When cafeteria pricing meets mathematics

Prices in the Microsoft cafeteria are often illogical.

For example, a "special sandwich" costs $4.25. A piece of whole fruit costs $0.50. But a "special sandwich with a piece of whole fruit" costs $4.95.

If you're not careful, the cashier will ring it up as a "special sandwich with a piece of whole fruit" instead of as a "special sandwich" and a "piece of whole fruit".

(I think they eventually fixed this after enough people complained.)

As another example, name-brand bottled water is available in the cafeteria. You can get a 20-ounce bottle for $0.99 or a one-liter bottle for $1.99.

One liter is a little under 34 ounces. You're actually better off buying two 20-ounce bottles than one one-liter bottle. Get more water and save a penny.

(For those who have a Wall Street Journal subscription, you can read more about how corporate cafeterias maximize profits in the article Nowadays, Companies Make Money Off You, Right Down to the Last Bite from the 13 November 2002 issue.)

Comments (38)
  1. Andy says:

    Do you take requests for your history based posts? Because if you do I would like to know the history behind why in the window’s API’s enum in a function name actually means to callback which iterates over some objects? As in "EnumWindows", EnumChildWindows" etc. The choice of language to define those functions has always been something I’ve wondered about.

  2. Mark says:

    I would think in this case Enum is short for Enumerate, i.e. iterate over all windows or child windows.

  3. Reuben Harris says:

    I thought drinks were free at Microsoft?

  4. Mat Hall says:

    And what, exactly, is a "special sandwich"?

  5. Here’s some similar ideas of questionable food sales practice: Taco Bell’s grande meal (10 tacos or burritos) costs the same as 10 tacos or burritos. However, for soft tacos, the grande meal is actually cheaper.

    There’s also the classic buns come in packs of ten and hot dogs in packs of eight.

    Here’s another one: Rose-Hulman makes special meals for students at holidays and finals as a treat to the students. Wait though, we paid for it, so how’s it a treat.

  6. Cooney says:

    I, of course, get water from a cooler and pay nothing for it.

  7. Centaur says:

    Doesn’t a whole fruit cease being whole when you cut a piece of it? :)

  8. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    Some drinks are free at Microsoft.

    The kitchens are all stocked with a pretty full range of sodas and those little cans of fruit juice. Purified water fountains and crappy drip coffee is also found in the kitchens. All for free.

    Some drinks you pay for. For example, the espresso stand, fancy bottled water and bottled fruit juice from the cafeteria you pay for.

    There are a few regional variations. For example, in the London office there is no water fountain in the kitchen, but the fridge is stocked with bottled water (which is free).

  9. Eric Lippert says:

    Bananas — eight cents each, or three for a quarter.

    > I thought drinks were free at Microsoft?

    Most drinks are free. The food services company we use also sells drinks — higher-end stuff like Odwalla.

    The margins on drinks are so high that it is worth trying to compete with free.

    > And what, exactly, is a "special sandwich"?

    It depends on what today’s special is. It’s usually something more labour-intensive than a regular sandwich, which I suppose is why they charge more for it.

  10. DrPizza says:

    For $4.25 a sandwich I’d expect it to suck my dick as I ate it.

  11. DrPizza says:

    The sandwich, that is, not my dick.

  12. Ulrich E. says:

    My theory is that the cafeteria people just don’t expect their customers to think.

    In out cafeteria the food is weighted and you pay something like 95 cent for 100g of meat, 35 cent for 100g of vegetables (or fries, rice, etc) and 65 cent for 100g of a mixed plate.

    When they introduced this scheme some time ago, the cashiers were extremely surprised when suddenly most software developers ate two plates, one with meat and a bit of rice or a few fries and another one loaded with vegetables (and more rice or fries).

    The cafeteria is shared by differtent companies and it is surprising how good one can identify the guests: Someone who is ‘optimizing’ will almost certainly work for my (software) company and not for the PR, transportation or other offices.

  13. Tony, MS Reading has free water in the fridges as well. MSN isn’t that special :)

  14. Robert Kozak says:

    I still get a kick out of Burger King. Their combos usually dont save much or cost more. I think they got smarter in the past few years but there is one Item that still gets me. 5 Chicken Tenders are 0.99 but 8 will cost you $1.99.

  15. Steve Sheppard [MSFT] says:

    The drink programs (and others) change about once a year (budget time?) here on the Las Colinas campus. The new plan is to install vending machines for drinks that are free. I suspect this is to curb the jackasses that load up a backpack with free dirnks to take home to the family. I predict within a year or two drinks will be at least .25…

  16. foo says:

    In the end, who cares?

  17. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    "In the end, who cares?"

    Well, mostly MS employees. Bitching about the cafeterias is a company-wide pasttime.

    Of course, I think that’s a function of the fact that we get a pretty good deal to start with. For example, because the fridges have such a wide range of different sodas, if your particular quirky favourite isn’t there, you feel somehow aggreived, whereas if there were only a couple of different kinds of soda you’d probably just accept that the choice was limited.

    Barry: it was just an example, I worked in the London office for a while (not MSN, though), although I now work in Redmond. I couldn’t remember what the deal was in Reading because I hardly ever went there. I’m sure regional offices in other parts of the world have yet other variations.

  18. DarthPedro says:

    I think they just make up prices in the MSFT cafetarias. I have the same breakfast probably 3 times per week. And, it seems like everytime I get to the register I pay a different amount every day.

  19. foo says:

    Thanks for spelling favourite correctly, Tony.

  20. Kevin says:

    Having been to the msft cafeteria in Dallas TX myself. Don’t you need a chef to prepare the sandwiches?

    I agree, who cares? you microsofties get the perqs anyway.

  21. zontor says:

    Not sure if this is the same article, but the point is the same:


  22. George says:

    Not only are most drinks free, but I remember when a cafeteria I frequented last summer also started charging for the SAME DRINKS that were available for free on the other side of a wall in the same room.

    Was even better when, to get the "combo" price on whatever was best for lunch they threw in the soda. Yeah.

  23. Nish says:

    I am not very sure about this, but I kinda think MS staff are paid really good salaries and so they might not be very much interested about a $.5 difference? But then again, a guy making a mere 50K annual might be a more lavish spender than another guy making $100K. It all depends on how good you are at wasting away your pay :-)

  24. Tony Cox wrote:

    > Well, mostly MS employees. Bitching about the

    > cafeterias is a company-wide pasttime.

    Well, that and the price of stuff in the company store… which ever increases and has no correlation whatsoever with the cost of the product. (That was one great thing about working at Sierra; the Employee Purchase program had very few (if any) limits, and they charged you cost-of-goods).

    I’m pretty sure that the MS Company Store is purely and simply for the purpose of "indulging VIP guests" and has very little to do with being an employee perk.

  25. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    Oh, I don’t know. I quite like the Company Store perk. I don’t use up all my allowance, but I’ve used it to buy software for myself, friends and family. It’s also a handy outlet for Xbox games and peripherals.

    I’ve never really seen it as a corporate hospitality tool (even though I do from time to time, as part of my job, entertain business partners).

  26. This practice is far from new. Just read "Grapes of Wrath."

  27. Tokyoite says:

    Microsoft Japan has complimentary beverage machines that spit out about 4-5oz of coffee/tea/strawberry milk, etc..if you’re willing to wait for it.

    But for stuff in a can/bottle you need to pay (about half the price of retail).

    On the plus side, the cafeteria is discounted 40% after 6pm.

  28. Moi says:

    And what, exactly, is a "special sandwich"?


  29. Anonymous Coward says:

    I love the MS Company Store! It is where I have gotten several hundred dollars worth of XP operating systems and some games. No, I am not an MS employee but know some (the above was from a friend of a friend).

    The last time I was in Redmond (1997) they had laptops at the reception to each building where you typed in your own details for it to generate a visitor label for you. I was *this* close to being "Bill Gates" :-)

  30. Tony: just call me bitterly cynical :-)

  31. Dan Maas says:

    Argh, that same Aramark usually charges $8-$10 for a salad OR small sandwitch when the SIGGRAPH convention comes to the LA convention center.

    Personally I think unless a company is in the food business itself, food should be provided at cost.

  32. Norman Diamond says:

    (I think they eventually fixed this after

    > enough people complained.)

    People complained?

    Did people actually line up to pay 4,200 yen or US$35 to complain, or were some people allowed to complain for free?

    Noticed your new comment policy recently. If I ever have time to catch up with Mr. Chen’s again, I won’t be able to post comments on old matters. One example is TweakUI for which I recently discovered a Japanese version, but the original announcement was more than 2 weeks ago so I can’t report it there. One example is driver signing which came up again a few weeks ago — every time a USB floppy drive is disconnected Windows XP blue-screens ("safe to remove", what’s one more lie eh?), I am not the only victim, and sure Microsoft signed Microsoft’s USB floppy driver. These things don’t need personal responses from Mr. Chen. It would still be useful to post relevant facts when they become known.

  33. Raymond Chen says:

    If you want to post information you can do it on your web site.

  34. Cooney says:

    So, like, they let anybody on the internet? I guess that explains the Emma Watson countdown website. Oh, and http://www.bonsaikitten.com – can’t forget that.

  35. Michael Williams [exMSFT] says:

    The cafeterias had other weird consistencies, like "Roast Vegetable" sandwich rolls that i) had no vegetables in it, ii) nothing roasted and ii) often had big strips of bacon.

  36. Norman Diamond says:

    6/23/2004 7:19 PM Raymond Chen:

    > If you want to post information you can do

    > it on your web site.

    You’re absolutely right. But there’s still this in the base note:

    > (I think they eventually fixed this after

    > enough people complained.)

    Did they eventually fix it after enough people posted complaints on their own web sites? Or did enough people get to state their complaints to the cafeteria operators?

    And if enough people got to state their complaints to the cafeteria operators, did each of them have to pay US$35 to do so?

    Yeah I know when Windows NT SP4, SP5, SP6a, Windows 2000, and Windows 2003 break Word 97 and Word 98, I shouldn’t blame Microsoft, I should blame the maker of the applications Word 97 and Word 98. (Funny how the US version of Windows 2000 got that bug fixed during beta stages, so the release of US Windows 2000 handles Japanese fonts in Japanese Word 97 and 98 better than the release of Japanese Windows 2000. But in Windows 2003 it’s revived in all language versions, and it never got fixed in Japanese Windows NT or 2000 or 2003.) But the application maker would charge 4,200 yen to let me make the complaint and still wouldn’t fix it. (Yeah I know Word 97 and Word 98 are no longer supported, but the maker pretended differently at the times when Windows NT SP4, SP5, SP6a, and Windows 2000 were released.)

    Yeah I know when Windows XP blue screens due to a defective USB floppy driver or Windows 2000 blue screens due to a defective TCP-IP driver, I shouldn’t blame Microsoft, I should blame the driver maker who defrauded WHQL. But the driver maker would charge 4,200 yen to let me make the complaint and I wouldn’t dare hold my breath waiting for them to fix it.

    Your company needs to learn a lesson from the cafeteria. Some complaints are right.

  37. Raymond Chen says:

    You can file complaints for free at http://register.microsoft.com/mswish/suggestion.asp They all get read.

    Norman, complaining to me about the support policy will get you nowhere. Not only do I not have any influence over the company’s support policy, and I don’t even know who makes that policy so I can’t forward your complaints onwards.

Comments are closed.