The return-to-office trend is slowly gaining momentum, with more companies, including Starbucks, requiring workers to come in several days a week or more.
Although many workplaces still offer a remote arrangement, in 2022, catered lunches grew as an incentive for employees to leave their home workspaces and reclaim their office desks, reports ezCater, an ordering platform that now counts over 100,000 restaurant partners nationwide.
“Business is stronger than last year, and we continue to see growth, with sales ahead of 2019,” said Diane Swint, chief revenue officer at ezCater. “We experienced 59% growth in restaurant partners on our platform from January 2020 to 2023.” Swint added that customers are a relatively equal mix of independents and national chains.
In addition to office buildings, customers of the catering order platform include manufacturing plants, call centers and colleges that feed sports teams, faculty and student groups.
In an ezCater survey in December of over 1,000 people who work onsite at a manufacturing facility, warehouse, retail store or transportation hub, 66% said free meals encourage them to continue working for their company or plan to return the following holiday season. These people represent six out of 10 workers in the U.S. who cannot work from home.
“For universities and nonprofits, the value-add is tax-exempt status,” Swint said.
While COVID is still with us, the strict protocols around food handling have relaxed somewhat. "Twenty-seven percent of orders on ezCater still contain individually packaged items compared to 41% the first week of January 2022," she said. Sandwich platters are a very popular item, with the Chipotle-style build-your-own assembly line making a gradual comeback.
Companies are increasingly using free or discounted meals to lure employees back, encourage team engagement and retain talent—all a major benefit for ezCater’s 100,000 restaurant partners, many of whom are still struggling with traffic. The average catering order value is over $350, said Swint.
The workplace catering business also helps restaurant operators manage their labor pool to better meet the challenges of the worker shortage still impacting the industry. Catering orders are taken in advance and restaurants can add or reallocate staff to meet demand.
But that demand varies across the country, with regional food preferences, meal occasions, weather and other factors having an impact. Taking a look back at 2022, ezCater tracked ordering data throughout the 50 states, zeroing in on location-specific trends.
Ordering across the states
Not surprisingly, tacos were the top order in Arizona, while eaters in Oklahoma love their sweets. Peach cobbler was actually the top dessert order there.
Heading east to Delaware, comfort food reigned supreme, where regional favorites like slippery dumplings and scrapple are a tradition. As far as barbecue goes, the usual suspects (Texas, North Carolina and points south) lost out to Utah, the state whose residents eat the most barbecue at work.
But Texans love their breakfast. The Lonestar State ranked the highest for orders placed between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. And South Carolina is the “sandwich state,” purchasing universal favorites like subs, along with regional standouts, such as fried oyster rolls.
Bowls have surged in popularity as a to-go option, especially in Massachusetts. Diners here ordered the greatest number of bowl-based meals. And heading north, Maine won for the largest average group size of 59.6 diners per order.
That said, the state of Michigan placed the largest single order ever in 2022.
Looking ahead in 2023, ezCater forecasts continued growth in both restaurant partners and workplace catering.