Terrible tales from the company fridge

Call it the "Grinch who stole lunch" office phenomenon.

You happily prepare a tasty lunch the night before, packaging up a perfectly proportioned peanut butter-and-strawberry-jam sandwich, a juicy apple, and a chocolate pudding cup. Arriving at the office the next day, you put your lunch bag into the shared company refrigerator in the break room. At noon, you open the refrigerator and ... your lunch is missing.

Then there's the "how green grows my refrigerator" experience.

At work, you open the refrigerator door and spy a plastic container in which something resembling a laboratory experiment gone wrong is growing. (Warning: Do not lift the lid. The entire office will be overcome by the stench.)

Such experiences are commonplace at workplace fridges across the country.

Take the office refrigerator at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. More than 25 people typically share it, says Karen Estes, the aquarium's graphic designer.

Repeated problems prompted management to post a sign on the door. It reads: "HERE ARE THE RULES: If it belongs to you, put your name on it. If you get it out, put it up. If you use it, refill it. If you make it dirty, clean it up. If you open it, close it."

Unfortunately, Ms. Estes says, "many folks skip the first rule, so unlabeled foods are forgotten and no one knows the owner." She suspects that "everyone forgets what they put in there so often that they wouldn't even know if something was gone. They'd probably think they already ate it."

Estes often leaves her own lunch in the refrigerator - that is, if she can find enough space. "The trick is trying to find a place to put it - balancing yours on somebody else's without all of it cascading out when the door opens takes much skill."

To counter that crowded state, the aquarium issued a memo, which reads, in part: "We are now breeding new forms of bacteria that not even our research scientists can identify. Please take this opportunity to stop by the fridge, renew your relationship with your old food items, and assess your relationship accordingly."

The guidelines are more direct at BookSense.com in Tarrytown, N.Y., where 40 to 50 employees share a single fridge. The staff must obey "the directive to remove things from the refrigerator when it's cleaning time, under threat of items being discarded," says creative director Linda Castellitto. (Recently, a Post-It note appeared on the company refrigerator: "Attention! The ice-cube maker is making green ice. You have been warned.")

Ms. Castellitto recalls when she worked at a weekly news magazine in New York where employees who labored into the night were treated to food. "There was one fellow who was notorious for going into the fridge and surreptitiously eating other people's leftovers," she says.

Castellitto says when she confronted her co-worker, the hungry employee would retort: "Just because you ate the other half of it last night and put your name on the box doesn't mean it's yours! The company paid for it!"

The result, she says was "much aggravation and head-shaking ... as well as attempts to disguise said leftovers, plus strategy sessions about how best to use the vegetable bin as a hiding place."

At Community Health Partnership of Santa Clara County, in California, director of programs Julie Sherman Berkeley shares a refrigerator with 15 other employees. Their policy: "just to put your food in the fridge and trust that it would be there when you wanted it."

When she was working at a previous company, however, Ms. Berkeley "threw out someone's bread rolls that looked old to me but apparently were brand new. [The food's owner] wrote an e-mail about 'where are my rolls?' and I went down to the kitchen and fished them out of the garbage can - they were close to the top - and put them back in. I never told her where they disappeared to."

"The weirdest experience that I ever had was with a guy we called the Leftovers King," recalls an operations manager for a computer company who requested that he be identified only as Peter.

"The King would save these endless little cartons of Chinese food from lunch, and then we'd end up with a cluttered refrigerator filled with these little white paper cartons. Some of them had nothing but a few grains of rice, but he wouldn't throw them out," he says.

After employees began to complain about the smell, Peter says he would sneak into the break room early in the morning or after work and toss them out. "The Leftovers King never noticed ... he'd just eventually deposit more of his little cartons."

Tired of being solely responsible for doing battle with the King, Peter instigated a company policy: The refrigerator is emptied and cleaned on the last Friday afternoon of every month.

Does it help? "I still have to toss out endless paper bags that are filled with rotting food," he says. "I'm a patient kind of a guy. But that monthly cleaning mess doesn't exactly bring out my inner Martha Stewart."

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