Andrew Chace, an operations specialist at Baystate Wealth Management, works on the 19th floor of the John Hancock building. There’s no cafeteria in his office, but when he gets hungry, there are food trucks, quick-service restaurants, and lots of other eateries in the Back Bay neighborhood below him. But Chace often skips those options and heads down the hall to find lunch. Within minutes, he’s enjoying a steaming plate of his favorite chicken tikka masala.
The Indian classic has not emerged from Chace’s brown bag or a delivery service, but from LeanBox, a refrigerated shelving system that just might replace old-fashioned vending machines. Boston-based start-up LeanBox provides refrigerated fresh food from self-serve kiosks to more than 50 companies in New England, most within the Route 495 corridor. A few years ago, cofounders Shea Coakley and Peter Roy, both 30, found themselves working in jobs where the long hours and fast pace made it difficult to get nutritious food at work. What they wanted, ideally, was something right next to their cubicles. LeanBox offers Greek yogurt, fruit smoothies, microwavable entrees, brownies, and more.
The industry term for an unattended kiosk is a “micromarket.” According to Roni Moore, a vice president of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, there are currently more than 6,000 micromarkets in the country, with an additional 24,000 expected over the next five years. Moore says that what LeanBox is delivering is part of a bigger national trend, both among consumers and employers. “There is no question that the vending and refreshment market is moving toward ‘better-for-you options,’ ” she says.
“From a convenience standpoint,” says Coakley, “being able to get a meal 10 feet away from your cubicle is really important. From a taste standpoint we spend our life scraping the earth for cool products.”
The cofounders dislike the words “vending machine” because the kiosks are not money-makers for companies. Every business that carries LeanBox is subsidizing the kiosks, making the price significantly lower than at typical retail outlets. Employers are charged a monthly fee based on the size of their company and then employees buy the food at cost. Fresh fruit cups and crudites are $3,
microwavable entrees (Indian, Mexican, and Thai dishes among them) run $4.25, and sandwiches are $3.75.
All the items sit on open shelves without electronic markers, and need to be scanned on a tablet mounted on the glass door, so there is a record of what came out. An electronic inventory system, which updates every five minutes, gives the company restocking information. To get meals or snacks, employees swipe a credit or debit card to open the door, scan their items, and use microwaves to heat up entrees or cups of oatmeal.
Chace so appreciates the competitive pricing that sometimes he’ll even grab a 95 cent Chobani yogurt at the end of the day for breakfast the next day. That same cup of yogurt would cost him 40 or 50 cents more at his local store.
Dave Porter, managing partner of Baystate, brought in LeanBox in response to employee requests for improving the food options in the office. He sees the service fitting well with what he describes as the company’s fast-paced, team-oriented atmosphere. “As opposed to running down to the cafe in the lobby, which can take 25 minutes, [employees] can grab something from the LeanBox and say, ‘Let’s keep going,’ ” says Porter. Baystate isn’t large enough to have its own cafeteria, but they understand the benefits of keeping its employees on the premises.
Experts list multiple benefits that can come from offering on-site, nutritious food to employees. In addition to improved health of the workforce, Leonard Glick, executive professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, identifies the good will. “You never know when that will pay off,” he says. “Employees stay with the company longer, put in a little extra effort for the company.”
Glick also mentions longer-term competitive advantages. “It keeps employees in the facility, where they are likely to talk and have lunch with co-workers,” he says. “You never know what can be discovered during a literal ‘back of the napkin’ discussion.”
Roy was raised in Hingham and Coakley in Marshfield and they have known each other since high school. Two local private investors funded the partners. Whenever possible, they stock offerings from the Boston area food community. They currently carry locally made drinks, nuts, and sweets and are working with more area producers to add a range of savory items. “If you are a food start-up in Boston, getting your product out to the world can be tough, so we can be a portal to these consumers. Sometimes we will put in a product that doesn’t move well just because part of this is exposing people to local fun products,” Coakley says.
Despite the name, LeanBox kiosks are not entirely filled with healthy food options. “We put in a mix that’s 75 to 80 percent healthier items, and allow 20 percent for fun, innovative things that are borderline healthy,” says Roy. To that end, the machines dispense chocolates from Somerville-based Taza, Boston Bonbon’s macarons, and Eat Your Coffee’s espresso-infused fruit and nut bars, a company started by Northeastern University students.
LeanBox’s commitment to innovation goes beyond what they dispense. “When we got into this market we had a passion for bringing unique, innovative food to offices,” says Coakley, “but the technology didn’t exist to do that, so we inadvertently became a technology company.”
The entrepreneurs have recently partnered with local mobile payment company LevelUp to develop an app allowing mobile phone payments. Roy describes some incentive programs employers will be able to offer with the app. “If [employees] take part in a corporate blood drive, or run in a 5K race, the company can load an extra $5 [into their LeanBox account].”
Or a boss could use the app to pay for dinner for an employee who is staying late to work on a project. Or better yet, give everyone a free lunch for a job well done.