Is There Such A Thing As A Free Lunch? Is It Hurting Your Sales?

by Paul Schlossberg
Posted On: 4/1/2019

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  Paul Schlossberg
You're probably familiar with that old phrase – "There is no such thing as a free lunch." The abbreviated form of that expression is TINSTAAFL. According to Wikipedia, "…'free lunch' refers to the once-common tradition of saloons in the United States providing a 'free' lunch to patrons who had purchased at least one drink. Many foods…were high in salt (e.g., ham, cheese, and salted crackers), so those who ate them ended up buying a lot of beer."

Today free food and snacks are a relatively common employee benefit at many tech companies. The employees at these locations often work long hours. They want to have snacks and beverages close by their workstations – so they can keep working without a long interruption to find a beverage or snack.

It's worth your time to read a posting at – "What can we learn from Google's offices about workplace design" There are productivity benefits – for the company and employees too. At Google it is a general rule that "No part of the office is more than '150 feet from food.' Whether there is a restaurant, coffee lounge or cafeteria, employees are encouraged to snack more, chat more and, most importantly, inspire more."

A few years ago we had an opportunity to visit Google's corporate office, the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. The snack and beverage stations were really interesting to me. The snack brands were not always the best-selling brands in their respective categories. The soft drink tower in the cafeteria where we had lunch was unbranded – something unusual to see for people in our industry. The food, snacks and beverages were all free. In the cafeteria, you're welcome to have second portions, just don't waste food by leaving leftovers on your plate.

While involved in an 18-month project with a client in Belgium, about 20 years ago, a free lunch was served daily. Cold drinks and hot beverages were sold from vending machines. Snacks were available and sold from honor boxes.

Let's look at this from a different angle. A New York Times article, "At Start-Ups, the Free Lunch Is Yours for the Making" is also something you should read. There is a bit of history reviewed for you. "Mass-produced packaged snacks first reached ubiquity in the mid-20th century, with products like Cheetos, Fritos and Twinkies. Between 1977 and 2002, the number of Americans eating three or more snacks per day increased from 11 to 42 percent. During this period, employees often purchased snacks at work, first from wheeled snack carts, and later from automated vending machines."

It was the tech surge that accelerated the pace of companies providing free snacks and beverages. The sub-headline of that article really caught my attention – "At start-ups and well-funded companies, lunch can be made from a thousand free snacks."

There are two things to note. First, and in some ways it's quite humorous, are the "how to" anecdotes about creating lunch from the office snack offerings. Creativity and scavenger skills are critical requirements for these impromptu chefs de cuisine.   

Second is that there are tax implications for companies when they provide free snacks, beverages or meals. Since tax law is beyond my education and knowledge base, we won't go deeper on that subject here.    

So what? If you're thinking that now, you might be correct. But, you might want to get smarter about free food, snacks and beverages for the locations you serve. Maybe it could work for some of your clients.

Are there companies in your area offering "free" meals and snacks at their workplaces? You need to be aware of who's doing it locally – even if you're not serving those sites. What can you learn about the type of work performed there, the number of workers, etc.?

And – you can capitalize on the idea of getting your products into more dispersed locations at larger sites you're serving. Disregard the 150-foot rule, people should not have to walk more than 5-minutes to get snacks or beverages. Even if you're operating a micromarket, you can add vending machines at a site to make it more convenient for everyone working there.

TINSTAAFL is not always true. Free lunches, free snacks and free beverages might be an opportunity for you to sell more stuff.

» Paul Schlossberg is president of D/FW Consulting, working with clients to merchandise and market products in impulse-intense selling environments, such as vending, onsite foodservice and convenience stores. Based in the Austin, TX, area, he can be reached at or (972) 877-2972 or