Breaking bread and bonding: At agencies, lunch is the new happy hour

Ad agencies take their lunches very seriously. To be sure, many agency staffers still eat their lunches like most of us do: scarfed down in 15 shameful minutes, hunched over our desks like caged animals while maniacally checking Facebook. But for a growing number of the lucky ones, full-fledged programs dedicated  to breaking bread are popping up at offices everywhere.

This goes beyond office pantries stocked with grab-and-go snacks or agency execs wooing clients over lavish lunch meetings. From catered lunches to in-house chefs and even informal lunch groups, agency heads have turned the average midday chow break into an opportunity for their staffers to bond.

“If board rooms or golf courses are where businesses are won, kitchens are where relationships are built,” said Jason Sullivan, evp and managing director at Publicis Seattle. “Bonding over food and drinks helps break down the monotony of routines at agencies and really helps people get to know each other on a personal level.”

With over 130 full-time employees working in its office and many of them never crossing paths, Publicis Seattle wanted to foster a sense of community at the agency. So it started a weekly draw called “Fishbowl Fridays,” where four random employees are made to get out of the office and try new lunch spots. Their names — and the name of a restaurant — are drawn from a fishbowl. Best of all: Publicis picks up the tab.

Publicis Seattle staffers at Red Mill Burgers
Publicis Seattle staffers at Red Mill Burgers

Austin-based agency Drumroll has weekly “Fuel Lunches,” catered lunch for its 50 employees. On the side: “Burger Brackets.” Modeled on March Madness, teams of employees eat their way through a series of burger joints in Austin, ultimately declaring a winner. Drumroll’s health insurance presumably includes cholesterol screening.

“It was a mindful attempt grounded in a simple insight, which is that meals are very intimate experiences that play a huge role in community building,” said Timothy Chow, group account director at Drumroll.

Leo Burnett Chicago has not one but two lunch programs for its employees: Through Fooda, the agency sets up a different pop-up restaurant at its Star Bar every day, allowing staffers to sample different restaurants from across the city without ever having to leave the office. For the more health-conscious, it also has KitchFix, a newer startup that delivers prepared organic, local meals.

Mother and Y&R have brought in full-time in-house chefs — Heather Carlucci and Tommy Thothongkum, respectively — who serve up a daily spread ranging from soups and salads to more gourmet offerings like Yakitori or Japanese chicken skewers.


“I‘ve personally found that it really helps foster collaboration across teams and companies and is key to bringing people together face-to-face, which really goes a long way,” said Jim Radosevic, president of Y&R New York. “It also helps that the food is really good too and that there is always a lot of variety at all hours of the day.”

While the food at Y&R’s Café 285 — that’s the number of their old street address — is subsidized for staffers, Mother offers food free of cost. That might seem like a resource suck to some agencies, but it’s a point of pride at Mother. It also helps the agency attract talent, said Michael Rose, director of operations at Mother.“Our food budget is never questioned,” he said. “It helps with recruiting too — they immediately understand what kind of place we are, and it’s usually a big draw.”

Mother New York's kitchen
Mother New York’s kitchen

Not all agency food programs are from the top. Agency staffers with a penchant for food have also started conglomerating through several channels. Katherine Oppenheim and Megan Wheeler from Huge use the internal communication platform Honey for the agency’s “Brown Bag lunch group.” They are also part of other informal groups around lunching and have also brought in Jennifer Clair from Home Cooking New York who taught the group what the terms local, organic, bio-diverse, eco-friendly, grass-fed, humane, wild and extra-virgin meant and how they could make better decisions while grocery shopping.

At Work & Co’s Dumbo offices in Brooklyn, what began as a weekly family-style lunch every Friday has evolved into a daily affair — and a personal passion project for Diego Zambrano, the agency’s design partner. Dumbo, while boasting lovely Manhattan views and precious cobble-stoned streets, is a wasteland for food options.

Zambrano has been attempting to fix that problem and has even personally reached out to the agency’s favorite restaurant chefs to ask them to do special lunches. He has even convinced a few to cater that didn’t offer that service, including Babu Ji, an eclectic new Indian eatery in East Village.

“We recruit people from all over the world and we’re growing quickly, so it’s a way for restaurants to introduce themselves to recent transplants and sometimes give them a taste of home,” he said. “People here are still talking about that Babu Ji lunch, weeks later.”