ban computer usage over a few days per month. Some coffeehouse staples are The Creamery, Blue Bottle, Ritual, Front, and Four Barrel. In fact, all-night hackathoners from Facebook ritually go to The Creamery for a 6:30 a.m. breakfast.

Keeping Healthy Choices

With so much variety available to the tech crowd in the Bay Area, unhealthy habits tend to surface. Trays of food just sit out for people to eat whenever they want. “By the morning, it looks kind of gross,” says Baldwin. In addition to all the available savory food, Facebook hackers usually keep a baleful stock of donuts around for the length of a hackathon.

SpoonRocket understands those weaknesses. It makes it a point to deliver all of its meals individually wrapped, so that large metal trays don’t pile up on the premises. “I don’t know if you’ve actually seen a dumpster at one of these tech places. Usually, they have special places just to put all of those aluminum foil things because everyone caters, and then they have to throw it all out. And they actually run out of space,” says Rene Shen, head of finance at SpoonRocket. All of SpoonRocket’s packaging and utensils are 100% compostable and keep low profiles.

For a while, SpoonRocket started offering dessert with its health-centric meals, teaming up with the cookie brand The Cookie Department. But it decided to replace the cookies with smoothies and more salads to maximize its nutritious offering. “We have programmers here, and we love them. They don’t necessarily take care of themselves. You know, their focus on life is work; it’s the passion of their lives and their love. So what we do is we try to take care of them,” says Wong.

That is not to say that The Cookie Department’s cookies are empty calories. “You get your indulgence with, you know, butter and flour and sugar. But you also get, with each cookie, you get a benefit, of, you know, from protein to coffee--caffeine--to probiotics, antioxidants, detoxifying spices, super foods,” says Akiva Resnikoff, The Cookie Department’s co-founder.

“You know, we basically create a product that goes beyond just being an indulgence product. It actually becomes a healthier option for the average consumer,” Resnikoff says. The protein-packed Tough Cookie is a popular option at gyms.

Google stocks up on cookies from The Cookie Department for its employees. “Google was just the start of our tech 'take-over' in Silicon Valley,” wrote Resnikoff in an email to us. In a recent update post for its original Kickstarter backers, he announced that it seemed like he was adding about one tech campus every week to his client base, counting Westfield Labs and Sony PlayStation among his various tech customers. The company delivers to everywhere in the U.S. and Canada and plans to expand more this year.

To keep its customers on the healthy side, The Cookie Department scaled down its cookies by half, to a “break size.” Resnikoff says he made the change in direct response to feedback he got from Google, which, he notes, is conscious of supplying its employees with healthy food options. His original Awaken Baked cookie contains 300 calories, but the snack-sized version has only 170. Even with its regular-sized cookies, the Cookie Department recommends only eating half for the right snack-sized portion.

Resnikoff’s newest creation, the gluten-free Cherry Bomb cookie, showcases his innovative spirit. With the cookie, he considers himself to be the first within the artisan cookie space to have incorporated probiotics into the baking process.

During Cherry Bomb’s development, he struggled with fickle probiotics, since they tend to break down at high temperatures. But Resnikoff finally found a specific probiotic whose outer surface contains spores that protect it from decomposing until it is digested. He took his time to get a perfect product and did not sacrifice using the highest-quality ingredients, even if they were on the expensive side.

Resnikoff started The Cookie Department with a lot of the same zeal that drives much of his tech clientele. Like many food companies in the area, his site is hyper-functional, and he has a considerable social media presence. And he understands that his innovative customers would understand the boundaries he is pushing with his high-tech cookies. “People in tech want everything to be better than it's been, to solve problems and to look to the future,” he says.




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