Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Issue Three of Life & Thyme. To read the full story, buy Issue Three from our online shop or from our stockists.
With respect to the “perfect guestroom,” Emily Post writes in her 1922 classic handbook, Etiquette: In Society, In Business, and at Home, that, “Its perfection is the result of nothing more difficult than painstaking attention to detail.”
Seems simple enough.
Perhaps that instruction is what sent generations of homemaking Americans to task, setting forth their own staged variations of appropriate visitor accommodations; the most spotless of sofas, pristine of throw pillows, dust-free of dust ruffles, and immaculately polished end tables now exist in the guest rooms of the world.
It’s an austerity reserved for those without reservations. For special occasions, for the exceptional––the ever-elusive but always-illustrious house guest. Somewhere down the line we decided it is those people we entertain with the least frequency that deserve our most valued possessions, our best versions of ourselves.
I’m recalling the settings of my own friends’ and family’s guest rooms from the ground floor of the Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District, where we wait to be collected, microfied by the massive open space and observing with a neck-craning strain the stratified levels above––each a layer in the 72,000 square-foot cake that is the company’s physical footprint.
From those working spaces overhead, more than 900 employees pursue the company’s mission, which, according to their website, is to “connect people to unique travel experiences” the world over. But as much as I love a good adventure, we’re not here to make arrangements at one of the more than 1.5 million listings currently offered through the service.
We’re here for lunch.
Unlike most corporate and institutional food programs, which typically contract a third party caterer to handle their meal service, all of the kitchen staff here are honest-to-goodness Airbnb employees. While they aren’t the first to absolve the middleman, Airbnb’s program is a mature (if actively evolving) example of the model. And perhaps most unique is that here––at a company whose primary objectives are to promote hospitality and evolve the idea of hosting––is where it may be most appropriate.
After NDA-signing, badge-securing and adequate ogling of the expansive, sun-saturated lobby, we ascend via glass elevator to the main dining room (which, in a nod to the street address 888 Brannan Street, has been designated AteAteAte). Even as it empties of the last breakfast loiterers, the room has the distinct palpation of being the office’s beating pulse.
It doesn’t appear altogether different from many large dining halls at a wide angle. But when the details come into focus––the draught towers labeled with various house-made sodas, locally sourced craft beers and on-tap wines, the lack of vending machines and in fact, the absence of anything potentially waste-producing entirely––that’s when its individuality begins to shape the image.
Jake Wilkinson, Lead Service Coordinator, walks with vigor, energetically escorting us from the main dining hall to tour the smaller commissary kitchens situated on each floor. We’re doing our best to keep up, but it’s difficult to not be spellbound by the scope of the place. The office’s design is inspired by Airbnb’s product––meaning its “pads” around the world. Actual users’ homes serve as blueprints for satellite kitchens, common areas and meeting rooms––each intended to replicate real listings and locations from around the globe––right down to the furniture and the tschotskes on the wall. Conferences take place in imitation Airstream trailers and tents, and commissaries are labeled for geographical locales.
On this particular journey, our destination is Cairo. Here, we’re introduced to the company’s coffee authority, Sasha King, whose enviable enterprise is to ensure that each employee is adequately caffeinated. As she prepares pour-over cups and describes her sourcing process for the cold brew that can be found on any given tap, we survey the house-made snacks.
In addition to the three full-service meals, these kitchenette cafés provide ceaseless interim sustenance, with selections including sandwiches, fresh fruit, nuts and a variety of provisions. The pervading beef-jerky-and-granola-bars common in similar corporate environments are supplanted by clean, white serving platters, each supporting unwrapped Airbnb versions of those same snacks.
Groups of staffers steadily circulate; no one seems to miss the supermarket-style supplies. And who wants a dusty gas station meat stick when given the self-serve, cost-free option to enjoy Spicy Bourbon Sesame Beef Jerky anyway?
From a buffet that includes a Stone Fruit Ginger Coffee Cake, Tri-Doshic Chai Balls and the energy-esque Monterey Bay Bar, we sample a few items. Each is marked with a small sign indicating its ingredients, each one tastes truly representative of its parts––and with each appropriately-portioned bite, the word that comes to mind is satisfying.
In the interest of investigative journalism, we pocket a few rations and return to the road.
Back at AteAteAte, lunch is underway. Toby Hastings, owner of Free Spirit Farms, has made his Airbnb delivery and is halfway through his meal, diligently working at the task of feeding himself with the intent of a man in need of fuel. I’m doing my best to pick his brain without imposing on his brief respite. Hastings began deliveries around 4:30 a.m., so this, I suppose, could be more appropriately classified as dinner––though it’s hardly the end of his day. There are still stops to be made before he sets up at the farmers’ market, where he’ll vend until 10 p.m.
Hastings is a first generation farmer. And while so often in the food business I hear small, local farmers referred to as hippies, dismissed as wide-eyed idealists, he is a clear demonstration of what those closely connected know to be a far more accurate representation––he is a hustler. He is a passionate producer, and still a business man with a bottom line to consider. He and his contemporaries are the boots on the ground of the food battle that so many of us discuss at high-level, judge from afar, presume to understand and sympathize and support. We are the rally; he is the soldier.
Hastings himself is under no such delusions. He loves what he does, it’s clear. He appreciates the food community’s enthusiasm, and the interest from chefs. But he knows too, that without accounts like Airbnb, the farm-to-table crowds wouldn’t likely have any farmers’ markets.
“They don’t totally keep me in business, but they’re a really big chunk of it,” Hastings tells me, constructing his next bite from the vibrant palette of produce before him. “They really make an effort to buy from small farmers, and they’re really flexible. With their outside growth, they can be more reliable, and that helps me to be a better purveyor for them.”
He believes that organizations like Airbnb are the key to real sustainability and change. “School districts, hospitals, larger institutions––if a lot of them made the commitment to buy from small farms, it’d make a big difference. It’s starting to happen.”
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