Workplace food has become a valued recruiting tool and perk for many tech companies. Few tech startups have the resources and critical mass to rival the kind of experience a Google or a Microsoft can offer, but they still want to wrap food into their corporate culture.
Alchemista, a corporate feeder based in Boston and Washington, DC, stepped in to fill that gap.
Alchemista is the brainchild of Christine Marcus, who suffered through a series of nondescript catered meals while earning her MBA at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Figuring there had to be a better way, she teamed up with a classmate in the restaurant business to launch Phoodeez, a catering concierge that connected local restaurants and food trucks with corporate clients, particularly those in the technology, pharmaceutical and healthcare spaces. The new venture expanded from Boston to Washington, DC, and evolved into Alchemista.
“Our clients are not just providing food for the sake of food,” Marcus says. “It’s a culture-building exercise.” By providing a curated experience—not just dropping off a tower of pizza boxes—Alchemista helps reinforce the emerging company’s distinct identity and culture.
It’s also not just food—meals can celebrate holidays, dates like Cinco de Mayo or sports traditions like March Madness, with decorations, trivia games and contests. They provide a chance for staffs at fast-growing companies to engage and bond with fellow team members.
Marcus says many startups don’t have the expertise to plan or budget for employee meals, and Alchemista’s model addresses some of that uncertainty. Alchemista charges clients a flat per-person price for its services; works with clients to plan meals out up to two months in advance; sets up appealing displays with informative labels for special diets and allergens; and is sensitive to sustainability concerns. Serviceware is all disposable, including organic biodegradable palm leaf plates that are sourced from fallen leaves. Leftovers are donated to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a nonprofit that works with local shelters.
“CFOs don’t like to see wasted food, because wasted food equals wasted dollars,” Marcus says.
And it’s not “just food” in the sense that Alchemista relies on a network of local restaurants and food trucks to supply those meals and snacks to clients on a daily, weekly monthly or one-off basis. The company vets potential candidates and has specific requirements.
Unlike the fare she was served at MIT, “first and foremost, the food has to be amazing,” Marcus says. Operators also must be able to produce in volume—in some cases, they may be feeding up to 700 employees—and handle delivery—no third-party services allowed.
It also helps if a restaurant can adapt to a variety of tastes, since one of Alchemista’s selling points is its skill in creating varied and bespoke menus. One Boston operator, Eastern Standard, has expanded beyond its in-house menu to produce Mexican and Chinese meals, salad bars and other themed client requests, for example.
Meanwhile, restaurants in Alchemista’s network see a bump in business, both immediate and long term. The corporate orders net them wholesale rates, but several advantages sweeten the pot. The business is typically booked up to four weeks in advance, which simplifies purchasing, planning and labor scheduling. Orders normally must be delivered before the lunch crush, so they don’t interfere with normal operations. And orders provide less-well-known restaurants priceless exposure to potential future guests.
Alchemista provides smaller operators a foot in the door with corporate customers. “Restaurants are interested in building their catering business, but normally it’s almost impossible for them to get in to see clients,” Marcus says. “Corporate clients might not ever have heard about them or think they’re capable.” Alchemista’s vetting process gives those clients a certain level of assurance. And an Alchemista employee receives food deliveries, sets up meals and provides a quality check. The attendants photograph orders and provide feedback on how well the food was received by employees.
Keeping employees happy and building a culture are two motives for Alchemista’s clients. Productivity is a third. Each minute an employee is off the premises for lunch is a minute away from work. Providing a compelling reason to stick around, interact with colleagues—maybe even have fun—and get back to it quickly is probably worth the $15 to $17 each meal averages.
Picking up the tab for lunch even once a week amounts to about $700 per year, Marcus says, and “compared to any other perk, that’s very affordable.”