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Office potlucks - please explain to an ignorant Brit

I see a fair number of posts mentioning 'office potlucks' - now I know what a potuck is (I think - eveyone brings along whaever they want to share?) - but in an office? How does that work? Are these big offices? (I work in an office of 200 people).
Does EVERYONE take part? What happens about health and safety rules? (assuming you have these in the US like we do in the UK). I see mention of 'no fridge' - where do people store the food? Is hot food provided? How? Is food just laid out somewhere at a certain time?
Sorry about all the questions - it just sounds a fun thing to do, but I can't imagine anything other than chaos, food poisoning and mess.

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  1. I used to work in an office of about 60 people and we had a holiday potluck every year. Everyone that attended participated in one way or another - if you didn't want to bring food, you could bring sodas, napkins, paper plates, etc. We did have a full kitchen with a fridge and oven so we didn't have all of the same issues you describe above. Some people brought chips and salsa or a cheese platter. Others went all out and made elaborate desserts, fancy salads, lasagne etc. There were a lot of crock pot dishes if I remember - chili, meatballs in sauce . . . that kind of thing. I'm assuming these ladies plugged their crock pots in when they got to work and the stuff cooked up until lunchtime. They needed no fridge or stove.

    All the dishes were put out on the conference room table and everybody dug in.

    Regarding cleanliness and food poisoning, I always tried to be one of the first to eat. If you waited until the end, the food was really messy and picked over. I really was never a fan of pot luck or any kind of buffet type deal for that matter. You aren't missing anything.

    1. We have fridges on every floor of our office and also microwaves, but no ovens. Hot food is usually just microwaved or sometimes people bring a hot pot or slow cooker to keep the food warm in, just plug it in and leave it. As it's usually over a pretty short period of time (lunch, for example), food safety isn't usually an issue. Not to mention, most people aren't busting out some elaborate dish. Beans and weiners in a crockpot heated up aren't really much of a food safety issue. Cold salads are kept in the fridge til served and it's not like they're sitting out in hot sunlight for 2 hours before people eat them. People tend to arrive all at once, eat right away and then the food is gone.

      I've never worked in an office where they didn't have a fridge and/or microwave and did a potluck, I can't see how that would work.

      Where I work, the office is very big and on several floors. At holidays they do potlucks by floor but most people just bring in stuff that doesn't need heat or cold, like cookies or cakes or potato chips or something.

      1. I despise office potlucks! I work in an office of only about 10-12 people and they love to throw potlucks for just about any reason. Which would be fine if any of them could cook. We have two girls who are from India and vegetarian and their food is the only food I'll eat (wonderful!). The rest of them seem to have an aversion to anything with taste. Nothing spicy, no garlic, no onions. What's left? I stopped working at that office on Fridays just to avoid the potlucks.

        1. Most of the details have been covered here by other posters, and I have to agree that while most dishes brought to office potlucks are fairly uninspired, I have gotten a few good recipes from them.

          I am curious though, are you saying there are no food related affairs in British offices? What do you do for holidays and birthdays,etc...?

          2 Replies
          1. re: dragonchowmein

            If it is somone's birthday they can bring in cakes and cookies, sometimes chocolates and fruit too. It is placed by their desk and an email sent out inviting eveyone to help themselves. (this means that on most days there is cake somewhere in the building!).
            Sometimes 'management' will lay on a catered cold buffet to celebrate a business success.
            I'm not sure what you mean by 'holidays'. Like Christmas? Nothing, is the simple answer.

            1. re: Peg

              Every once in a while, we get emails from our home office in Britain advising that there are "samosas in the kitchen" in honour of some event. Sadly, not in OUR kitchen...

              In this office and the one where I used to work, we'd do potlucks whenever someone got the energy to organize one and usually for a minor holiday like Halloween or Cinco de Mayo. Or just for the sheer heck of it, holidays are just an excuse or allow for a theme. One time we did a chili cookoff, which works well because everyone brings in their chili in slow cookers.

          2. You're not ignorant, just lucky so far.

            I hate office potlucks. I refuse to bring anything so therefore I don't attend, as I didn't contribute, with the result that I'm seen as not a "team player".

            I know some people love these contrived social events and opportunity to show off their culinary skills (or lack thereof) but I loathe and avoid them. On the rare occasion when I decide I must participate, I'll buy my contribution -- samosas or a salad deli item.

            And besides my disdain of the whole concept, I have the same concerns as you regarding cleanliness, propery food preparation, health and safety, etc.

            11 Replies
            1. re: JamieK

              I work in an office of ~100 people. Our annual Thanksgiving "pot luck" is fabulous. The turkey/ham, mashed potatoes and gravy are brought in by a catering firm, along with the plates, plasticware, etc. Others sign up to bring a dish (or not, there is no obligation). We have some really fabulous cooks and I look forward to it every year. I usually pick up at least one great new recipe. There is always WAY too much food, but there are very few "clunkers" on the table. It's almost a competition to see who can bring the dish that "wows" the crowd.

              We are blessed to have 4 fridges and many microwaves, toaster ovens, etc. We do a giant clean out/clean up the week before, to make sure everything is ready to receive the bounty of great food.

              I have to miss it this year, because I'll be away. :-(

              1. re: JamieK

                And besides my disdain of the whole concept, I have the same concerns as you regarding cleanliness, propery food preparation, health and safety, etc.
                ~~~~~
                Jamie, I can understand your disdain of the whole concept, but with your concerns regarding cleanliness, et al.... take it you don't go to family picnics, or gather with friends and grill where lots of people bring food to eat? Wouldn't you have the same concerns regarding proper food preparation, storage, health and safety? Seems to be limiting of what can be a fun time.

                Like onrushpam below, I've worked at several companies where an annual T'giving potluck would be done. The company would provide several turkeys, and other items would be brought in by employees, often in crockpots or slow cookers (baked beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, etc.) Others would contribute $ to purchasing the paper goods, and others would bring various desserts - brownies, cookies, pies, etc.

                However...this was the only potluck done - I would be thoroughly sick and tired of them if they happened once a month and probably wouldn't participate myself if they were that often. Once a year? I did participate, and I enjoyed them. You got to see people in your company you didn't often socialize with, and sometimes try new foods.

                1. re: JamieK

                  You're not seen as a "team player" because your "disdain" of the concept is (correctly, IMHO) perceived as disdain for your co-workers: their food isn't good enough for you, therefore *they* aren't good enough for you. If you think their food is unsanitary, on some level you're thinking they are unsanitary.

                  If you don't want to send that message, then go to the damn potluck (unless they're unreasonably frequent). If you really can't bear the thought of sharing in their food and you're concerned about cleanliness (unwarrented, IMHO), then eat a big breakfast, bring something you like, serve yourself first and after you've eaten that, put a few dabs of the other stuff on your plate and push it around and smile and make small talk. That's how civilized people act when invited to share a meal.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Actually, I really am just not a team player.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Well said, Ruth. My wife is that way but I've always enjoyed potlucks; never worried about getting sick and never knew anybody who did get sick.

                      1. re: mucho gordo

                        Mr. Dornfelder has happily enjoyed the three potlucks he's attended, for different sites of the same business, during the last year. While he was one of the two lead event specialists at his local Sam's Club, he delved into the fare that he and his fellow ESs (event specialists) brouight from home. Nor did he have any reason by be concerned in regards to food safety practices on the part of his staff: After all, when your job in this still-difficult economy depends significantly on your knowledge of and due diligence with food safety, the notion of passing along a foodborne illness to your co-workers is pretty much unthinkable.

                        The same, happily, is also true at his office. Again, since quite a few of his new team members are former ESs who are extremely familiar with basic tenets of food safety, he's delved into the two potlucks at this site. Earlier this month, the group held a Super Bowl lunch, for which everyone brought an item (I've forgotten offhand what my better half took).

                        Guess what? A fine time was had by all at all three bashes, with more than enough fare for folks to enjoy. And did I mention that about 85% of the goodies were pretty darned tasty? :D

                        All I want to say is that it's wholly possible for a potluck to be a terrific work lunch. Just 1) keep the events infrequent so that they're happily anticipated by staffers, 2) ask participants -- tactfully, of course -- to use basic food-safety know-how in preparing their entrees, 3) keep said entrees at safe temperatures whenever they're not being eaten and 4) put any uneaten food in the fridge after two hours.

                        (A side note: Cheese cubes left out on the potluck table for seven hours look really gross -- I've seen that sight often. :p)

                        1. re: Dornfelder

                          Most people are as clean as we are and don't want to get sick either. Potlucks are a great way to gain exposure to various ethnic dishes one would not ordinarily experience.

                          1. re: mucho gordo

                            That's terrific to find that so many potlucks offer such a variety of fare. As someone who's always embraced new and distinctive since childhood -- I was a big-time fan of abalone steaks and oysters on the half shell by the time I started third grade :D -- I'm constantly excited about checking out cuisines from different cultures. On my honeymoon 25 years ago this month, I fell in love with sushi ... and that was well ahead of the curve regarding sushi's popularity in SoCal.

                            Ironically, however, the office potlucks that caused eight bouts of food poisoning -- most mild, but two relatively serious -- were events with dishes that'd make Sandra Lee's recipes seem exotic.

                            What I also made sure to point out was that the main potluck organizer used these gatherings as her way of getting rid of mildering leftovers -- some three weeks old or older -- from her refrigerator. Don't forget, mucho, that it was her month-old shrimp-pasta salad with a mayo-based dressing that caused my supervisor to get mighty sick.

                            Yes, this is an extreme example. But after getting nailed so often by foodborne illnesses in such a short time, I'll plan to make the freshest entee for my next potluck -- and, in the process, make sure to follow every food-safety measure possible, including 15 seconds of hand washing prior to eating. :-)

                            1. re: Dornfelder

                              Your example isn't so extreme. A similar point could be made for any restaurant one eats at. I guess, judging from the way most people just 'dug in', nobody gave that possibility a thought. I don't think anyone would want to learn that their dish caused sickness and be humiliated in front of their coworkers.

                              1. re: mucho gordo

                                Well,mucho -- as I'm sure you probably know already -- symnptoms of food poisoning almost never kick in for at least 12 hours after food is ingested. (In a few rare cases, they can start as little as six hours afterward.) That's likely one major reason why potluck conhtributors don't hear about their issues.

                                Too, most folks probably possess better people skills than to call out a co-worker who brought in a tainted dish; they might be likelier to talk with the contributor, privately and gently, and ask what happened and how that dish made them feel.

                                From my side of things, I'd be horrified to know if I gave anyone any health issues from a homemade entree. I'd apologize in a big way to anyone sickened, and find a way possible to do a make-right. Thankfully, because I'm pretty darned conscientious about using super-fresh ingredients I'd just purchased for a potluck dish -- and, of course, use freshly cleaned cooking tools and surfaces, avoid cross-contamination completely, wash my hands with warm-to-hot water frequently and keep cold foods colder than 40 degrees and hot foods hotter than 140 -- that's never happened.

                                Speaking of potlucks: If anyone would like my Tex-Mex corn salad entree, please don't hesitate to say so. A hit every place I take it, it's uber-easy to make, and its its array of bright colors from the corn, red and green peppers, red onion, and cilantro makes it so pretty.

                                P.S. Because a good number of folks unfortunately aren't that careful about washing their hands before eating, restaurants choosing NOT to have issues with their local environmental health departments take big measures to keep their establishments as bug-proof as possible. Indeed, that's why three-tub sinks (washing/sanitizing/rinsing)are required in California dining establishments, as is a list of other items and procedures too long to post here. Who wants to own a dining spot and get a health inspector at your door, telling you that a patron at your business phoned because he or she got sick from your food -- and possibly have your business shut down for some time as a result of that complaint? :o

                                P.P.S. This long-time fan of ethnic fare was introduced to chilaquiles at age 10. Any time I can find 'em on a menu, I'll order 'em with a big smile. Yum. :D

                                1. re: Dornfelder

                                  While I've had things that I would classify as "in and out", I don't recall ever having major food poisoning. I also believe people have more sense than to call out a coworker but I do think that the guilty person would realize what happened from overhearing others talk about it.
                                  It's through potlucks that I've acquired a taste for Philippino foods.