In years past, the phrase “free lunch" was often associated with tech companies that also offered their employees ping-pong tables and nap hammocks. Today, the concept of food as a benefit has moved beyond the tech realm and into an array of industries. Across the country, smart refrigerators, virtual cafeterias and collaborative catering companies are helping to replace bland sandwich platters in the breakroom with the type of entrees you'd expect to find at a food truck or trendy restaurant.
Nourishment on Demand
Move over, vending machine, there's something leaner. LeanBox is a “smart refrigerator" stocked with items you'd expect to see on the menu of a fast-casual restaurant: Peri-Peri chicken sandwiches, grain bowls, sesame-glazed salmon with Asian greens, cold brew coffee, pressed juices and more. The items are displayed in a refrigerator with a see-through door, and workers can access them and pay using an app.
Inspired by too many vending-machine-fueled office dinners, LeanBox co-founders Shea Coakley, Peter Roy and Kyle Roy launched the business in Boston in 2014. The machines are in operation in more than 500 office locations in the Northeast and Illinois. The self-service option fills a void in the modern workplace, says Coakley, who is also CEO, as the culture shifts from seeking “work-life balance" to what he calls “work-life blend."
“Offices are no longer cubicle farms, where people are punching in at 9 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m.," he says. “That's where people spend most of their time, and that's where they have trouble getting access to healthy food."
—Rodrigo Santibanez, co-founder, EAT Club
LeanBox offers access to healthy and tasty breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks 24 hours a day, and businesses pay a service fee to LeanBox to stock the machines. Companies have the option of offering LeanBox food to employees as a perk: Business owners can extend credit to staff each month; offer credit as incentive to complete a project or task; or choose to make food free when a team is working late on a project.
Coakley says he initially expected that LeanBox would appeal to businesses in the tech industry. In practice, he says it's garnered a much broader following, and can be found in manufacturing facilities, accounting firms, marketing agencies, law offices, hospitals, car dealerships and more. He adds LeanBox customers generally have one thing in common: They want to attract and retain good employees. And they're realizing that today, employees want benefits that go beyond the right health insurance package and a liberal vacation policy.
“They're looking for something that they can really dig themselves into culture-wise," he says. “And food is a huge part of that."
The Virtual Cafeteria
Not all companies can afford a cafeteria. But with a service like EAT Club, which is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, businesses with anywhere from 20 to 1,000 employees can reap the rewards of a "virtual cafeteria." That means employees can choose their meals from a varied digital menu available for delivery, and the employer foots the bill.
EAT Club was co-founded in 2010 by Rodrigo Santibanez and Kevin Yang, and expanded to Los Angeles in 2014. The goal of the duo was to offer what they call “lunch as a benefit," tasty food delivered to office workers in a timely manner at no cost to the employee. In doing so, they felt they could help boost retention and worker satisfaction while offering healthy meals that would fuel productivity.
The weekly menus are designed by chefs and offer high-quality, globally influenced options, including vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free offerings. A menu could include poke bowls, fajita lunch boxes, tikka masala, ramen, salads and sandwiches. Employees can view the menu via the website or a mobile app and place an order in the morning for lunch that day, or up to a week in advance, and EAT Club drivers arrive with the meals, which are labeled by employee name. Office administrators are able to manage the program with an online dashboard, making it easy to use for all involved.
“Office lunch is an important and competitive benefit," says Santibanez. “What was once seen as a nice perk for Silicon Valley-tech-types is gaining widespread demand throughout all industries and company sizes." Since its start, EAT Club has served millions of meals to thousands of companies in a broad spectrum of industries, including tech, financial services, transportation and others. In 2018, it's planning a New York City launch.
Santibanez says that in the future, he expects more businesses to offer lunch as a benefit. It's a win-win for all involved. “For the companies that we serve, the benefit of fueling their teams with great food leads to a higher quality of life at the office, longer retention rates from happy and well-fed employees, and even helps with recruiting talent and saving on other health-related costs," he says. “EAT Club believes that by providing this benefit, we help companies build great cultures through the power of food."
Catering Through Technology
While working for separate companies on opposite coasts, Alex Lorton and Zach Yungst made a similar observation: The catered lunches at their respective offices were lackluster. “They were bland, a little boring, a little repetitive and not reflective of the great food that was available around us," says Lorton. Lorton, who worked in New York, and Yungst, who worked in San Francisco, could find much better food just outside of their office doors.
In 2010, they co-founded Cater2.me in San Francisco to bring that great food into offices. The company is now in 11 cities and acts as the middleman, connecting businesses seeking office catering with respected local food vendors like food trucks and independently owned restaurants. To arrange for food, a company representative works with a Cater2.me account manager to talk about dietary needs, discuss restaurant options and plan the meal delivery (participating restaurants handle the delivery part) and cater events for offices with 10 people or more.
Lorton says that companies offering food as a benefit to employees have the potential to score on two levels. On the one hand, staff spends less time away from work during the lunch hour, which can be good for the company's bottom line. On the other, it's a chance to build community and culture, and give employees a meal that they can look forward to, and even a taste of a restaurant they've been wanting to try. He adds many Cater2.me clients have liberal work-from-home policies, and began offering catered meals as a way to bring staff together. He expects to see more of that in the future.
“It's not just an altruistic thing," says Lorton. “There's a lot of value to it."