While many office buildings have on-site cafes and foodservice venues, catering orders for large meetings are often called in from area restaurants. It’s been a reliable revenue stream for many restaurant brands, particularly at lunchtime. That is, until a national pandemic forced offices to close and employees to work from home.
Pre-coronavirus, Technomic predicted that business catering would grow 5.6% from 2019-2020, from a base of $25.4 billion in 2019. Now that offices are slowly reopening, operators are hoping to recoup some of those dollars. But they have to go about it in a different way.
Catered group lunches are still viable, but gone are the days of the Chipotle-style spread where everyone digs into trays of food to build their own burrito, bowl or other customized item. Even large platters of sandwiches are perceived as risky, as eaters tend to hover above as they make up their minds before reaching in.
Happy Chicks, a fast-casual chicken concept based in Austin, Texas, typically sent out its Big Barn Box of premium chicken tenders and fries for catered lunches that could feed up to 40. “Pre-COVID, 40% of our business came from catering,” says Director of Operations Josh Bergmark. “The key to our success is a large vented box that we designed with our supplier to allow fried foods to breathe so they stay crisp and crunchy in transit.”
Bergmark has adapted his catering menu to the times, now packing individual orders into smaller vented boxes. Teams can submit one bulk order for the number of lunches needed, with employees making their own choices. A new tech solution called Relish, developed by online aggregator ezCater to adapt to the post-COVID workplace, expedites the process for Happy Chicks.
“Companies are slowly bringing teams back to offices, but on-site cafeterias are not always feasible right now,” says Diane Swint, head of marketplace for ezCater. “And employees are not eager to leave the office for lunch, so bringing in food safely is mission critical right now.”
The office manager or team leader who usually handles catering can order and pay, and one delivery person drops off all the lunches at once, placing the packages on branded shelving units in office buildings. This eliminates face-to-face interaction and multiple lunchtime deliveries from different restaurants, reducing the risk of virus spread.
While Relish by ezCater also provides a delivery service called ezDispatch, Bergmark is opting for self-delivery. Pre-pandemic, he built a double kitchen in one of the Happy Chicks locations to handle catering. In the past month, catering business is back to about 10% to 15%, says Bergmark, with most orders coming from construction companies, research labs and the medical industry. Employees working from home are not a market, as it’s more expedient to order single meals directly from a restaurant or third-party platform for takeout and delivery.
On the customer side, Relish provides a rotating roster of eight or so restaurants from which to choose each day. “The operator can schedule the rotation to better plan out food supplies and labor,” says Swint.
Focusing on items that travel well is the strategy behind Buffalo Rings & Wings’ catering R&D. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we started getting a lot of calls for individual packaged meals from owners of essential businesses,” says Corporate Chef Dan Admire. “They wanted to offer them as a benefit for employees who had to come in.”
So Admire and his team spontaneously put together meals from items on hand, including easy-to-eat boneless wings, Saratoga chips, a piece of fruit and a brownie or cookie for dessert. Now he’s working on developing a larger line of hot and cold boxed meals to expand the chain’s office catering program.
“Prior to COVID, we did a lot of large-format catering, sending out chafing dishes with Sternos, trays of salad and other buffet items,” says Admire. Buffets are largely out, but with more employees returning to the workplace, it’s not always possible to deliver hundreds of hot meals, he says. Admire is deep in the throes of R&D, working on more salads, sandwiches and other foods that travel well and can be packaged as individual meals.
To get feedback from Buffalo Wings & Rings’ menu team, Admire staged a food review through Zoom. “Members of the team picked up lunches and took them back home, delaying the tasting for 30 minutes to see which foods traveled well and didn’t get soggy,” he says. “Then we all opened the boxes together and sampled the contents over Zoom.”
The final catering choices are still being evaluated and Admire is testing out new proprietary packaging as well. “There’s a strong demand for individual meals and more variety,” he says—a demand that is likely to continue into the near future.