Management / The American View: Corporate Food Wars

The American View: Corporate Food Wars

Would you risk your job for a pastry? Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger introduces two obscure TV shows to illustrate why something as mundane as a catered breakfast can become a life-and-(career)-death drama in a large corporate setting.

Just how far would you push the limits of acceptable behaviour to get a free bagel? Would you be willing to offend a superior? Provoke condemnation from your company CEO? Alienate yourself from your political allies? How much of your economic future are you willing to gamble for a cheap and unsatisfying pastry? If this premise seems ridiculous and unrealistic, then odds are good that you haven’t worked in a high-corporate setting.

Here’s what I’m on about: as I argued in my book Lost Allusions, every organisation has its own unique culture. No matter how much the people in charge of the organisation want to dictate social rules and constraints, an organisation’s collective culture is created, inculcated, maintained, and evolved by its members, usually where first- and second-line management interfaces with the individual contributors. These groups create and enforce arbitrary rules regarding acceptable and unacceptable behaviours to achieve certain objectives. As an example: who is allowed to eat what, when, and where when outside food is brought into the office.

Some businesses (or departments within a larger business) are too cheap to cater in food. Others are generous (sometimes to a fault). Most places allow for catering within limitations. Say, to impress visitors, or only for people above a certain arbitrary rank level. Sometimes the company will cater a holiday party or major event. No matter how the company-funded food appears, there are often unwritten protocols for who is and isn’t allowed to partake. You defy those rules at your peril.

Asian Office Worker Leaving His Job in Layoff for RecessionIt’s always a shame to see an innocent person get fired. It’s a damned travesty to see an innocent person get fired over baked goods. 

To support my argument, I want to introduce you to two relatively obscure and seemingly-unrelated television programmes that I suspect you haven’t heard of yet: Corporate, and Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma. Both shows require the viewer to recognize what’s being parodied for maximum enjoyment.

Corporate is a new comedy series that premiered 17th January 2018 on the Comedy Central network in the US. The show is a dark and dry [1] satire of office life in a typical soulless Fortune 500 mega-corp. The show’s advertisements played up the dreary hopelessness of white-collar employment, but it’s not a direct parody of any particular existing property or genre.

Our second obscure show, Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma, started as a manga series, premiering in Weekly Shonen Jump in November 2012. It was adapted into an anime by J.C. Staff in April 2015 and is currently in its third season. [2] Foods Wars! is a loving and vicious parody of Shōnen style stories.

If you’re not familiar, Shōnen is a Japanese genre of comics and anime, aimed primarily at teenage boys, that tends to focus on larger-than-life high-action plots involving camaraderie, competition, and self-improvement. Most examples involve long-running conflicts where the main characters frequently clash with one another, often in a structured sport or arena. The stories tend to be mostly adolescent wish-fulfillment, punctuated with lots of dramatic battles and grandstanding.

Little knight attacking with swordStands to reason. Every kid I’ve ever known wanted to grow up to become a brave hero, not a paper-pushing functionary.

Food Wars! lovingly (and mercilessly!) skewers the genre conventions by making the source and nature of the characters’ conflicts about cooking competitions in a culinary-themed high school. There are no ‘duels to the death.’ Instead of superheroes grimly locked a good-versus-evil struggle, Food Wars!’s characters ‘duel’ in a kitchen arena before master restaurateurs over who can make the best arbitrarily themed entrée. If you remember Food Network’s long-running Iron Chef series from the 1990s, it’s like that … only in cartoon form … and ridiculously over-dramatic.

You don’t have to be a fan of Shōnen stories to adore the way that it mocks other popular shows. Turning a simple premise – competitive cooking – into an Olympic-level life-or-career-death competition makes stories built on the standard Shōnen tropes seem preposterous. Food Wars! does for anime what Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles did for Westerns.

The reason that I’m bringing up both of these TV shows to support one office culture argument is that people who have never worked high-corporate environments before tend to have a disconnect between expected reality and practical reality when it comes to office catering protocols and consequences. Put another way, you can tell who has and who hasn’t paid their dues in the cubicle farms by how they react to a seemingly innocuous office life joke involving breakfast foods.

Four minutes in to Corporate’s first episode, the main characters are in a boardroom, watching higher-ranking co-workers tear into a tray of pastries as everyone waits for a meeting to start. Series co-creator Matt Ingbretson starts the scene with the line ‘Do you think we’re going to get to eat anything today?’ His sidekick, series co-creator Jake Weisman answers ‘Don’t count on it! There’s a rigid food hierarchy here. Executives get first pick, junior executives, then us: junior-executives-in-training.’ Despairing, Ingbretson grumbles ‘Five hundred billion dollar corporation and they never have enough bagels for everyone.’

This is where the cultural recognition factor happens: a viewer who has never experienced this sort of dystopian office setting might chuckle at the end of the exchange, assuming that Ingbretson’s gripe is the punchline for a long joke setup. It’s not. Corporate veterans recognize that Weisman’s ‘rigid hierarchy’ crack is the actual payoff of the conversation, because the environment itself is the joke. Ingretson’s ‘not enough bagels’ quip is a cultural signpost, meant to help the new viewer get his or her bearings in terms of the story’s setting. The exchange isn’t a throwaway gag; it’s a snapshot of the characters’ office environment. It’s confirmation for the new viewer that the series’ fictional office culture is deliberately and unnecessarily abusive. Jokes will follow based on that core premise.

Plate of pastries and cakesTwenty attendees, seven pastries. Sounds right … if you’re trying to provoke a fight

I discussed the premiere with several people – both corporate and other-than-corporate types – and noticed a significantly different reaction based on people’s prior professional perspectives. People who haven’t lived the life assume that the scene – and all that it implies about the environment – is grossly exaggerated. There can’t really be any ‘rules’ about who does and does not get to take a pastry. There wouldn’t really be deliberate artificial shortages of food. No one would really be anxious or even afraid for the job if they took a stale 50p bagel half that wasn’t ‘allowed’ based on rank. The setup in Corporate episode 1, they said, was blown out of proportion for the sake of a cheap joke. It’s satire through absurdity, in the vein of Food Wars!’s over-the-top ‘cooking battles.’

Except that it’s not … Modern white-collar jobs come standard with a pervasive atmosphere of anxiety, paranoia, and sudden (career) death. We don’t have lifetime employment anymore. In the US, all workers below the executive tier no longer have any semblance of job security. Anyone can be let go at any time. Layoffs, reorganizations, and ‘right-sizing’ events happen regularly and seemingly randomly. An individual’s worth to the company is measured more by his or her political value and relationships with key managers than by his or her effort, ability, or work output.

Further, most corporations manage personnel on a constant binge-and-purge cycle. Every time the organisation needs to slough headcount, the worst performers aren’t the ones made redundant. Instead, the incompatibles are always the first to go. The ‘incompatibles’ are those people that don’t fit. The ones that make trouble. The ones that present too much of a threat to the people in power.

Dissatisfaction`By my unofficial reasoning, fully half of all workplace bullying is the natural response of an inadequate leader to a perceived challenge from below.

That, in turn, is why seemingly trivial workplace events constitute a deadly status battlefield. Conflicts over what should be inconsequential issues like catered snack allocations turn into career-damaging skirmishes between workers and managers, all of whom are perpetually trapped in a zero-sum status war. I know … the very premise seems ridiculous. I agree. It seems dumb … but it’s often very, very real. Every social encounter is a tiny little area where the ‘incompatibles’ can make themselves known. Who’s going to violate an arbitrary and unfair cultural norm? Who’s going to act brash, or offensively? Who’s going to dare to stand out and challenge the status quo?

That’s why some of the more politically active players deliberately engineer these otherwise meaningless encounters to provoke conflict. Whoever holds power in the encounter dictates the rules: what gets ordered, who gets invited to eat, who has to do without, etc. Under-ordering is a popular tactic for ensuring that the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are clearly identified by who is seen holding the ‘bagel of approval.’ Announcing that some attendees shouldn’t touch the spread until and unless certain conditions are met is a challenge; whoever breaks the pointless ‘rule’ is marked as a potential political threat. Sort of ‘Who dares dine, loses.’

Yes, everything about this sort of petty gamesmanship is wasteful, counterproductive, distracting from the organisational mission, and abusive. It’s also real. Not universal (thankfully!), but prevalent enough to be recognizable. Companies with toxic environments like the one portrayed in Corporate really exist. I’ve both worked for and visited companies that had this sort of corrosive office culture. Environments where pissy little games could and did threaten innocent people’s livelihoods.

That’s why Corporate resonates. Food Wars! is satire based on obvious gross exaggeration meant to puncture the pretentions of common genre tropes. It’s never meant to be taken seriously. Corporate is satire based on very slight exaggeration of real-world business practices and work environments. It’s meant to stay just close enough to reality that people who are familiar with the referenced setting will be simultaneously amused and nauseated. It’s still funny, but it’s an unsettling kind of funny.

The kind of funny that brings back painful unwanted memories about horrible bosses and toxic workplaces. The kind of funny that brings back painful unwanted memories about horrible bosses and toxic workplaces. 

If you think I’m kidding, Corporate episode 2 – ‘The PowerPoint of Death’ – is about a mega-corp trying to win a lucrative arms sales contract by helping the CIA to engineer an illegal war. That premise sounds like it should be pure farce. We know from recent history that the only part of the story exaggerated in the telling is how much time was devoted to arguing over font selection.

So, for those viewers that recognize Corporate’s setting and feel its resonance, the challenge presented to the lead characters in the first episode – How much of your economic future are you willing to gamble for a cheap and unsatisfying pastry? – is both funny and poignant. That challenge is an all-too-real career threat they’ve likely experienced. The answer, of course, is that a rational person won’t risk their job for a stale bagel. That would be insane. Instead, rational white-collar worker will swallow their pride, remain still, and silently burn with hatred towards the people who put them in such a vile position.

That’s why Corporate isn’t a comedy, so much as it’s a satiric comic tragedy. It’s also why we’d all probably rather live in the Food Wars! universe. Or any other fictional universe, for that matter.


[1] By American TV standards. Set your expectations accordingly. The first two episodes are available to stream here on Comedy Central’s website, so judge for yourself

[2] American viewers can catch the show on the Crunchyroll network.

Title Allusions: Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman, and Pat Bishop, Corporate (2018 TV Series).

Yūto Tsukuda (writer) and Shun Saeki (illustrator), Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma (2012 manga series); Shogo Yasukawa (writer) and Yoshitomo Yonetani (director), Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma (2015 television series).


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.