Catered lunch from RSVP Catering
Catered lunch from RSVP Catering Credit: Jenna Shellhammer

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Free food is a perennially successful dangling carrot, even for the well-heeled. Downtown law firms, trade associations, corporations, tech companies, and other businesses are using catered meals to lure employees back to the office. “I love it because it’s my business, but it’s just a different state of affairs to bribe people to come back into work with food,” says Ridgewells Catering CEO Susan Lacz. Her company is based in Bethesda. “But that’s what’s happening.” 

She believes working in person is better than working from home. “These new hires are missing mentorship and water cooler talk and learning from their coworkers,” Lacz says. “We’ll read about the effects [of remote work] in five years.” 

But we’re still in a pandemic and people have multiple factors to consider when venturing back out in the world, like whether they have young children or preexisting conditions. Others are comfortable in their work-from-home cocoons and never want to commute again. As of last month, less than 25 percent of employees had returned to their downtown offices, according to a DowntownDC Business Improvement District report

Companies are hoping to up that percentage by bringing in healthy boxed lunches, hot breakfasts, happy hours with passed hors d’oeuvres, and decadent brunch spreads. Caterers excitedly oblige after nearly two years of cancelled events and drastically reduced revenue. 

Mina Ebrahimi, the founder and CEO of Tysons-based Saint Germain Catering, says she lost 95 percent of sales because of the pandemic. The uptick in corporate clients ordering meals for employees is a welcome change to the sort of events she’s been booking lately. “We’ve had a lot of funerals,” she says. “I’ve had more funeral business than I’ve had in something like 20 years. I have a funeral every day.” 

Some of her big clients in D.C., including Fortune 500 companies, are bringing in breakfast and lunch every day for as many as 100 to 1,000 people. Ebrahimi thinks some on-site and in-house caterers in downtown offices haven’t opened back up, contributing to the demand.

Most have been ordering what Ebrahimi calls “COVID-style boxes,” individually packaged meals that involve minimal contact. “It’s working,” she says. “I think if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t keep placing orders. The consistency of our business being at a better level wouldn’t be there.” 

Occasions Caterers, based in Brookland, typically creates menus for high-end events and weddings. Denise Vu, senior director of marketing and innovation, says her company picked up on the office packaged meal craze early on and launched a separate catering entity—Peach Perfect—in February 2021. “We wanted to offer a different kind of corporate dining program and went against the grain of the sad desk lunch,” she says. 

Peach Perfect knew it had to stand out because of competition from third-party delivery companies. “Corporate drop-off catering hasn’t really changed much over the past 20 years, but the market has,” Vu says. “You have DoorDash and Grubhub and UberEats. That on-demand nature, being able to get Korean tacos for lunch to the office, really changed things.” 

Peach Perfect is seeing the volume of orders grow every few weeks, which Vu thinks is an indication that more people are trickling back in to their abandoned dusty desks. But she sees the healthy boxed lunches as part of a trend of bosses investing in employee health and wellness. “You’re seeing your bigger tech firms and finance sector businesses using mealtimes as a benefit or a perk,” she says. “Normally we work with event planners, now we’re working with HR departments.” 

Some buffets are coming back. Occasions catered a trade association’s brunch to welcome new team members hired during the pandemic. There was a shrimp and grits station, bloody Mary and mimosa bar, fried chicken and waffles, and cronuts. Who wouldn’t swap their soft pants for a suit for a free cronut? 

Meagan McKechnie, the executive vice president of sales and marketing at Fairfax-based RSVP Catering, agrees with Vu that the office credenza buffet is coming back. But boxed lunches are still the bread-and-butter of corporate sales right now.

The legal industry has had a major comeback and higher-ups want employees back in the office, according to McKechnie. The same goes for trade associations. While these companies may have 100 to 200 employees, McKechnie is noticing that most companies are consistently only ordering about 30 catered meals. Their boxed grain salads and breakfast burritos are especially popular.

“Employers are getting creative on how to get people back in the office face-to-face,” McKechnie says. “One benefit is offering catered lunches three to five times a week and happy hours at least once a month.” 

McKechnie thinks businesses are trying to minimize how often workers come and go from the office building for COVID-19 safety reasons. Vu from Occasions Caterers similarly thinks employers don’t want employees leaving the building for a nearby fast-casual meal like a salad from Sweetgreen. “They’d rather they stay in the building and dine with each other for productivity, culture, connecting, and retention.” 

“D.C. is a handshake, get-a-deal-done city so you have executives coming together and they’re thrilled to be in person having a beverage and eating,” McKechnie says. “Some are shaking hands. Others are more cautious.”