How to Harness the Secret Goodwill of Food

Goodwill of Food

Last week I scheduled an early meeting. (8am… which is early for my client’s corporate culture). To make the pot sweeter, I offered to bring in breakfast. I announced it on my meeting invite, asking if there were any dietary restrictions. After the meeting was said and done, I noticed a couple interesting things:

  1. The enticement of food being served spiked the attendance.
  2. It instantly created an incredible amount of goodwill for me…. from everyone on the project, including those on the project team.


I was expecting 15 people coming to my meeting. I wanted to bring something substantial that would feed the masses, and not break the bank.

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I went ahead and made an Overnight French Toast Casserole for my meeting attendees the night before, then slipped it in the oven for an hour before I left for the office the next morning, and brought it in an insulated container. Just before the meeting, I uncovered the sweet french toast casserole, and the aroma of caramel syrup, french toast and fruit saturated the air. When my attendees arrived, their spirits instantly lifted and the level of conversation and discussion was kicked up a few notches. We had a great meeting.

Here’s the thing. Bringing food to a gathering is hardly a new concept. But there was a certain magic about its ability to bring people together, and to increase morale, and I started doing a little digging.


Food Brings People Together

I first encountered this phenomenon some 16 years ago, when my friend Phrank Potter brought grapes to an informal discussion (meeting) that we had among the project team. I still recall him saying in his soft-spoken, quirky demeanor as I paraphrase: ‘Food is the foundation of all social gatherings.’ It’s a form of care. When you ask someone to go on a date, you’d more than likely invite them to have dinner with you. All family events, be it birthdays, weddings, even funerals, there is always food involved.

Recall the loving mothers and grandmothers of every culture, whose first initiative when you walk into their home is to offer you food and drink. In fact, any good host, whenever a guest arrives, will offer a drink immediately upon arrival.


From the Beginning of Time…

All throughout history, we see the evidence where food serves a role of bringing people together.

The National Geographic had this little feature on the importance of food. And I quote…

“Food is more than survival. With it we make friends, court lovers, and count our blessings. The sharing of food has always been part of the human story. From Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv comes evidence of ancient meals prepared at a 300,000-year-old hearth, the oldest ever found, where diners gathered to eat together. Retrieved from the ashes of Vesuvius: a circular loaf of bread with scoring marks, baked to be divided.

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To break bread together, a phrase as old as the Bible, captures the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter. Children make mud pies, have tea parties, trade snacks to make friends, and mimic the rituals of adults. They celebrate with sweets from the time of their first birthday, and the association of food with love will continue throughout life and in some belief systems, into the afterlife.

Consider the cultures that leave delicacies graveside to let the departed know they are not forgotten. And even when times are tough, the urge to celebrate endures. In the Antarctic in 1902, during Robert Falcon Scottís Discovery expedition, the men prepared a fancy meal for Midwinter Day, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Hefty provisions had been brought on board. Forty-five live sheep were slaughtered and hung from the rigging, frozen by the elements until it was time to feast. The cold, the darkness, and the isolation were forgotten for a while. “With such a dinner,” Scott wrote, “we agreed that life in the Antarctic Regions was worth living.” – Victoria Pope”


The Chinese Emperor Kangxi, for his 66th birthday in the early 1700’s,

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brought the Han people and his own Manchurians together in a feast called “Man Han Chuan Xi”.. which loosely translated out to Manchurian -Han Unifying Feast. It was a huge honor to all ministers of the imperial court, both of Han and Manchurian descent to be invited to this feast, in an attempt to bury the hatchet of generations of brutal rivalry.

This elaborate event comprised of  six individual banquets hosted over three days and had over 300 unique dishes: 196 mains, 124 sides. Of these, there were 32 ‘delicacies,’ including camel humps, bear paws, monkey brains, ape lips, leopard fetuses, rhino tails, and deer tendons. (gulp.. delish.) Good thing PETA didn’t exist back then.

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Thankfully, the goodwill of food can be harnessed without the involvement of monkey brains, or baby leopards. All that is required is a little thoughtfulness and the willingness to pick up some bagels for a breakfast meeting, or to bring someone a coffee for doing you a favor.


Show Gratitude with Little Acts of Kindness

This is something that I do occasionally. When you’re on a project, you’ll quickly figure out who has the power to help you expedite what you need to have done… and who are the gatekeepers of what you need. There are certain individuals in the organization whom, you’d always do well to have them on your side: Database Administrators (DBA’s) are one. (It always pays to have DBA’s on your side on any IT project.) Certain subject matter experts (SME’s) in the business are another. Subject matter areas are key power users of the current system. They typically have been with the organization for years and years, and have an intimate understanding of both the organization and the in’s and out’s of its systems and processes. As a business analyst or functional analyst, during the investigation of certain processes, you will likely time and time again visit certain subject matter experts for questions that no one else can answer. Security guards are yet a third. Yep. Security guards. You never know on a Saturday, if you happen to forget your key card, and you need entry into the building.. it really pays to know the security guard.

95U1U3BR0YAnyways, what I would do, upon resolving an issue with the DBA, is that I would go down to the cafeteria, and pre-purchase a gift certificate for a cappuccino, and hand deliver it to the guy (or girl). The response was always the same: “Oh! Thanks! You didn’t have to do that!” Then forever more on the project, whenever I needed something done, or a question answered, the response time was lightning quick. All of this goodwill was bought with a $3 cup of cappuccino.



Cupcakes for Forgiveness

KDOALRLDV8Here’s another one. At one of my previous client’s, there was a time when the cloning process of our test instance wasn’t systematic. More specifically, the system was cloned to a test instance, but the email notifications weren’t redirected to a dummy email. So when we started entering (hundreds) of test orders. Bam! Real customers started receiving order confirmations for fake test orders that we very efficiently slapped into the system. Fabulous. I had to go down to customer service, who was slammed with hundreds of calls from customers confused about orders they never placed. Instead of acting like I was going to the firing squad, I armed myself with a tray of cupcakes. Immediately upon arrival, I apologized profusely, explained the situation, and swore that it would never, ever, ever happen again. They took one look my cupcakes, and then at me, and I was instantly forgiven. The Chinese have a saying that loosely translates to “A chicken leg will soften the jaw,” meaning, food will always help pave the way to getting what you want, and my cupcakes were a classic example of this.


The Super-Charging Aspect of Food

One of Robin Sharma’s lessons in his timeless anthology of leadership: Take the time to break bread with your clients. He understood. With this in mind, I continued to dig into the magic of food and found Linda Coles’ article on Linkedin. She brings up a great point. Part of the magic of food is the unexpectedness of the gift: nibbles while you’re having a beer, a glass of wine, while your alterations are completed (though I’ve never experienced this in Alberta), an individually wrapped chocolate on your hotel pillow from turndown service.. in fact, if you have ever stayed at the Doubletree before, you’ll know that their signature is to present each guest with a warm, chewy chocolate chip cookie upon arrival. This small act of service has been so well received that several other hotel chains have followed suit in the last few years. I can attest to this when one of my meeting attendees was a celiac. Though he told me not to worry about bringing him breakfast because he didn’t want to be a burden. I made him a completely separate casserole that was gluten-free. It looked just like the other one, but it was an individual portion gluten-free, just for him. He was really impressed!


So what can we learn from all of this? Here are some cool hacks on how we can harness the goodwill of food:

  • Bring breakfast to an early meeting (ask for dietary restrictions first)
  • Make an emotional deposit in a relationship with small acts of kindness such as a coffee, or a cookie
  • Bring (pretty) food when begging for forgiveness. Really don’t underestimate how far the beauty of a cupcake could go!
  • Supercharge the goodwill of showing up with lunch with the unexpectedness of it all.


To close the loop, here were some of the comments I got back during and after the meeting:

“Wow! That smells delicious!”
“You made that? What a treat!”
“Wow.. you really went above and beyond”
“If we had a full day meeting, are you going to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner? (which I think was code for…”I’m impressed you brought us food”)

I even got a call from one of my clients the day after: “Thank so you so much for bringing that delicious breakfast in. It was so good! Can I have the recipe? My kids will love it… and then continued to ask me her question.” Days after, every email, every meeting request, every question was answered with energy, enthusiasm, and record response time.



  • Chad

    Reply Reply May 26, 2016

    Great article Cat, fittingly I enjoyed reading it while eating a bowl of popcorn 🙂

    • Cat Lam

      Reply Reply May 29, 2016

      Nice, Chad! Did you share that popcorn? 🙂

  • Reb

    Reply Reply May 26, 2016

    Another wonderful posts. Thank you for sharing the overnight French toast casserole. Can’t wait to read your next post.

    • Cat Lam

      Reply Reply May 29, 2016

      My pleasure! Let me know how it goes, Reb!

  • Phrank

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    Great post Catherine. Some recent readings suggest that there is an inter-relationship between a number of human technologies including the use of fire, language, the creation of social bonds, the creation of stable families so that children had longer development periods, etc. etc. etc.

    The moral of the story is that sharing food is hardwired into our neural pathways as the basis for our social connections.

    • Cat Lam

      Reply Reply May 29, 2016

      Brilliant insights, Phrank. It’s no wonder I’ve remembered our conversation from 16 years ago!

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