In 1999, A Chef Became The 56th Employee At A Tiny Startup Called "Google"… And YES He Received Pre-IPO Stock Options…

By on February 14, 2024 in ArticlesEntertainment

From the dawn of its existence, the tech industry has been one of the best ways for someone to get really, really rich, really, really fast. In the last few years alone, thousands of tech people have become multi-millionaires and even multi-billionaires overnight thanks to the sale or IPO of a hot new tech startup.

Typically, the people who experience these incredible windfalls of wealth are either the founder of the company or a very select group of extremely early employees. Furthermore, anyone who is lucky enough to be granted a valuable early chunk of pre-IPO shares generally brings a set of highly coveted technical skills that are crucial in making the startup successful. I'm talking about developers, designers, coders, analysts even mathematicians and statisticians. Despite being fairly vital to any startup, employees who work in departments like marketing, public relations, legal, or even human resources are rarely showered with enough stock options to become rich for life when the jackpot hits.

But what about the guy who prepares the CEO's favorite organic spinach and cheese omelet every morning? Is he vital enough to earn a potentially life-changing grant of equity? Back in 1999, the founders of a little-known search engine with a funny-sounding name definitely thought so. This is the story of Charlie Ayers, A.K.A. Google employee #56. A.K.A. the luckiest chef ever to flip a spatula.

(Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Charlie Ayers's food prep career began in New Jersey, working for the Hilton Hotel company. He then attended culinary school in Rhode Island before getting hired at a middle-of-the-road restaurant preparing basic pastas, steaks, chicken specials, etc. Next, Charlie moved on to a series of fancier restaurants in the Boston area. Charlie worked for a time managing the prepared foods section of a Whole Foods and even worked as a private chef for a few wealthy families.

A lifelong music lover, in the mid-1990s, Charlie landed somewhat of a dream job preparing meals backstage at music festivals. Through this gig, Charlie was eventually hired away to be the private exclusive chef for some very successful music groups that couldn't live without his tasty meals while touring the world. One of those bands, The Grateful Dead, became a regular client. So regular, that Charlie moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to the band all year round.

Life was pretty good for Chef Charlie. He was getting paid a pretty decent living to cook meals for rock stars—a chef's dream job. So you can understand the shock and confusion his friends and family felt when Charlie announced he was giving it all up. What could possibly replace the rock star chef's dream life? Was he hired away to run the kitchen at a fancy California restaurant? Nope. Did a Silicon Valley billionaire hire him to be his private chef in a huge mansion? Nope. Did a pair of 26-year-old engineers from Stanford steal him away to work at their then-unknown search engine with a silly-sounding name? Yup.

Ignoring the advice and protestations of his friends and family, in 1999, Charlie Ayers gave up a relatively stable life touring with rock stars to become the corporate chef for a tiny startup called Google.

He wasn't just handed the job. Charlie had to win the right to take this extremely risky startup job in a cook-off! At the end of the cook-off, Google's 40 employees voted, and Charlie was the winner. Winning this cook-off would eventually make Charlie a multi-multi-millionaire.

Charlie was Google employee #56. Like many very early employees at a tech firm, Charlie was given a grant of options earned over several years. He eventually earned the right to 40,000 shares. That probably seems amazing in retrospect, but keep in mind that in the year Charlie was hired, Google brought in just $220,000 in total revenues. You can understand why Charlie probably didn't think much of this imaginary paper "equity" and instead concentrated on delivering high-quality organic food to Google's diverse group of workers from around the world.

(Photo by MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

By 2000, Google's revenue had ballooned to more than $19 million. By 2001, revenues had jumped to $85 million, and in 2002, revenue topped $430 million. In 2003, Google earned $1.5 billion. In 2004, the year Google went public, Larry Page and Sergey Brin's tiny search engine with a goofy name took in $3.2 billion worth of revenue.

As Google grew, early employees like Charlie probably started contacting their accountants to find out more info about these so-called "stock options." What were they worth? How could they be sold? First, the company had to go public.

Google's IPO occurred on August 19, 2004. At the end of its first day as a public company, Google's stock price sat at $100. That gave the company a market cap of $23 billion. On that fateful day, roughly 900 employees became millionaires. One of those 900 newly-minted millionaires was Charlie Ayers. His 40,000 shares were worth exactly $4 million on paper.

It's impossible to know how many shares of Google Charlie has sold to date. When he was profiled by MSNBC in 2007, he had not sold a single share. At that point his stake was worth $26 million.

Just for fun, let's assume Charlie never sold a single share. Google's stock has split three times. The first stock split in 2014 was 2:1, which means 40,000 shares became 80,000. The stock split again in April 2015, but it was more of a restructuring and was done at a multiple of 1.00027. So, 80,000 shares stayed roughly the same. In July 2022, Google split 20:1, turning 80,000 shares into 1.6 million shares. As I type this article, Google's stock price is $147. Just for fun, let's pretend Charlie diamond-hands his original 40,000 options from 2005 to the present. Today, his 1.6 million shares would be worth…

$235 million

Charlie left Google in 2006. By that point, his kitchen had grown from a one-man operation to a team of 135 chefs and assistants. He had gone from preparing around 50 meals a day to more than 4,000. With tens of millions of dollars worth of Google stock, Charlie decided it was time to finally embark on his dream of opening his very own restaurant. That restaurant was "Calafia Café & Market." Located in Palo Alto, Calafia Café & Market operated for nine years before closing in August 2018. Along the way, Charlie also released a cookbook called "Food 2.0: Secrets From The Chef Who Fed Google." Today, the main cafeteria at Google's Mountain View world headquarters is still called "Charlie's Cafe."

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