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the challenge

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Ryan Spong spent many years working as an investment banker. The experience led him to lament the poor quality of food available to corporate employees, who often are stationed at their desks for long hours.

“There are a lot of office workers who are tired of all the bad quality food,” he said, referring to corporate catering services with limited options, and fast-food operations found in downtown food courts.

So he launched a delivery service to cater to their needs when he became chief executive officer of the Vancouver-based startup Foodee in 2013. CEO Ryan Spong, centre, has lunch with staff members, from left, Jenny Ly, Jacquie Scarlett, Larissa Norton and Wayne Webb in the office in Vancouver. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

“When they come to Foodee they see that they can have dishes from some of the better restaurants in the city right at their desk,” says Mr. Spong.

He sees significant potential in Web-based restaurant services. The industry is valued at $9-billion annually in North America, and since expanding to Toronto last fall, Foodee has witnessed strong growth in revenue, he says.

Foodee receives a 10-per-cent discount from the restaurants while charging its delivery customers a 10-per-cent premium on the menu price of the food. Its restaurants include popular spots that do not usually deliver. In Toronto, options include Barque Smokehouse, Parts & Labour and Brassaii. Among Vancouver favourites are Meat & Bread, Bestie and Tacofino, a restaurant Mr. Spong co-owns. Foodee, which employs 20 people, is bringing in about $200,000 a month in gross revenue, he says.

An example of food brought into the Foodee office, from the well-known restaurant Vij's, in Vancouver. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Mr. Spong’s obstacle, though, has been in reaching the people who most often make the decisions when it comes to feeding the office – administrative assistants.

“The office administrators in many ways are the gatekeepers for a company’s staff. I know that myself from working in that kind of environment. They’re in charge of keeping solicitors out and away from staff.

“The office administrators in many ways are the gatekeepers for a company’s staff. ... How do we grab their attention?"
Ryan Spong, CEO of Foodee

“So our challenge has been: How do you grab their attention?” Mr. Spong says.

Foodee has offered free meals for the executive assistant, who usually doesn’t partake in the dining experience despite placing the food order. In February, the company launched a contest that offers a round-trip vacation to St. John’s, Nfld., to dine at Raymonds, considered one of the top restaurants in Canada.

Homing in on executive assistants in the financial industry is crucial to continued growth, he believes. employee Wayne Webb talks to a client on the phone outside the office. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

“It’s likely there are less than 10,000 people working in this capacity in offices in Toronto, and an even smaller number than that in Vancouver,” Mr. Spong says.

The Challenge: How can Foodee best connect with the office-dining decision-makers in Vancouver and Toronto?


Kal Suurkask, chief executive officer of Big Birch Capital Corp. and managing director of the sales and marketing firm Elevation Direct, Victoria

If the economics make sense, I’d arrange an office tasting session. Let the office assistant know that you’ll be providing complimentary lunch samples for the staff on a certain date. Why would he or she say no? I’d ask Foodee’s restaurant partners to pitch in.

Let the office assistant know that, in return, you’d like to promote your lunch service to the staff. If the lunch is good, Foodee gets a shoe in the door, the restaurant partners get brand recognition and the office assistant will look like a hero.

Also, Foodee should give out coupons for their brand or even for the restaurants they have partnered with. This is a good way of tracking the effectiveness of these comp lunches.

Barry O’Neill, managing partner, Zed Financial Partners, Toronto

Getting into a company and onto its list for catering or food orders can be difficult. Getting to the right person and then persuading them to change caterers can also be difficult. It is a very competitive market and hard to replace existing relationships. Here are two suggestions:

(a) Have the restaurants advertise Foodee services – with pamphlets or a posting on their websites – to let their customers know their food can now be delivered. This is good for both the restaurants and Foodee.

(b) Have a cocktail party and invite the executive assistants to come for a food tasting so they can see the value and quality Foodee offers. These people do not usually get invited to functions and would appreciate the opportunity.

Stuart Hailes, co-owner, Tropical Images Plant Interiors, an office plant-maintenance service, Vancouver

Basically, how we grew our company was by cold calling. Then, once we got our foot in the door, we sent the office manager pictures of what we do to improve the look and quality of the plants and plant design in their office. If they had existing plants we would show them what we could do to enhance their look.

It’s hard to break in initially, but for office food suppliers it’s important to get in front of people – that’s especially so with food, because people want to see it. If you get it in front of them, they should see the value.

Probably their best strategy is samples. Send the potential client an initial taste of what they can do. We have used samples with flowers and plants. That way it breaks the ice and people are much more receptive.


Stage events

Hold a private event for executive assistants catered by their restaurant partners.

Offer coupons

Use coupons to gain business and track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.

Show, rather than tell

Bring food samples to the offices of potential clients.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.