Corporate dining is undergoing a major adjustment in the wake of COVID-19 and the changes the pandemic created in how employees view where they work and when. Because in many cases these changes promise to reduce the number of potential dining customers available onsite on any given day, corporate dining providers have had to adapt with new approaches, such as home-delivered meals, or enhancements of previous systems, such as mobile ordering platforms.
This emerging dining culture looks to be one that stresses individual service, ultra-convenience, premium food quality and extreme flexibility, all while serving generally smaller overall populations. The consequent challenges are certainly significant, but not insurmountable, and even promise to provide successful providers with a desirable market. The key will be the capability to serve smaller populations in a way that makes fiscal sense.
This is a challenge being taken up not only by established B&I providers but new entrants like ZeroCater, a California-based B2B catering and snacks services vendor that currently operates in the major business hubs of San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, but is looking to eventually expand to other growing markets such as Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas and Denver as well.
ZeroCater is able to target its menus to satisfy individual employee food preferences through its Cloud Café platform, an app-based “digital cafeteria” designed to serve companies and groups of any size. While a number of other providers offer high-quality delivered meal service to businesses, Cloud Cafe is distinct because of ZeroCater's proprietary food recommendation engine FoodIQ, which curates a weekly rotation of cuisines and meal offerings that match the individual tastes and preferences of every employee at a client site.
“What makes us unique is that we want to build custom food solutions for each company, food solutions that are intelligent and flexible so their employees can get the food they want,” explains CEO Ali Sabeti. “We use AI technology we’ve built that allows us to understand the tastes and preferences of every employee and then ramp those up to the group so that we can build a profile for the company as a whole and really know what food they like and want. Then we can tailor customized menus on a daily basis.”
Cloud Cafe enables employees to choose their own daily meals from thousands of individually packaged menu items provided by the company’s network of caterers and restaurants.
“We’ve built one of the largest networks of enterprise caterers who excel at large group sizes,” Sabeti notes “Because we have this network, we’re able to offer 120 types of cuisine, 35,000 individual menu items, really an immense variety of food that can then be individualized to each group of employees.”
Here’s how it works…
Client employees download the ZeroCater app, create an account and take the interactive food profile builder survey. FoodIQ then uses that data to create the first week's cuisine selection and boxed meal offerings based on the tastes and preferences that the group communicated. Then, after employees get their meals, they leave feedback about what items they liked and disliked, again through the ZeroCater app, and FoodIQ then uses those insights to customize the following week's rotation of cuisines and menu offerings, so that the company's food program is constantly evolving and updated to meet the tastes of its employees.
"FoodIQ has the intelligence to understand why someone might love fried chicken but hate garlic roasted chicken,” says Prabjot Jaaj, ZeroCater’s vice president of product, engineering and customer experience. “We use that intelligence to predict what cuisines and menu items resonate best with the group, ensuring that every employee gets access to only the food they love."
Photo credit: ZeroCater
Photo: The ZeroCater Cloud Café program has access to some 120 cuisine types and over 30,000 individual menu items from its provider network of caterers and restaurants.
For payment, the client company can decide to subsidize part or all of the meals, with the subsidy level customized to each location The food is delivered to sites by the provider partners, but ZeroCater manages the onsite operation, Sabeti explains.
“We do all the staffing, we own all the equipment and we manage the entire meal experience,” he says. In addition to Cloud Café, ZeroCater also offers managed and corporate catering services and a corporate snack and kitchen program.
As hybrid workforces with fluctuating in-office employee headcounts become more prevalent, companies of all sizes are struggling to manage their food programs in the face of shrinking food budgets, Sabeti suggests.
“Companies are hesitant to spend millions of dollars to build out a corporate cafeteria when they don't know how many of their employees will be in the office next week,” he says. “The economics and menu variety of an on-site cafeteria or caterer just will not work in the post-COVID world. We’re seeing larger companies, those with 1,500-2,000 employees that traditionally had built cafeterias, finding that running one now doesn’t make much sense from a financial standpoint, not when you may have 2,000 employees coming in one day and only 50 the next. Well, we can feed either group and give them access to a week’s worth of customized menus from which they can order for the days they are going to be in the office.”
The Cloud Café approach is also a step up from third-party food delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats, Sabeti adds. “Companies without access to cafeterias and traditional caterers, like smaller offices or warehouses, may currently be using B2C food delivery services, but they quickly realize that delivery consistency, food quality, and cost become issues once the group gets larger than 10 people. That's where Cloud Cafe comes into play.”
ZeroCater’s approach also addresses an emerging and increasingly critical factor in the role of onsite dining in the new corporate environment—the facilitation of engagement and socialization.
“A recent survey of our customers showed that their top concerns when it comes to their teams working from home are lower employee engagement and decreased productivity,” Sabeti explains. "We're seeing companies across all industries prioritizing feeding their teams as a new way to keep employees engaged, productive, and safe on the days they decide to come into the office."
The Cloud Café program is also adaptable to markets beyond business offices, such as hospitals, warehouses and universities, Sabeti adds. “With Cloud Cafe, we now offer any group the ability to enjoy enterprise quality meals from our platform of caterers and restaurants, all while giving companies the flexibility of letting their employees order and pay for their own meals. We're expanding what tech industry workers have enjoyed for years to a new base of employees at affordable prices.”