Workplace Refreshments Come Of Age

Posted On: 5/9/2017

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TAGS: Vending Times editorial, vending industry, vending editorial, retail automation, vending operator, vending industry history, coin machine, coffee service, food service, Tim Sanford

A hot topic in workplace services today is enabling the location to provide food and beverages to its employees at no cost to them. The location's object is to create a workplace environment that will encourage personnel to stay on the premises. Some very large technology companies have taken this logic about as far as it can go, with corporate campuses equipped with gyms, tennis courts and other amenities devised to make arriving early and leaving late more enjoyable.

The first business model of the new office coffee service industry that took shape in the mid-1960s involved offering clients restaurant-quality coffee for a nickel a cup, with the clients providing the labor to brew it. From the earliest days of OCS, many employers recognized that coffee better than what their personnel could prepare with soluble product or a 20-cup percolator was a low-cost benefit that could improve productivity by keeping people at their desks, and so worth subsidizing.

The ensuing four decades or so saw the prevalence of "free" coffee (and, increasingly, allied products like hot chocolate, tea and soups) increase and decrease as the economy strengthened and weakened. During the downturns, employers in the sectors that were turning down the most looked for ways to get their employees to pay for their refreshments. A variety of coin-operated dispensers met this need. When business picked up, the pendulum swung the other way. Some employers in warm climates subsidized soft drinks for their staffs, which was substantially more expensive than coffee.

And we heard from operators who reported requests from clients who wanted their coffee machines set on free vend, because the people in their front offices were getting free coffee through the OCS program, and it wasn't fair to make the people who worked in the back pay for theirs.

The point of these reminiscences is that the history of employer subsidies for one or another amenity is long and complicated. That upscale employers today are asking for free refreshment programs is, then, a positive development in a long historical tendency. Whether those programs will remain free surely is a function of the economy; but making appealing things available at an attractive price also is a proven morale-builder. When it becomes time to find more economical and efficient ways to deliver those things, operators will be able to draw on a well-equipped toolbox.

Another aspect of this development seems to be renewed client interest in the relationship of the break area or areas to the workspace as a whole. Some students of commercial and industrial architecture have pointed out that workspace design necessarily is conditioned by the nature of the work being done. With more and more jobs being done nowadays by teams assembled for a specific purpose, common areas in which people can compare notes and exchange ideas can be valuable. Making refreshments available in these areas is another productivity-booster. Here again, operators who have replied to client demand (or simply striven to increase participation) by applying attractive breakroom area treatment, installing service bars helping clients keep their supplies well-organized and convenient will have some worthwhile ideas to contribute.

It is said that the influx of the "millennial" generation into the workforce underlies the new interest by employers in these perquisites, but employers long have known that the work environment affects employee output and attitudes.

Naturally, then, operators always have been keenly attuned to location managers' beliefs in this regard. Back in the days of the "organization man," even such trivial pleasures as hot and cold drink cups imprinted with poker hands were viewed with apprehension by vendors serving large corporate clients, on the basis that "the client doesn't want to turn the vending area into a circus."

We suspect that the shift in values that impels more and more employers to recognize that happier employees tend to be better ones is not solely a response to the demands of the millennials. To a certain expect, we think, it is partly an expression of an overall shift in public sentiment that has been under way for some time, and in fact has helped to form the expectations of those millennials.

It's worth mentioning that, a decade or so before we began hearing about the workplace of the future, large cities like New York had specialist caterers who served top-tier financial and media firms. They provide manual foodservice, but also meet requests for recreational items like pool tables and videogames. The clients who ask for these things apparently want to turn the break area into a circus!

The first operator to ever approach a factory manager about permission to install a vending machine on a concession basis surely mentioned "keeping your employees happy" and/or "your employees won't have to ride the streetcar in order to buy a pack of gum." Insofar as pleasure is being added to utility in the request for proposal, the workplace service industries are well prepared to provide it.