A few years ago, brown-bag desk lunches, bad catering and random pizza days at work were acceptable. Not anymore. The tech industry raised the bar for workplace benefits and standards—and offering daily office meals is the new norm cross-industry. Innovative leaders know that food brings people together and the simple act of providing free food at work goes a long way. Eating together as a company encourages socializing, boosts culture, employee happiness, wellness, and productivity and attracts and retains top talent as a competitive perk. Companies are even folding corporate catering—or feeding their employees, rather—into their core values. Foodee is a proud contributor to this shift. In 2013, Foodee CEO Ryan Spong had the idea to connect the top local owner-operated restaurants with innovative companies looking for a competitive edge. Vancouver-based Foodee has since grown by 1125% and serves 12 major North American cities with more than 700 restaurant partners. We had a chance to interview Ryan and asked about his story, how he started his business and the future of Foodee.
Tell us your story. Why did you start your business?
Mine is a tale of two careers: I’ve spent half of it in restaurants and half in corporate offices. And now I find myself running a tech company that bridges those two worlds. My message to young entrepreneurs is: be the domain expert.
My first job as a kid was scooping ice cream at the local baseball stadium. I put myself through college as a waiter and caterer; I joke that the restaurant business gets under your fingernails—into your DNA—and you either love it or hate it. I spent the next ten years in finance, eating office catering in Canada, the US, and the UK—and it was always the same tired platters of slop. Just because you eat together doesn’t mean you have to share cutlery!
When I made the leap from finance to entrepreneurship, I went back to food. Our food trucks and restaurants, though popular, struggled with the problem of peak demand: dead at 11 am, lined up out the door at noon. We didn’t want to join a delivery app because it would cannibalize our full price walk-in traffic. That’s when Foodee was born. We aimed to solve a problem that I, and every restaurateur I knew, had. How do you sell into corporate offices? And god forbid that you land the business… how do you get the food there?
My mother was an office admin, and I saw how thankless that job could be—both when I worked in the office and when I was younger at the dinner table. She was trained to administer the business but tossed every odd job, including meal planning, that no one else would help with.
At Foodee, we make office admins lives easier, reduce stress and help them to focus on the aspects of their job that matter. Our restaurant partners make exactly what’s on their menus and our software coordinates individual meals for large offices. We’re embedded into the flow of the restaurant, out of the way by the time they open for the walk-in crowd, and the eater doesn’t have to traverse the germ-infested, allergen inducing pitfall of shared uninspiring platters. The city’s most inspiring food arrives individually packaged and labelled (name, dietary restrictions, etc) with a sticker to show you it hasn’t been tampered with.
How did you come up with your business name?
By definition, a foodie is someone who has a serious interest in—and enjoys eating—good food. That’s me and my team down to the core. I’ve been a foodie since I was young and happily focused my career as a restaurateur and entrepreneur around it. I also like to believe that everyone who works at Foodee, partners with us or joins on as customers consider themselves foodies.
Our team loves to discover hidden local gems and try the hottest new restaurants. Our restaurant partners take serious pride in serving fantastic food. The care that these mom n’ pop institutions put into their food, ingredients, and service is phenomenal. And, of course, our customers don’t want bad corporate catering, sad desk lunches, monotonous in-house chefs, or chain restaurant meals anymore. We bring the best of a city’s local food scene right to the workplace.
Tell us about your products and services. How do you help clients?
Our corporate clients offer daily and weekly office meals to their team of 10 to 500 employees. But someone’s got to order it. Like I said about my mom having the thankless and challenging job of meal planning and ordering catering for an entire office, we make sure that isn’t the reality for anyone.
We take the work out of meal planning for admin staff and EA’s by making it easy to manage dietary restrictions, cuisine, and restaurant preferences, and plan different meals (both healthy, fresh and fun) weeks in advance. They tell us how much or little office catering they want to plan and order—and we do the rest.
We work with them to create customized meal plans based on everything from how often they order, how much they want to spend and what they want to eat. They can choose the restaurant and budget, for example, and have their team select their individual meals within our custom branded portals—or we can do it all for them. We have local food experts who can suggest the best new and exclusive-to-Foodee local restaurants.
Our platform is built to scale and includes a fully-customizable suite of ordering tools, live customer service, delivery execution, and technology to follow every order from restaurant to office.
What makes you unique? What is your unique selling proposition (USP)?
We deliver meals to modern offices. Our tailored meal plans are highly customizable and support the needs, workload, budget, and preferences of every company and office admin. We only partner with top local owner-operated restaurants and have over 600 partners across 12 cities. Our corporate clients are known for their office meals and take their employees on a culinary tour of their city every single day—it’s even become a competitive edge to attract and retain top talent. Our delivery service and logistics partners are reliable, trustworthy and on-time and our platform is easy-to-use and hyper-scalable.
Where do you see your business in the next 3-5 years?
Our vision is to become the largest local food provider to offices, but own no kitchens, cook no meals and deliver no food.
We have the power to become the Airbnb of office catering. We link innovative, modern offices looking to feed their company office meals with the best, owner-operated restaurants in cities across North America. We average more than 1000 deliveries a week from over 700 restaurant partners. We’ve partnered with logistics experts such as DoorDash to make our service more efficient and focused. This allows us to develop our suite of ordering tools, establish more restaurant partnerships that our 4,000 corporate clients cherish and expand into new markets and cities.
The global contract catering market offers a $265B opportunity and is dominated by five antiquated players. They operate on a fully-integrated, linear business model that creates margin out of low wages and poor food quality. But the workplace and market are changing.
Attracting and retaining top, young, Millennial talent now means feeding them. The tech industry raised the bar for workplace benefits, company culture, perks, and standards. Offering quality, local office meals daily is the new norm across every industry.
Plus, Millennials want local, sustainable and organic food. Forty-four percent of them regularly eat out. Forty-eight percent buy based on sustainable packaging (which Foodee partners prioritize). Forty percent of Millennials are on a plant-based diet.
Most importantly, however, employees want—and deserve—inspiring, good food that lifts them up physically and emotionally. Innovative leaders understand all of this. They also know that food brings people together and that employees have to eat, take a break, socialize and recharge. It turns out that the simple act of providing free food at work goes a long way.
Any advice you would give to entrepreneurs and business owners?
There are many lessons to choose from here and good advice is likely tailored to specific situations, but for what it’s worth, there are two fundamental truths:
- Be thoughtful about who you partner with because the road ahead is bumpy. My grandfather used to say that you learn a lot about someone in a round of golf. You can see how they view risk, rules, and stress—or if they cheat, swear or lose their cool. Building a company shows people’s true nature. Just be sure to know it ahead of time.
- Be an expert. Domain expertise is either required ahead of time, where an idea may have its roots or on the job if you’re joining a founder team. Either way, become the most knowledgeable person on your thin slice. When I’ve done this poorly, I’ve been blindsided badly. When I’ve done it well, we’ve avoided disaster. And if you’re in the middle of becoming an expert, have a ‘village of gurus’ around you. As we say here at Foodee, it’s better to borrow wisdom than to pay full price.
What is your favorite business quote and why?
“Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you, my kind of success.”—Dicky Fox
This is from the fictional mentor of Jerry Maguire. As we know from the movie, Jerry goes through a career crisis that sets him on a path to find himself or something he lost on his way to the top. If we listen to ourselves, our careers can be the process of ‘becoming’; living—and in the case of work, doing—authentically.
Entrepreneurship is special that way because we can manifest companies out of our ideas. We can then attract partners, customers and co-workers to join in the pursuit of those ideas. There are few excuses not to love what you do. And when the joy of building something authentic can fulfill you, your personal life can likewise benefit. As an entrepreneur, you need that drive, because we don’t have the answers and will go through many failures along the way.
What have been some of your achievements that you are most proud of? Why?
At Foodee, we’ve recently proven our model is profitable. That is a hard-won goal because we are in an era where money is cheap and plentiful. Our team is a group of hard working realists that want to build a company, but not so long ago we were focused on growth at any cost. Weaning ourselves from that addiction could have gone poorly.
Personally, I started Foodee when my wife and I had an 18-month-old baby. Now we have three kids (our first born is now seven) with our fourth (and final!) son coming in September. For anyone who’s started and built a company during this busy time of life, they know that we miss a lot of soccer practices. I have a thoroughly supportive wife who I’ve somehow convinced that I’m still a good investment. That has probably been my crowning achievement.