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Startups connect demand to supply

Paloma Sierra of El Pelon delivered Wednesday lunch, arranged by Phoodeez, to e-mail analytics firm Litmus.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Paloma Sierra of El Pelon delivered Wednesday lunch, arranged by Phoodeez, to e-mail analytics firm Litmus.

When Lisa Jones is in charge of lunch for Boston advertising firm Nexage, she skips the debate between Thai food or Italian, and she doesn’t have to repeat every last dietary restriction or fussy eating habit of the company’s 70 employees to some takeout joint.

Instead, she orders online from Phoodeez, an online catering service founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that handles just about every aspect of a client’s meal plan. It can supply a smorgasbord of cuisines, keeps track of gluten-free dishes and other dietary needs, and plans a different menu for the office every week.

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One small detail: The company doesn’t actually make or deliver the food.

Phoodeez is among the new crop of digital middlemen, technology startups that facilitate transactions between other businesses, or independent contractors, and consumers. The best-known is Uber, the popular car service that helps people book rides from private drivers but doesn’t provide them.

But just about any common service, from takeout food to dog walking, now has some whiz-kid-like startup devising a more efficient way to either fetch it for you or find a hungry contractor willing to do the dirty work — yes, even your laundry.

“We’re going to see a lot more of these businesses that come up with new ways of brokering services,” said Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Providence. “Anything that takes friction out of the way we get products and services can add value, and, often, taking the friction out is just an information business that does a better job of matching supply with demand.”

Drizly, for example, is an alcohol delivery service that doesn’t make, sell, or even really deliver booze. The Boston startup has a website and mobile app that provide an easy way to order adult beverages that will arrive on your doorstep in under an hour, but it’s the neighborhood liquor store that supplies and transports the goods. Retailers pay monthly license fees to be part of the Drizly network, and the company has raised $4.8 million in venture funding this year.

Waltham-based Care.com isn’t in the business of baby-sitting, dog-walking, or in-home nursing, but its online marketplace connects providers of those services with people who need them. The company collects membership fees from care providers and consumers. It raised $91 million in an initial public stock offering in January.

And then there’s Alfred — as in Batman’s butler — which takes care of chores such as cleaning your apartment, picking up groceries, and filling your allergy prescription at the nearest pharmacy. The student startup was the winner of this year’s Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. Unlike a real butler, however, Alfred won’t actually perform any of these tasks, but rather send a contractor to do the job.

The idea for companies to broker the sale of services they don’t provide isn’t new. Large tech firms such as Priceline and Kayak have done it for years in the hospitality and travel industries. But Phoodeez, Uber, and others are stepping into the middle of purchases people are still accustomed to making directly — on everyday things such as a car ride, a bottle of wine, or lunch for the office.

Launched in 2012, Phoodeez is the creation of local restaurateur Sal Lupoli, founder of the Sal’s Pizza chain, and Christine Marcus, former deputy chief financial officer at the US Department of Energy. The pair met as classmates at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where they noticed two things: The school hosted a vast number of catered events, and it seemed to offer the same boring food on rotation.

It would be great, they concluded, if there were an easy way to serve a wider variety of food, from a local restaurant that specializes in a particular style: burritos from the MexiCali Burrito Cabana, falafel and tabbouleh from Aceituna Cafe, and vegetarian options from Clover — all at the same event. Phoodeez offers one-stop ordering from multiple sources, and it has about three dozen restaurants in Boston and Cambridge in its offerings.

Lupoli and Marcus also figured companies would pay them to serve as regular meal planners for corporate luncheons.

Phoodeez can surprise workers with different foods every week, or even every day, within a company’s budgetary and dietary parameters. Restaurants are responsible for preparing and delivering their own dishes.

“Your admin’s time is valuable, so why pay them to order lunch?” Marcus said.

On top of what Nexage and other companies pay Phoodeez to manage their catering, restaurants pay monthly fees for the extra business Phoodeez brings in.

In addition, Phoodeez receives volume discounts on restaurant food but can charge regular menu prices on its website, enabling the company to collect on every dish.

Even for a restaurant that already has a robust catering business, such as MexiCali Burrito in Kendall Square, working with Phoodeez has proven worthwhile, owner Eric Quadrino said.

“They’ve helped us break into new markets outside of Cambridge and increased the size per order,” Quadrino said. “We would do corporate lunches and small student gatherings at MIT, but Phoodeez does a lot of large events, and those are hard to break into.”

Phoodeez also is expanding to new markets, adding four restaurants in Washington, D.C., last year and planning to reach other cities in the future. The catering company that doesn’t cook believes serving convenience is enough to succeed all over the country.

“Companies and restaurants are happy to pay us because they were paying for these services anyway,” Lupoli said. “Now they just have to go to one place.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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