Ryan Spong knows a thing or two about companies and catering: He's both a serial entrepreneur and a restaurateur. For the last year, Foodee, the firm he heads up, has been refining a concept that he hopes will disrupt the corporate catering business – and this month, he's bringing it to Toronto's office towers.
Mr. Spong is the founder of Foodee, an outfit that wants to replace big corporate catering outfits that offer order-in working lunches and dinners – the often-generic fare that appears on the boardroom table – with food made by partners at smaller local restaurants.
"Corporate catering is average and overpriced," he says. "The reason no-one substitutes away from it is that the alternative is greasy and unreliable in a corporate setting."
In the business world, catering can be a fraught affair. Whether it's ordered for a meeting or for a team that's working through lunch or dinner with only some sandwiches to show for it, it needs to be on time and of reasonable quality, and the guy on the paleo diet needs to be accounted for. Typically, administrative or executive assistants – who may or may not be experts in ordering food in a corporate environment – are placed in charge of it.
Small wonder that the space has been dominated by corporate outfits who, working at scale from commercial kitchens, offer unexceptional food with an emphasis on reliability and predictability. "Everything is chicken pesto-something," says Mr. Spong.
Foodee's approach is to use the Internet to leverage excess capacity at a roster of hand-picked partner restaurants. "Lunch hour is spikey and bursty. It's one hour to cover all their fixed costs," he says. Foodee, on the other hand, schedules catering jobs into restaurants' slow periods. The company's system books off restaurants' time in 15 minute buckets, and allocates orders where the capacity is available.
From the customer side, Foodee offers a phone-based concierge service, so that executive assistants can talk through the order with someone who knows Foodee's lineup and offerings, and can make recommendations. (Web-based ordering is also available, of course.)
While the service can accommodate last-minute orders, it's really designed for longer-lead or, better still, recurring orders. To ensure variety, it can keep its clients' needs on file – a team of 15 people, say, of whom five are vegetarian and one has nut allergies – and put them on a "playlist" of partner restaurants, sending in a different cuisine each week. Mr. Spong says that, at present, about 30 per cent of their current business is recurrent.
Mr. Spong is emphatic in distinguishing his concept from order-food-online services like JustEat, that offer real-time ordering and delivery from local restaurants. "We're not a consumer-focused play. We're not trying to add sandwiches to someone's chit line at 12:30."
Mr. Spong has some background to speak of in this field: He's the owner of Tacofino, a Vancouver taco joint that also operates up-market food trucks in Victoria and Kelowna, and does catering in its own right. Foodee actually approached Mr. Spong to join as a restaurant partner; he ultimately ended up joining the firm himself, and became CEO in February.
The company's initial roster of partner restaurants in Toronto includes well-known names like Porchetta & Co., Brassaii, and Caplansky's Jewish Delicatessen. The goal, says Mr. Spong, is to give clients access to food from popular restaurants where lineups would keep employees from going on their own lunches, and bringing it into the workplace. "All we're interested in doing is having one or two best-in-class restaurants in each category."