Dispatches From Facebook's Full Circle Cafe, Where the Food Is Free and the Grease Is Plenty

Facebook's main campus cafeteria in Menlo Park, California. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

The inner workings of Facebook are largely secretive, hidden behind empty press releases, airtight nondisclosure agreements and aggressively loyal employees. So when a friend who works there invited me to the campus for a gratis lunch, I got in a car and blazed across the salt ponds to Menlo Park like an extra from Mad Max racing through a fire tornado to Valhalla. At least, in spirit. There was traffic.

Last year, the company expanded its Menlo Park, California, headquarters, opening a new building across Highway 84 from its former main campus. Building 20—aka MPK 20, for "Menlo Park Campus"—is a massive structure designed by Frank Gehry, with almost none of his amorphous trademarks. "From the start, Mark [Zuckerberg] wanted a space that was unassuming, matter-of-fact and cost-effective," Gehry said in a statement. "He did not want it overly designed." Zuck got his wish. It looks as if someone dragged a bunch of standing desks and white boards into a Chipotle the size of an airplane hangar.

While its older campus at 1 Hacker Way (seriously) resembles Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A., the new building is more subdued, to the extent that a 430,000-square-foot office beside a wasteland of sulfurous former salt ponds can be. Though there's no Fantasyland or even a town square with pavement that spells out hack when viewed from outer space (again, seriously), the building does come with a new employee cafeteria, Full Circle Cafe.

Free food is one of the many perks of working at Facebook. In addition to a cushy salary with stock options (an average $126K for engineers), there's unlimited health care, free private shuttles, gym memberships and vending machines loaded with free tech equipment. Additional perks read like the inventory list of a toy store for the spoiled children of divorcing parents: rock climbing walls, free bikes (in Facebook blue, natch), all-you-can-eat ice cream, a music room, Ripstiks, cheap Facebook-branded swag, an arcade and something called "Nacho Wednesday." If only the rest of society could be so nice. (And maybe it could be if tech CEOs paid more in taxes to fund government services.)

To access the Full Circle Cafe, one has to walk through the vast, open office space, passing incomprehensible whiteboard notes, Mylar balloons shaped like numbers that celebrate the "Faceversary" of employees, an information technology counter designed to look like CBGB (so punk!), a package room called Ship Happens (the refrigerator is loaded with Blue Apron boxes) and depressing inspirational posters ("Move fast and break things"; "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"; "Done is better than perfect"). It has the vibe of a high school pep rally held in a dentist's office.

Near the entrance to Full Circle is a "Microkitchen" featuring an espresso bar and jars of assorted candy. (The jars are glued to the counter—maybe some employees got too greedy?) Beyond the Microkitchen is a large wall sculpture spelling out "Full Circle" with dishes and mugs (wacky!) and a salad bar that seemed airlifted from a local Whole Foods. At one end, it featured a selection of soups. The butternut squash soup container was leaking a flood of water onto the floor while an employee, unfazed, reached over the mess to dish up her plate.

Across from the salad bar is a large open kitchen and stainless-steel buffet area. Pretty much everything there is stainless steel and wood—it looks like a county morgue designed by Ikea.

I grabbed a plate and got in line at the buffet. Heat lamps dangled like worms above containers of rapidly congealing foodstuff: Mixed quinoa with macadamia nuts and scallions; green tofu curry cups; sliders with beetroot and Thousand Island dressing; grilled "snags" (Australian slang for sausages) that looked like a pile of bloody, amputated fingers; assorted (apparently defrosted) vegetables; freshly cut steak with a lumpy neon curry sauce. As I slopped a bit of everything on my plate, Metallica's "The Unforgiven" segued to Linkin Park's "In the End" on the cafeteria's stereo system. (Later, when I returned to get a napkin, I heard "The Unforgiven" playing a second time.)

Mixed quinoa with macadamia nuts and scallions; green tofu curry cups; sliders with beetroot and thousand island dressing; grilled “snags” (Australian slang for sausages); assorted (apparently defrosted) vegetables and freshly cut steak with a lumpy neon curry sauce. Joe Veix for Newsweek

There are refrigerators filled with bottles of pretty much every kind of beverage, along with a table loaded with bagels and sweaty deli meat. Here's an odd thing: I couldn't find a water fountain at Facebook. If you want water, you have to get a Crystal Geyser bottle from one of the refrigerators dispersed throughout the offices.

We sat in the dining room adjacent to the buffet area. It wasn't very crowded, because most employees piled up their plates with food, took them back to their desks and worked through lunch. A few of the tables were covered in food debris. The area doubles as an auditorium for performances and weekly chats with Mark (everyone there calls him by his first name). Sometimes they'll host Q&As with celebrities or convert the area into a replica of Endor from Star Wars. Because of its split use, there's stage lighting across the ceiling and a multimedia setup with cameras pointed at the tables. It felt like the set of a cheap late-'90s sitcom for the USA Network.

The food itself isn't much better. The sliders were overcooked and under-salted, ironic considering the cafeteria's grand view of those thousands of acres of salt ponds. Both the tofu and steak were bland and rubbery. The snags were good but soaked in grease. My colleague asked to try some of the assorted vegetables I'd heaped on my plate. "It tastes better than it looks," I said. She tried a few bites and said, "No it doesn't."

Eating while surrounded by employees wearing Facebook-branded hoodies and backpacks was like dining with a corporate cult that holds its weekly meetings at an Old Country Buffet. Plus, the food gave me a stomachache.

How much of this was the fault of executive chefs Dean Spinks and Tony Castellucci and their staff? The various cafeterias and restaurants around Facebook (the others, clustered around the old campus, are run by the same team) feed thousands of employees multiple tons of food each day. Perhaps, to use startup lingo, food prep doesn't scale well.

Does it matter that much of Facebook's food is bland and unhealthy, and its offices are a rat maze of repurposed wood and forced positivity? Consider the power and influence the company exerts upon the world. Its platform, used by about 1.79 billion users, warps our social interactions into addictive casino games fueled by narcissism and screeching rage, in the service of invasive corporate advertising. Its website, which has come to resemble an overcrowded MySpace-style eyesore, is a massive distribution network for political propaganda and conspiracy theories, with no apparent ethical oversight or transparency ("Are Hillary Clinton's Bones Actually Rattlesnakes?").

Zuck (Mark?) seems to be eyeing a presidential run, and Facebook board member Peter Thiel (an ardent Trump supporter) is considering running for governor of California. If they're to campaign as Silicon Valley visionaries who wish to disrupt our government, it's fair to critique the work Xanadu they've built.

It turns out Facebook's like any other soulless corporation, just with a deceptively bright coat of paint and the shallow positivity of a yoga lifestyle brand. Dining at Facebook was a lot like using the site. I arrived with a vague purpose in mind, got beaten down and overstimulated, and I left tired, confused and sad.