Best Free Lunch Ever

“Would you please explain to me the nature of your trip?”

I wasn’t sure I could. It was probably around 3 a.m. and I’d spent the night and previous day bouncing around from one excruciating airline to the next on my way back from somewhere sketchy like Honduras, or Liberia or Turkey – honestly, I can’t even remember anymore. I know I looked like crap, and I certainly felt like it. I hadn’t had a shave or a night of horizontal, stationary sleep in days. And the polite but insistent man behind the US Immigration Services counter, somewhere in the bowels of Miami international Airport, was just trying to assure himself that I wasn’t the drug dealer or hapless mule that I appeared to be.

But I was at a loss for words. I must have mumbled something incomprehensible about philanthropy and site visits.

I remember that he was very polite, very dapper, and not at all threatening. But he was also unconvinced. He wore a Sikh turban and spoke in a beautiful, lilting accent. He was trying to help, he really was.

“Perhaps – you live in the United States, yes?”

I did.

“And who is your employer here?”

“Google.”

“Google?” His eyebrows went up.

The year was probably 2005 or 2006 – we had already burst onto the public stage, but were not yet the international juggernaut that so universally inspired either adulation of fear at first mention. It was clear though, from the way he repeated the name, that he was familiar with the company. I fished through my knapsack for a business card to corroborate my claim.

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He turned the embossed card over slowly in his hands, nodding, and repeated the name. Google. Then he set the card down and peered into my eyes with the intensity of an inquisitor.

“This is the place with the free lunch, is it not?”

Of all the hallmarks a tech company could have had, this was it. We had already changed the face of the internet, the nature of commerce and the English language itself. Yet somehow this was the the thing that captured the world’s imagination: Google – the place with the free lunch.

I guess it made sense from a business perspective: when your employees go out to lunch, you lose every one of them for an hour, and probably more, given the inevitable slip of traffic and settling back in. You spend $10-15/head to provide lunch on site? They stay on campus. They sit with their team and talk shop while they eat. Or – thanks to the long tables specified by Larry and Sergey for this purpose, they end up chatting with co-workers they don’t know and learn a little more about what’s going on at the company.

Google at its best followed both the head and the heart, and lunch was Google at its best. The story I heard from Craig was that, when they were grad students, L&S fantasized about what an idea company would look like. I mean, a Willy Wonka-style ideal company. Having spent my share of years scrounging leftover pizza in the UW CS student lounge, I understand how large a part food – beautiful, fresh, tasty, nutritious food – plays in such fantasies. So it was no surprise that when they did start that company of theirs, they started looking for someone to fill that particular slot in their fantasy.

What’s more, food – good, unstinting, food – inspires loyalty. Think about it: what’s the first thing anyone does when you’re born? Yeah, they slap you. But the first nice thing anyone does is feed you. Mommy feeds me. Mommy loves me. It’s simple psychology, and it builds a pretty fierce emotional bond. Google feeds me? Google loves me.

Charlie joined in 1999, when the company had 40 mouths to feed in their rented office above the bike shop on University Ave. Legend has it that he heard about the position from a friend of a friend and earned an interview by just starting to send over baskets of baked goods.

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Shirt courtesy of David Kramer

By the time I joined in 2002, the “new” Googleplex office (aka 2400 East Bayshore) was already filled to the brim and we were growing fast. We’d spilled a bunch of the sales and marketing folks next door to the Moneyplex and had just opened the always-awkward-sounding Saladoplex down the street on Salado Drive. (The running joke was that the limiting space factor in a building was not how many seats you could fit into the engineering cubes, but how many seats you could fit into the bathrooms. Someone – rumor claims it was Schwim – installed one of those deli-style “take a number” dispensers in the men’s room, but that’s a different story.)

Anyhow.

Charlie and I didn’t really get along well at first. I remember being briefed on some of his ground rules, like where you were to set the serving utensils down when you were done with them. Actually I don’t remember any of them now (someone help me out here?), but I remember constantly running afoul of them, and usually just as Charlie came around the corner with a fresh tray of pasture-raised, organic peppercorn-encrusted Beef Wellington with cilantro or the like. The resulting stink eye could knock you clean off your feet.

I don’t think it was personal. Charlie had been hired to feed forty or so Googlers, presumably with the expectation that the number would grow by a factor of two or three. And he was now trying to accommodate over ten times that many, and the little cafeteria kitchen in 2400 couldn’t come close to handling it. For about six or eight months a trailer was set up out back to serve as an auxiliary overflow kitchen, but there were hard limits, and Google – characteristically – was pushing right past them without blinking.

The move to Amphitheatre Parkway (who here remembers the iPlex?) finally gave Charlie room to breathe and to set things up the way he wanted. I don’t know if it was that, or the fact that I’d now been with the company long enough to count as one of the “old timers”, but we started to get along. I brought him some crazy hot sauce back from Costa Rica. He complimented me on my tie dye.

But the move was only the first step in a larger transformation of Charlie’s role: as we expanded to engulf the whole of the old SGI campus and beyond, there was no longer just “the cafe”. There was a whole constellation of 19 of them, strategically distributed around the growing galaxy of Mountain View office buildings wearing the now-universally-recognized four color logo. And instead of running one kitchen, Charlie found himself managing 150 other cooks and running something closer to a national chain of restaurants. Jeff Dean has been quoted as lamenting “I used to know all of the engineers by name. Now I don’t even know all the cafes.”

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So you really couldn’t blame Charlie for wanting to get back to the basics. After a year of carefully extricating himself from the burgeoning Food Services team, he exited, stage right, and left the empire of free lunches (and breakfasts and dinners and late night snacks) to his hand-picked and well-trained understudies.

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You can still get yourself one of Charlie’s inimitable lunch, but nowadays, you’ll need to traipse on down to Calafia, on the corner of El Camino and Embarcadero, in Palo Alto. And you’re going to have to pay for it, of course, but the menu, the ingredients, the ambiance, and the preparation are pure Charlie. So of course it’s amazing.

But back to my scrutiny at the airport. The man at the behind the counter at Immigration was still waiting for an answer. It somehow seemed as though my entry back into the United States was predicated on whether Google was, as he heard from the stories, the mythical place with the free lunch.

I nodded yes, uncertain where the inquiry was going. Yes, that’s the place. And I remember his eyes going soft and whimsical then, perhaps glancing away as a smile curled on the corner of his lips. When he spoke next, his tone was almost conspiratorial.

“Is the food really as good as they say?”

“Absolutely.”

He was satisfied. He reached for the big rubber stamp, ca-chunked my passport ceremoniously and handed it back to me as though I were an honored guest.

“Welcome back to America, Dr. Cohn. You know – you are a very lucky man.”

Yes, I assured him, I know. I know.

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3 thoughts on “Best Free Lunch Ever

  1. Tom Galloway

    To recognize a few of Charlie’s quirks, I suggested to his replacement that the Monday after Charlie left that a large paper sign be posted over the entrance to the renamed Charlie’s Cafe. Said sign to read; “Under New Management: Now Featuring French Fries, Ketchup, and Iceberg Lettuce!”. I may also have mentioned renaming it “McCharlie’s”; I forget for sure. Alas, he wasn’t willing to do it.

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    • david pablo cohn

      I do keenly remember the debate/battle over iceberg lettuce in the cafe. I recall it ending with a terse message along the lines of: “Remember the Titanic. There was an iceberg. People died. ‘Nuf said?”

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  2. Tom Galloway

    I forget who it was, but didn’t someone get multiple heads of iceberg hidden all over their cube after one too many requests for it?

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