A while ago I heard some folks, who work in another company's HR team, discuss the idea of giving their "employees" more insight in their actual cost to the company, apart from their wages. Costs such as coffee, non-essential office furniture and equipment, events & outings, and free lunches. It got me thinking about the value of companies providing their people with free lunches in particular.
Obviously, it's almost a norm nowadays for most tech companies. It's seen as the norm, which means that not providing lunch is regarded as a dissatisfier. The presence of free lunch is no longer a delighter, but rather a basic need in these companies.
But free lunch is not just a regular perk. And it's also not originally meant as a tool to encourage people to work longer hour or to attact talent. There a much more important, but harder to quantify, argument to provide free lunch. Read the quote below from Ed Catmull's Creativity Inc., page ix (which would I recommend everyone to read) and have a think for a moment:
Built on the site of a former cannery, Pixar's fifteen-acre campus, just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, was designed, inside and out, by Steve Jobs. (Its name, in fact, is The Steve Jobs Building.) It has well-thought-out patterns of entry and egress that encourage people to mingle, meet and communicate. Outside, there is a soccer field, a volleyball court, a swimming pool, and a six-hundred-seat amphitheater. Sometimes visitors misunderstand the place, thinking it's fancy for fancy's sake. What they miss is that the unifying idea for this building isn't luxury but community. Steve wanted the building to support our work by enhancing our ability to collaborate.
Nowadays, most tech companies' biggest and most valuable asset are the people working for them. These people are usually highly knowledgeable and inventive, working for those companies to come up with creative ideas to solve difficult problems. Ideas thrive in an environment of trust, collaboration and communication. So, as a leader you want to construct circumstances that allow that trust, collaboration and communication to happen.
You should not ask "should we provide free lunch at our office?", but rather "how can we foster collaboration, relationships and community?". Lunch is only one of many avenues, but a relatively simple and well-understood method to build a piece of such a culture.