Businesses offer a variety of benefits. Some highlight numerous vacation days, on-site childcare and health insurance, but the most talked about benefits are the ones that build workplace culture, from ping-pong tables and Pilates classes to massage services to pet-friendly environments. And one option that’s growing in popularity and attracting a variety of employees is free meals and snacks.

What started in Silicon Valley at start-ups and coworking spaces is now spreading throughout the United States. Businesses are looking to ramp up benefits that will bring in the top talented employees and make them stay. Meanwhile, with digital retail increasing at a rapid pace and brick and mortars losing some ground, baking and snack companies are looking for offline areas of growth where they can go straight to the shopper as opposed to asking the shopper to come to them. For some, the office might be the answer.

ZeroCater, a San Francisco-based company that helps businesses create high-performing cultures, took a survey of 100 employees and office managers at the beginning of the year to understand the effects of free meals and snacks in the workplace. The survey said 38% of employees ranked free workplace food as one of their top three benefits, alongside vacation time and professional development. Regarding favorability, 88% of employees considered snacks an important benefit and 78% said the same about meals. Healthful qualities in meals and snacks also were preferred.  

Additionally, 90% of employers said food helps their employees build stronger relationships with their colleagues. Efficiency is another priority, and 88% agreed free meals save their employees time because they don’t have to venture out for lunch.

The bigger the facility, the more food options available, according to CB Insights. Businesses that provide meals might not only include snacking for their employees but also partner with baking manufacturers for their cafeteria food and meals. Smaller companies tend to focus on snacks, especially niche products.

“They’re not looking for stuff you would expect to see in every outlet in America, but they’re looking for new novel products that are going to appeal to millennials,” Mr. Clouthier said. “They’re putting products in front of millennials who are tech savvy and more likely to get online and talk about it.”

According to the ZeroCater survey, 68% of employees said they purchased snacks and beverages they were introduced to at the office. It gives new brands the opportunity to get samples in front of consumers.

“When we think about nontraditional retail, there are brands that are actually being built through the office channels,” said Steve Clouthier, managing director and partner, Sterling-Rice Group. For example, Joyride Coffee found success with its beginnings in office spaces at places such as Facebook, Netflix, Google, Etsy, Palantir and Capital One.

Many manufacturers also go through third-party distributors such as Aramark, or Byte Fresh, meal companies that work with major brands that made their debut at Amazon, CBS Interactive, Sutter Health and Williams Sonoma.

When it comes to the snacking world, SnackNation, a brand elevation platform, has gotten start-up companies like Quinn Popcorn and Hail Merry to distribute to big businesses such as Wayfair, HuffPost, Microsoft, Uber and Mazda. Other popular snack distributors include Simpalo Snacks, Eat Club, Nature Box.

CB Insights calls free food in the office a win-win situation. Companies spend some money but look to drive the top employees to their companies through benefits. Baking and snack companies get their products in front of consumers who are most likely going to spread the word if they like the product. And as an option that allows consumers a chance to try products or conveniently shop for free, one might even call it a win-win-win situation.