Like so many service industries, corporate catering was decimated by the pandemic shutdown, laying off hundreds as customers closed up shop and dispatched workers to home offices far and wide.
Now, with lockdowns easing and employers coaxing workers back to the office, the providers are betting their own recovery on convincing companies that a simple catered boxed lunch is not just a frill, but a necessary safety measure. Their pitch: The traditional lunch hour, when employees queue in crowded lines at cramped eateries, or innumerable delivery drivers drop off takeout orders, has too many risks of exposure to the coronavirus.
“The culture of food safety has changed, much like traveling changed in the wake of 9/11,” said Diane Swint, the head of marketplace at ezCater the Boston-based office catering site, which laid off nearly half its workforce in the early weeks of the pandemic. “Now, I think lunch is going to be one of those things you have to think about. It’s not a perk; it’s something you have to provide.”
EzCater is among the so-called food-at-work providers that are pursuing new strategies to feed the first wave of returning workers. The company expanded a service called Relish that lets employees of its corporate clients pick out meals from area restaurants in advance, as long as a week ahead.
The Boston-based fast-casual chain B.Good has been receiving a much needed stream of orders through ezCater’s Relish service, allowing the restaurant to slowly reopen its downtown Boston locations.
“The industry has been decimated,” said B.Good’s chief marketing officer, Hadrien Delande. He said that while the catering orders overall have been smaller, he’s finding companies see the value in offering boxed meals to keep their staffers safe. “We’ve been trying to capitalize on that,” he said.
One client using the Relish service is Evelo, a biotech company in Cambridge where a communal lunch was a big part of workplace culture prior to the pandemic, with fully-catered meals once a week for all employees and bins of bulk snacks scattered around the workspace.
Now, with only about 40 employees working at Evelo labs these days, the company is subsidizing meals five days a week through the Relish service.
“I think it’s incredibly appreciated,” said Evelo spokeswoman Jessica Cotrone. “In this COVID world we all have a million things happening all at once. One less thing to worry about is helpful.”
Fooda, another food-at-work provider, has seen its sales creep back up as clients become more willing to increase spending on catered lunches.
“Now that food-at-work is more of a safety concern, the budget for it is sort of a different conversation than it was before,” said Stafford McKay, Fooda’s vice president of marketing. “Companies no longer have to worry about travel per diems and expensed meals when folks are on the road. It’s just a little bit of moving funds to a different direction.”
In some cases, Fooda is bringing in restaurant workers to serve meals in office cafeterias that once had their own servers, since there are still not yet enough employees at work to justify bringing back a full kitchen staff. And, the list of clients opting to use the service, McKay said, has expanded beyond traditional customers where free lunch was long an office perk.
“It’s expanding into manufacturing, warehouse distribution centers, areas where you have employees who may not have been within the wheelhouse offering a perk like this before,” McKay said.
LeanBox, which contracts with companies to provide refrigerators stocked with prepackaged meals and snacks, is offering touchless ordering as as a safer way for clients to manage in-office meals. Workers can order through an app that will then unlock the fridge.
“Internal unattended [food service] is going to be a big trend. How can someone get food without ever having to interact with someone?” said LeanBox chief executive Shea Coakley. “We’re getting inbound leads like we’ve never gotten before, and from larger companies.”
Another company trying to seize the touchless moment is Bevi, whose seltzer machines are ubiquitous in many of the city’s startup offices. It recently unveiled a touchless machine that also uses an app to operate, and has been promoting its service to the hotel industry as a way improve safety.
The pandemic has forced caterers to rethink their business in other ways, too. For example, the buffet-style meal, a convenience for the client and caterer alike, remains off-limits, as the communal platter just isn’t a safe way to serve food right now. But the process of boxing up individual meals comes at a high cost.
“Profit margins are already low, and when you add additional packaging and then COVID safety materials, and even hiring a translator so that they team understands what’s going on, it become a much more expensive operation,” said Cassandria Campbell, founding partner of Dorchester-based caterer Fresh Food Generation.
Still, with a steady stream of orders coming in from the likes of State Street Corp. and Dimock Community Health Complex, Campbell has been able to adapt, and she’s now thinking of expanding the business beyond catering. She’s planning to offer home delivered prepackaged meals this month and is searching for new work space for a possible physical retail storefront.
“We made a decision to start looking for retail space, which is crazy during a pandemic, but it’s our only clear shot to continue as a business,” Campbell said. “It’s really about being able to offer our product direct to customers. At the end of the day, behind the business were people who really loved our food.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.