Happy meals for happier workers
The free-food culture of the new tech economy seeds successful Boston catering startups.
SOMETIMES THERE IS such a thing as a free lunch.
At TripAdvisor’s offices in Needham, staffers are regularly treated to chef-made meals, kombucha tastings, and afternoon caffeine boosts via pop-up cold-brew coffee bars. At the Berkshire Group real estate firm downtown, team members can select from pre-made heat-and-eat meals from a fully stocked fridge or get sparkling fruit drinks from a high-tech water cooler. They’re just a small sampling of the companies across the city that have begun to see meal programs as an essential part of their corporate culture.
Call it the Google cafeteria effect. The Silicon Valley-based search engine, known for shaping the way we find stuff online, navigate the world, and manage our in boxes, also is having an outsize effect on the way we eat at work today. The Google offices are famous for their free meals, which both fuel company productivity and provide informal settings for employees to interact and share ideas. As other Silicon Valley startups competed for Google talent, food offerings increasingly became part of recruitment efforts.
The rest of corporate America has taken notice. In Boston alone, a handful of upstart companies are working to carve out a portion of the $21 billion corporate catering industry by offering businesses ways to furnish free or subsidized meals to their staffers.
Alchemista provides chef-made meals to the likes of TripAdvisor and Wayfair, hiring local restaurants like Salvatore’s to prepare and deliver food for team meetings. LeanBox stocks refrigerators with snacks and healthy meals in the corporate kitchens of Uber and Ernst & Young. EzCater provides a simple way for companies to order food for events and client meetings, whether they’re off-site or in the office. And Bevi is a modern-day water cooler, with a digital screen that lets employees choose fruit flavors to mix into their bubbly drinks. The company started as a way to cut down on water-bottle use and quickly discovered that corporate offices were clamoring for their product, in part because it builds camaraderie (not unlike its non-digital forebears). “We introduced our Bevi as a new staffer,” says Gina Nebesar, the cofounder of the health startup Ovia Health. “The great cucumber versus raspberry flavor debate of 2016 will go down in history.”
When dealing with a tight labor pool, a food program can be a deciding factor both for recruitment and for retaining talent, says Joe Pawlak, a managing principal at the food service tracking firm Technomic. “You can be competitive on salary or competitive on work hours and flexibility,” he says, but having chef-quality food might be the X factor that makes a difference. “It’s much more expensive to hire or train new employees than to offer these type of services.”
Companies have also found there’s room for far more niche offerings beyond the vending machine or huge in-house cafeteria. “What LeanBox is really interested in is having the experience of a gourmet cafeteria, but to make it feasible for an office of 75 or 100 or 300,” says the company’s cofounder and chief executive, Shea Coakley. And technology means a more targeted experience for each office — LeanBox’s “smart” refrigerators can track the kinds of food that employees enjoy most, and the company has seen such a strong response from its clients that it recently launched Grind New England, sourcing hot beverages and kegs of cold-brewed coffee.
Stefania Mallett founded ezCater in 2007 and has seen its mission shift over time. “We started with the focus on meetings and helping business professionals who needed to bring in food” for client sessions, she says. “Then we started to find that people were ordering food for their own offices.” She says it’s now one of their growth areas — the company recently partnered with more than 100 co-working spaces across the country to provide meals to the flex offices. But she’s also wary of the trend and notes that in an economic downturn, a company’s meal program may be the first to get cut.
“We call it venture-backed businesses feeding venture-backed businesses,” she warns.
But for Christine Marcus, the cofounder of Alchemista, which brings in chef-made meals to more than 200 clients in Boston and Washington, D.C., her business is helping drive the new economy. Yes, her company keeps employees happy and well fed, she says, particularly when it can provide meal options that meet special dietary or cultural standards. But her model also provides a new revenue stream for chefs facing a tough restaurant economy and offers a distribution channel to smaller snack makers that are looking to expand their reach. In her mind, it’s a win, win, win.
“Every company wants to have great workplace culture,” she says. “We see ourselves as a culture partner.”
Due to reporting errors, this story has been updated to correct the name of LeanBox cofounder Shea Coakley and the name of the company that regularly offers chef-made meals, kombucha tastings, and pop-up coffee bars.