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The Calorie-Packed Perk


GOOD INVESTMENT: Making employees comfortable pays off in the long run, many small tech companies say

Small, high-growth tech companies are showering employees with perks, many of them gastronomic.

Within my first week of working at a start-up, I acquired a gut. The reason was obvious: there was free food everywhere, it was delicious and I was nervous. Within five days I was heaving my stomach around like a kettle bell and crossly preparing, and then ignoring, cups of green tea.

It all started so innocently. On Monday, warm cookies from the Upper West Side bakery Levain appeared in the kitchen. Buttercream cupcakes followed;apparently it was somebody's birthday. (It is always somebody's birthday. ) At noon, employees gathered for a catered lunch of barbecue. Two hours later, a Pinkberry station rolled into the office with the full battery of toppings. I helped myself to an incapacitating dose. By 5pm my dress had grown so tight around the middle that I had to unzip it to my coccyx and put a sweater on top just to breathe. And that was only the first day.

My employer, the eyewear company Warby Parker, is not unusual. Small, high-growth tech companies have had a reputation for showering employees with lavish perks since the Silicon Valley bubble days. At Sun Microsystems, nursing mothers were provided lounges for breast-feeding and an on-call "lactation consultant". Cisco offered dry-cleaning services and popcorn. Pinball machines lined the hallways at Excite@Home.

In his recent book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, recommends keeping toys in the office and allowing employees to nap on the clock - like Steve Jobs, who installed a futon beneath his desk.

But New York's tight market for skilled start-up labour has produced an even more sophisticated arms race. Take Squarespace, a web publishing platform founded in 2004. On a recent Friday afternoon, employees sat serenely in the firm's SoHo offices, the room silent except for rapid keyboard clicks. A slim woman wearing her hair in a topknot ferried dishes of shrimp gumbo and quinoa salad to a buffet;midday meals for Squarespace employees are prepared four days a week. (On the fifth day, they order out. ) Gluten-free and vegetarian options are offered at each meal, as well as a fridge stocked with Tecate and Red Bull.

On another morning at Tumblr headquarters on East 21st Street, a young man in futuristic shoes poured a glass of seltzer (it's on tap) and sat down to breakfast: a plate piled with bacon. His co-workers nibbled at pastries, sipped high-end coffee and rooted around the fridge for their favorite flavour of Chobani yogurt. Greek yogurt, in fact, is one of the most popular start-up perks.

"It's eaten almost as quickly as it's stocked, " said Cyrus Massoumi, 36, the founder and chief executive of ZocDoc, an online medical scheduling service. "I'm partial to Siggi's Skyr, myself."

But the escalation of perks can lead to sticky situations. "Once you set a precedent, it can be difficult to take things away, " said Andrew Burke, 28, the head of talent development at Squarespace, citing an iTunes account that allowed employees of the company to guest-DJ the office music. Trouble arose when employees began to play "random stuff that wasn't necessarily on par with how others were vibing." The account was disabled.

For me, the lesson quickly sank in. As much as I enjoyed vacuuming up cookies, I couldn't afford to outgrow all of my new work clothes. Since then, I've kept a lid on my treat consumption. If I fail, a company-subsidised gym membership awaits me.

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