For many people, the word canteen conjures up visions of school food and the stench of boiled cabbage. But research suggests that staff canteens are popular with employees and, after years as a soft target for corporate cost-cutters, some companies are beginning to see other advantages in having somewhere in-house for their staff to eat.
A popular anecdote circulates of SmithKline Beecham's recently-appointed American boss, Jan Leschley. When he first ate in-house, he was horrified to discover it was in the executive dining room, while his staff were relegated downstairs. Leschley took up the challenge, claiming meals are a positive means of internal communication, and today Smithkline's gastronomic policy is far more egalitarian. In fact, there are good financial reasons behind this approach: 'Catering has to be available to everyone to avoid tax liability,' warns John Whiting, a tax partner at Price Waterhouse.
'If the staff are only offered a few curled up sandwiches while the directors have a three-course meal with wine, then the latter are liable for a benefit in kind.'
However, a less inclusive approach is evident at The Economist Group.
A spokesperson for Economist Intelligence Unit says: 'There's nothing here.' This, she says, is partly due to a lack of space but also because the group's central London location makes a canteen unnecessary. 'We simply don't have the room and we're surrounded by food outlets. A lot of people like to spend their lunch hours shopping anyway.' Whiting sees reason in this approach too. 'Some people might argue that it does the staff good to get out at lunch time,' he claims.
Sainsbury certainly favour canteens, with everyone at each site eating in the same canteen. 'We're legally obliged to give regular breaks,' says spokesperson Clare Meredith. 'And staff need somewhere to go for food and drink. A canteen where they can get a proper meal at a subsidised price makes good sense.' This is particularly true for out-of-town sites.
Naturally much on offer comes from Sainsbury's own range, and the canteens also carry company promotions, as well as trying products out on staff: 'When we're running a celebrity ad for a simple pasta recipe, we might put that dish on the menu,' says Meredith. 'It helps staff link in with what we're doing as a company.'
Of course canteens can do far more, acting as a positive incentive to come to work: 'Goldman Sachs in New York is legendary for its croissants and cappuccino,' drools one City broker. 'Why have burnt toast and instant coffee at home with that waiting for you at the office?'.