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Fridge Wars

Employees duking it out in the kitchen? Stop the madness!

Dirty dishes in the sink. Long lines at the microwave. If you have employees, you've seen the brutality and the madness. With less money in our wallets and trendy diets dictating our menus, people have been returning to the company lunchroom-meaning the refrigerator can get pretty crowded, not to mention confusing. Steve Winter, 48, president at PR firm Brotman Winter Fried Communications in Falls Church, Virginia, learned that the hard way.

"I've been on Atkins since June and have commandeered one of the refrigerator bins," says Winter. But the memo on that may not have reached everybody, because one day, Winter found a steak chilling in his bin. Believing it was for him-an apparent leftover from a client's party-he devoured it. That day, "lunch was wonderful," says Winter, who soon encountered a crestfallen and hungry employee. To make good, Winter gave his employee a $100 gift certificate to a restaurant.

Entrepreneurs might be surprised at how sacred the karma of the kitchen is. Kristin Brewe, an employee at the San Francisco online insurance company, Esurance Inc., reports co-workers being so "sick of having their stuff gobbled [that] many have signs on items, some with vague threats and dire warnings about the exclusivity of certain foods." She reflects on the "terrible period when no one really knew how long to cook microwave popcorn, resulting in some tragic conflagrations in said microwave."

"I probably get more responses when I write about the company kitchen than anything else," says Lydia Ramsey, a consultant in Savannah, Georgia, a business etiquette columnist for Savannah Morning News and author of Manners That Sell: Adding the Polish That Builds Profits (Longfellow Press). To make the office kitchen a recipe for success, Ramsey suggests two key strategies:

1. Post rules in the kitchen. Sure, everybody should have learned how to clean up after themselves by now, "but, unfortunately, people need to be reminded," says Ramsey.

2. Assign kitchen duties to one person. Or rotate kitchen duties each week. "That doesn't mean they do a total cleanup, but they can monitor everything," says Ramsey.

And remember-this issue isn't just about overseeing a kitchen, but also looking out for the welfare of your employees. Anybody who doubts that should take a cue from an employee at a Washington, DC, law firm who recently fired off an emotional, if tongue-in-cheek, e-mail to his peers the day a colleague found his lunch missing: "Taken from the eighth floor fridge was more than just a sandwich and some Fritos. Taken was the essence of an individual."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the April 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Fridge Wars.

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