Design

Startup’s open kitchen provides free staff meals

Thumbtack’s 150-person staff enjoys free daily meals compliments of a five-person culinary team.

At startup companies, healthy food and family-style lunches have become almost as compulsory as ping-pong tables. But the founders of Thumbtack, an online marketplace that connects service professionals and customers, quite literally put their money where their mouths are.

When the San Francisco-based company was founded in 2009, CEO Marco Zappacosta cooked lunch for the tight-knit team. As Thumbtack grew, the founders decided to forego their own salaries for a while so that they could afford to hire Executive Chef Aubrey Saltus to do the cooking for the staff of 16, and employees shared the free meals at one long table. “[Zappacosta” really believes that you have a special bond with someone when you are sitting next to them eating the same lunch,” Saltus says.

Today there are 150 employees. And while the company’s growth meant everyone no longer fits at the same table, Zappacosta preserved that culture of sharing meals when Thumbtack relocated to its new headquarters last year. The new dining room  is set up to foster a positive relationship with both food and coworkers, and all 150 employees eat within 90 minutes of each other.

That camaraderie extends to the new kitchen, where cooking remains a marquee operation. Thumbtack’s open kitchen is showcased on the main floor of the building, across from the room where the company hosts major presentations. Thumbtack’s two state-of-the-art convection ovens and eight burners still are pretty humble for a booming nine-meals-a-week operation, Saltus says. But the open layout helps employees and the culinary team feel more connected, says Saltus.

“It allows people to feel included in what goes on,” she says. “I think if you were to come in and observe it, that’s the first thing you would see. It’s very different from all the other kitchens.”

Health also is a priority. For each lunch sitting, Thumbtack’s culinary team prepares one main animal protein, one main vegetable protein and several vegetable side dishes. The service station was revamped earlier this year, building in additional space for housemade jams, pickles and snacks. After the redesign, Saltus found stowing goodies in new custom drawers and cabinets has encouraged employees to cut down on unnecessary snacking. The only snacks on display are easy-to-grab fruits and nuts. Staffers also have easy access to healthy teas, Kombucha and iced coffee on tap—sugary sodas are few and far between.

Why invest in an in-house culinary program? Zappacosta priced out the options, including buying lunch for the staff, and found it less expensive to employ a chef and kitchen staff than to outsource catering multiple times a day, says Karen Bard Sayah, Thumbtack’s PR consultant. “The initial build-out of a kitchen obviously cost money,” Saltus says. “But beyond that, food cost is actually better with an in-house chef, and food is way more delicious because it doesn’t sit on a truck in a hotel pan for hours.”