Culinary Tour of Google

Common lore has it that computer geeks survive on a steady diet of freeze-dried ramen noodles, power bars and over-caffeinated sodas. Such a notion jives with all the tech startups that tout their fridges full of free Snapple, endless games of foosball, or fleets of Segways for staff to use to traverse their monstrous loft office spaces.

So when my niece, who has worked for Google in Mountainside, CA for about a year, invited us to join her for lunch, I figured it would be fun to see all this geek-stuff in action. I simply expected a larger, nicer version of the typical corporate cafeteria, albeit Google-fied with their ever-present primary colors. Turns out, I was wrong on all accounts except for the color coordination (and even that was hyper-designed).

We’d just come down out of the High Sierra after an awe-inspiring tour around Yosemite. The sunny drive across California’s San Joaquin Valley was quiet and beautiful. After using Google Maps to navigate the spaghetti of Bay Area freeways, our children were delighted at the thought of actually meeting the Google lady (the voice directing us along so many highways and by-ways.)

After getting the exact coordinates of my niece, (thanks to Google Maps) we found her smiling in the midst of a sprawling low-rise campus surrounded by mature sycamore trees, grassland gardens and enough recreational amenities to feel like we were at some high-end resort rather than a Silicon Valley office park. There was tennis, bocce ball, miniature golf, tables and benches, art installations; even a small snowy egret sanctuary. And this was just what was apparent from the outside. Bikes were everywhere; more than half of them of the red, green, yellow and blue variety owned by Google and available for anyone to use.

After hugs and greetings, my niece asked about our lunch preferences. Wait, we had a choice? After obtaining guests passes for us (a process much closer to being on a cruise ship then dealing with typical HR rules) we set off in search of lunch. Turns out, we had numerous choices; everything from a food truck experience to actual food trucks; small cafes or an actual cafeteria. We left it in her hands.

She ushered us toward an expansive food-court, tastefully designed in what I’ll call “artisanal style” — natural woods, muted colors, and tactile surfaces. I’m sure there was acoustical alternative music playing. I instinctively checked my pockets for cash but realized that everything, as in EVERYTHING, was free.

We started things out at the pizza and pasta section. Smiling servers offered up variously sized portions (good for trying many things or simply keeping one’s calorie intake under control). Our kids went for the gourmet pizza slices laid out on hot platters. I picked up some pasta and a beautiful, baby kale salad. There were large, glass containers of flavored waters, and various stations for just about anything else you might want. So many choices — sandwiches, paninis, sushi; you name it. ANYTHING.

We took our trays out onto an attractive outdoor patio with colorful canvas umbrellas and potted plants. Around us, young Googlers were eating, talking, working; not a Top Ramen Styrofoam cup in sight. When I tasted the pasta, salad and pizza I’d picked out, I got it. This wasn’t typical commercial kitchen corporate fare. It was the real deal — chef-made, top-notch pizza using quality ingredients; pasta so good I went back for the other option. And a salad so garden fresh it could have been from Chez Panisse.

Then it was time for desert. Much to the delight of our children, there was a dessert bar, an ice cream bar, a sundae bar, a smoothie bar; you name it. Over the next hour, we hit it all. After at stop in at The Coffee Lab, we headed over to the main campus called the Googleplex.

Jumping into our car, we drove the few blocks away to Google’s architecturally significant headquarters, fortunate to find a space in front, right near a Tesla plugged into a charging station. My niece led us into that area’s food court where there was probably a dozen other “food truck” like counters staffed with more pleasant, smiling servers and offering excellent food. Again, free.

As she put it, anything you might go out for, Google brings it in for you. Even things like laundry services. This is not to say people weren’t working. On the contrary, every work area we went through was attractive, colorful (in a Google kind of way) and crammed with Googlers staring at computer screens, serious and obviously productive.

Then it occurred to me: How does one build a contemporary brand? Hire a bunch of enthusiastic, open-minded and thoughtful people like my niece who happen to be really, really good at technology. Seems like Google is on to something.

To learn more about our thirty day adventure across America, check out our other publications WHERE DO WE FIT IN? and 30 CUPS ACROSS.