Corporate cafeterias used to be the place where tuna fish sandwiches went to languish. But food can be a powerful incentive in recruiting and retaining talent, and in recent years companies have taken to building extravagant dining halls and staffing them with chefs with fine dining pedigrees.

But as more employees work remotely and companies try to reduce their real estate footprint, there is evidence that some organizations might be rethinking their massive mess halls. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 12 percent of companies offer an onsite cafeteria with partially or fully subsidized meals, which is down from 16 percent in 2017. As such, corporate dining could be poised for another revamp.

Off the Grid believes the future to corporate dining is modular and mobile. Founded in San Francisco in 2010, it has been a vanguard in revitalizing the Bay Area's mobile food scene with its public markets that often take advantage of underutilized spaces. Now, it is parlaying the experience it has gained over the last eight years and looking to shake up the corporate cafeteria with a new offering it is calling Off the Grid at Work.  

Using modular solutions like food trucks, pop-up stands and temporary food halls, Off the Grid can plug into any space at a corporate environment whether curbside, inside or outside. ​This flexibility allows companies to configure dining solutions that can expand and contract with its workforce while avoiding the capital costs associated with ​building a cafeteria. Off the Grid claims that companies using its services can create dining experiences at as little as 12 percent the normal capex spend.

"What we have experienced for a number of years is that often people respond really well to a scalable food program where the company doesn't have to become a culinarian, and they do not have to build restaurant infrastructure," said Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of Off the Grid."

Cohen also believes that one of its virtues is that it can offer a diversity of options that can be hard for a cafeteria to replicate. "I think what a lot of people experience in a cafe environment is limited variety and limited choice, and the options become stale over time," he said. With Off the Grid at Work, companies can create custom food experiences or choose from the more than 300 third-party vendors in Off the Grid's network.

While Off the Grid at Work is a newly minted offering, the organization has been working closely with many companies for some time now. Namely, it has worked with Google since 2015 when the tech giant engaged Off the Grid to supplement its mealtime offerings while one of its corporate cafes underwent renovations. Lauded for its scalability and flexibility, Google worked with Off the Grid to build out an ongoing food truck program.

"Off the Grid understands the trends toward mobility and convenience in the food and beverage industry," said Doug Koob, founder of Circle Alliances, a food and beverage consultancy and Off the Grid partner. "In the business and industry segment, major companies such as Google are leveraging Off the Grid to create unique mobile experiences that enable them to provide innovative food and beverage offerings any place on the campus at anytime."  

At the time of launch, Off the Grid says it is working with dozens of companies around the Bay Area, but declined to share any of its other clientele. In general, Cohen said that fast growing startups tend to be attracted to its offerings since it can quickly scale as new employees join.

And with corporate cafeterias drawing the ire of some local government officials, companies might have another reason to the rethink their dining strategy. In July, Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí proposed a ban on the construction of new employee cafeterias in San Francisco. The hope is that the ban would draw well-paid tech employees out of their offices and into local businesses.

They Bay Area city of Mountain View has already made headlines for its law that will prohibit Facebook from offering fully subsidized meals at its new headquarters. The company will only be able to offer fully subsidized employee meals if they go to restaurants that are open to the public, but meals inside the office cannot be subsidized by more than 50 percent.

The restaurant industry is notoriously difficult, but concepts like Off the Grid create a lower barriers to entry for emerging food entrepreneurs, and access to corporate clients can be a game changer.

"Increasingly, the overhead cost to operate a food business, especially in the Bay Area, but really everywhere, is incredibly high," said Cohen. "There has to be multiple channels for food businesses to remain viable in the long run, and corporate dining and catering is one of those avenues that can really be transformative to businesses."

Currently, Off the Grid at Work is only available in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Cohen said that he is actively engaged in conversations with companies across the West Coast and expects to expand the company starting in 2019.

Published on: Oct 9, 2018