Within my first week of working at a start-up, I acquired a gut. The reason was obvious: there was free food everywhere, it was delicious and I was nervous. Within five days I was heaving my stomach around like a kettle bell and crossly preparing, and then ignoring, cups of green tea.
It all started so innocently. On Monday, warm cookies from the Upper West Side bakery Levain appeared in the kitchen. Buttercream cupcakes followed; apparently it was somebody’s birthday. (It is always somebody’s birthday.) At noon, employees gathered for a catered lunch of barbecue. Two hours later, a Pinkberry station rolled into the office with the full battery of toppings. I helped myself to an incapacitating dose. By 5 p.m. my dress had grown so tight around the middle that I had to unzip it to my coccyx and put a sweater on top just to breathe.
And that was only the first day.
My employer, the eyewear company Warby Parker, is not unusual. Small, high-growth tech companies have had a reputation for showering employees with lavish perks since the Silicon Valley bubble days. At Sun Microsystems, nursing mothers were provided lounges for breast-feeding and an on-call “lactation consultant.” Cisco offered dry-cleaning services and popcorn. Pinball machines lined the hallways at Excite@Home.
In his recent book, “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari, recommends keeping toys in the office and allowing employees to nap on the clock — like Steve Jobs, who installed a futon beneath his desk.
But New York’s tight market for skilled start-up labor has produced an even more sophisticated arms race.
Take Squarespace, a Web publishing platform founded in 2004. On a recent Friday afternoon, employees sat serenely in the firm’s SoHo offices, the room silent except for rapid keyboard clicks. A slim woman wearing her hair in a topknot ferried dishes of shrimp gumbo and quinoa salad to a buffet; midday meals for Squarespace employees are prepared four days a week. (On the fifth day, they order out.) Gluten-free and vegetarian options are offered at each meal, as well as a fridge stocked with Tecate and Red Bull.
On another morning at Tumblr headquarters on East 21st Street, a young man in futuristic shoes poured a glass of seltzer (it’s on tap) and sat down to breakfast: a plate piled with bacon. His co-workers nibbled at pastries, sipped high-end coffee and rooted around the fridge for their favorite flavor of Chobani yogurt. Greek yogurt, in fact, is one of the most popular start-up perks.
“It’s eaten almost as quickly as it’s stocked,” said Cyrus Massoumi, 36, the founder and chief executive of ZocDoc, an online medical scheduling service. “I’m partial to Siggi’s Skyr, myself.”
The free lunches and self-replenishing pantries of New York’s start-ups can occasionally bring to mind Cockaigne, the mythical medieval land where cakes grew on trees, meat pies rained from the sky and fish leaped from rivers to roast themselves and fly directly into waiting mouths. In one 13th-century French epic poem, “Huon de Bordeaux,” a paradisiacal river restores health and youth to all who drink from it. Today’s version? Coconut water.
“For a treat-loving man such as myself, the office is a great environment,” said Martin Mulkeen, 29, a senior editor at Birchbox on East 28th Street.
And let’s not forget the basics.
“We have cold-brewed coffee at all times,” said Dan Logan, 28, the director of product marketing at Bitly in the Union Square area. Bitly workers (“Bitizens,” they call themselves) may also prepare beverages from the office’s Jura Impressa X9 Platinum, which pumps out cappuccinos at the touch of a button. (The machines start at $6,495.)
“I was not a coffee drinker at all before I started StyleUp,” said Kendall Herbst, 29, a former Lucky magazine editor who co-founded the personal styling service. “Now it’s my lifeblood.”
As many employees noted, New Yorkers are picky about their coffee, so office managers can forget about throwing a can of Folgers in the freezer and calling it a day. Perhaps the most popular provider is Stumptown Coffee Roasters from Portland, Ore., whose Hair Bender blend can be found in many start-up pantries. As Mr. Logan put it, “You got to have good brew.”