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When there’s food, ‘more people show up’: Return-to-office plans spark catering boom

Companies eager to bring workers back to the office are feeding them more, which is good for beleaguered business-district lunch spots and caterers.

Breakfast is sometimes served these days at Cornerstone Research in Boston, and Gary Schmirer checked out the offerings.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Acaí bowls in the office kitchen. Department meetings with a side of French toast. Barbecue and beers on the way out.

As employees return to office towers in Boston, many are being welcomed with breakfasts, lunches, and happy hours that employers hope will make the trip in just a bit more bearable.

It’s breathed new life into the corporate catering sector, which has always relied on regular sales to white-collar companies during the work week. With many employers announcing plans to return by May, there’s hope that orders will continue to pour in, especially as employers — at least initially — play up the perks of working in-person.

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But since few companies plan to return five days a week, the people who feed office workers acknowledge returning to pre-pandemic sales levels will be difficult. And between COVID safety concerns and inflation, office food will likely look different and cost more.

Still, for now, the sudden boom in business is reassuring to restaurateurs like Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s. A longtime staple of office workers in Back Bay, his restaurant on Arlington Street has seen catering orders multiply five- or tenfold since the Omicron surge subsided.

“We have been booking up like crazy,” DiFillippo said.

According to data from ezCater, a Boston-based tech firm that connects companies with catering options, orders in the city were up 58 percent in February compared to January, with law firms leading the way. Legal offices are ordering nearly 20 percent more food than before the pandemic, whereas other industries are still below 2020 levels.

Bags were prepped for a catering order set to be delivered the following morning at Pauli’s in the North End.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

DiFillippo said the influx of orders at Davios is coming from insurance companies, hedge funds, and law firms that started bringing their workers back last month.

Tatte Bakery & Cafe moved forward with plans to expand its catering business in late 2020, even as most office employers were still working from home. The bakery hired more people, bought additional delivery vans, moved into a larger facility in South Boston — and waited.

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Now, calls for hundreds of breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and salads are pouring in. Tatte’s monthly catering sales have quadrupled since before the pandemic, in part because of the expansion, but also because biotech, tech, and law firms, and groups associated with MIT, are buying food again.

“Some days it is 40, 50, 60 orders, all very big,” said Tzurit Or, who started the bakery in 2007. “People are really itching to go back to normal.”

Of course, the world has changed a lot since the last time many of the companies ordered catering. For one thing, prices have soared.

At Pauli’s in the North End, owner Paul Barker said everything from paper products to meat costs him more now, due to supply chain disruptions and inflation. Sirloin steak tips, for example, have doubled in price to $11 or $12 per pound, so the prices customers see for sandwiches and salads have gone up, too.

Catering orders are also expensive because companies are still asking for precautions in how food is presented.

A wrap was prepared during lunch at Pauli’s, in the North End. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“It used to just be sandwiches on a platter, and now we are wrapping sandwiches and wrapping desserts,” Barker said, noting it requires more packaging and higher labor costs. “We do whatever the customer wants at this point.”

Tatte’s popular food platters, said Or, used to make up about 70 percent of the catering orders the company received, compared to boxed lunches and individually wrapped sandwiches. During the height of COVID, platters were a no-no. Today they’re back to perhaps 30 percent of orders, Or said, but she doesn’t think they’ll return to pre-pandemic levels.

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And as commuting patterns have shifted, so have catering trends.

Fridays used to be “killer” for Davio’s, but now they are “terrible,” said DiFillippo. “We’re starting to see three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”

So far, the most popular day to order corporate catering in Boston is Wednesday, according to ezCater, and breakfast catering is twice as popular in Boston than it is in the rest of the country. Because some companies likely feel pressure to do more to motivate their workforce to return, they are actually placing catering orders more often than they did pre-pandemic, said Diane Swint, chief demand officer at ezCater.

“Companies know that more people show up when food is provided,” she said.

Cornerstone Research, a financial consulting firm in Back Bay, asked employees to return to the office two to three days a week starting in March. And they offered a nice perk: During the first two weeks, the firm catered two meals every day, filling the kitchen with food from local spots like Redbones Barbecue, Flour Bakery + Cafe, and Crazy Dough’s Pizza.

Shondell Harris sampled the catered breakfast at Cornerstone Research in Boston. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Cornerstone has more than 100 employees based in Boston, with as many as 60 people in the office on any given day because of the hybrid work model.

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“We really just wanted to celebrate having people back in the office,” said Sally Woodhouse, a senior vice president at Cornerstone. “There’s no doubt that . . . some of the local restaurants in the Back Bay are going to see more business.”

Despite optimism in the catering industry, there’s still a layer of caution for restaurateurs who know how quickly the pandemic changed the course of their business. DiFillippo is unsure whether there will be enough sustained demand to reopen the Davio’s to-go sandwich shop, which has been closed since March 2020.

The lunch counter at Davio's, closed for two years. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

And caterers, like Pauli’s, who are finally making deliveries to Boston office towers again know firsthand that those towers aren’t as full as they used to be. Barker visits buildings with “floors and floors of vacant space.”

“Not everybody is going to come back,” he said. “So we are not seeing the levels that we used to.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.