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Welcome to Zucker Burg

Facebook is building its own Main Street to keep employees happy

August 10, 2012|Jessica Guynn

MENLO PARK, CALIF. — Mark Zuckerberg wired together nearly 1 billion people on the Web.

Now the ambitious young entrepreneur is building another kind of community, this one out of bricks and mortar.

Construction is booming along a bustling stretch that cuts through the center of Facebook Inc.'s campus in Silicon Valley, where staffers stroll or ride bikes and RipStiks between buildings.

Here the social networking giant is designing its own Main Street, putting in storefronts that will cater only to Facebook employees, whether they're in the mood for a straight-razor shave or nigiri rolls.

Call it Zucker Burg.

Unlike the days of Henry Ford and George Pullman, when industrialists built towns surrounding manufacturing operations, Facebook is bringing shops onto its sprawling private campus on the outskirts of Menlo Park where there are few commercial establishments other than fast-food joints.

The company is subsidizing the construction; handpicked merchants will offer discounted prices to employees.

"It is the 21st century company town," said Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo, managing director of foresight at investment research firm Discern Analytics.

Even as its dramatic meltdown as a new public company has quickly erased tens of billions of dollars in shareholder wealth, Facebook is pouring money into its effort to turn this clump of generic low-slung stucco buildings into a vibrant community that can lure Silicon Valley's brightest workers.

Facebook is breaking new ground in employee perks, something for which the valley is already famous.

Early pioneers such as Hewlett-Packard Co. gave gifts to newlyweds and new parents, hosted annual picnics and showered staffers with free snacks and coffee. The practice got a big boost in the 1980s when Steve Jobs began offering his Macintosh team at Apple Inc. extras such as unlimited fresh orange juice and twice-weekly massages.

High-tech superpowers such as Google Inc. and Facebook are engaged in an escalating race to pamper employees with free food and luxuries such as complimentary laundry and dry-cleaning services.

But Facebook had to come up with new carrots when it moved its headquarters a few months ago to a suburban outpost at the edge of tidal mud flats and salt marshes cut off from the rest of Menlo Park by a six-lane highway.

It's so isolated that when former tenant Sun Microsystems occupied it, the campus was nicknamed "Sun Quentin."

Facebook won't say how much it has spent on the site, which accommodates about 2,000 employees and is not open to the public.

UC Berkeley architecture professor Margaret Crawford said the remote location put Facebook at a definite disadvantage. "So bringing in outside merchants in a Main Street format is actually an inventive idea," she said.

Facebook hopes to make employees who were accustomed to the lively street life near its old digs in Palo Alto feel as if they are in the middle of everything -- not far from it.

The inspiration may have come from perks pioneers such as SAS in Cary, N.C. The privately held high-tech company known for coddling its employees has merchants who offer services such as shoe repair, alterations, tax preparation, car detailing, racquet stringing and jewelry and watch repair. Staffers can forget about their errands and focus on cranking out code and creativity.

Facebook has to give employees something more to like if it wants to catch the best and brightest, who may be drawn to new opportunities at up-and-comers such as Pinterest. Facebook has lost some of its sheen since its bungled initial public offering in May, which saw its stock price and market value nose-dive.

"It's just a great perk: 'My company has created a little city for me,' " said Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, coauthor of "The Progress Principle," who studies how everyday life inside organizations can influence people and their performance.

"It makes employees feel valued, and that means they are more likely to be creative and productive," she said.

Facebook paved over a central artery of the campus, which Sun Microsystems had filled with manicured greenery, and sprinkled it with gourmet eateries dishing up free grub. It operates two gourmet cafes and dispatches food carts around the complex so hungry employees never have to roam far.

It has smaller joints too, such as Lightning Bolt's Smoke House, which grills pork, ribs and chicken every morning on an open flame. Big Tony's pizzeria serves up New York-style slices. The burritos and nachos at Teddy's Nacho Royale are made to order. Facebook is about to open a burger shack that some quickly dubbed Zuckerberger's. A noodle bar and a sweet shop stocked with frozen yogurt, candy and pastries are also in the works.

"Our general approach is to offer things that are essential to employees' daily routine so they can do their best work and not be distracted by having to leave campus," said Everett Katigbak, Facebook's environmental design lead.

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