Local Food Vendors: Catering, Community, and Entrepreneurship
Eating together as a team is a great way to build office culture and community, but what if, instead of a national sandwich chain, your office ordered lunch from a local food vendor, like a Lebanese catering company run by two sisters who make homemade hummus from their grandmother’s recipe? What if, instead of another box of pizza for your happy hour, your company ordered Nigerian food, and in addition to a delicious meal, you got to experience a new cuisine and get to know the local food vendor that serves it?
What if every company lunch order supported independent restaurateurs, local food vendors, caterers, and food truck owners in your neighborhood, and broadened your pallet? This is part of the philosophy that drives FoodtoEat, a corporate catering concierge service that connects big business to local food vendors, and local food vendors to the steadiness and supply of the corporate catering game. “Catering is the holy grail for food trucks and food carts,” says Deepti Sharma, founder and CEO, “It’s predictable, it’s high-volume, and—crucial in places like New York—it’s a year-round business.”
Back in 2011, inspired by a 20-minute wait for a to-die-for cookie at a food truck, Deepti started wondering about the cookie vendor, “Here’s this woman who had a great idea (bakery on wheels!), but the only way to access her food is to figure out where she was, walk up, wait in line, and use cash.” Deepti got curious and started interviewing food truck owners about the business issues they faced. “A lot of them didn’t see themselves as small business owners,” she said, “They said, ‘It’s just a job.’” But did it have to be “just a job?” Deepti saw an opportunity to help these small food businesses stabilize and thrive.
Her initial ordering platform struggled to get off the ground, but as FoodtoEat evolved the essential mission of supporting small, local food vendors has stayed central to the company’s goals. In 2015, Deepti pivoted and launched a concierge catering service to give local food vendors, trucks, and carts access to steady, large-scale, weatherproof gigs.
Today, FoodtoEat has effectively become the sales and marketing team for local food vendors and restaurants too small to have their own teams. Storytelling is a big part of the marketing strategy. “When we tell the local food vendor story, it makes people more interested in what they’re eating, and makes them feel excited to support a local business,” says Deepti. Semsom, the Lebanese sisters with the homemade hummus, are an example of the kind of local food vendor that office managers are excited to support.
Although secondary to the food vendors’ bottom line, cultural education is a big piece of the success pie for FoodtoEat. “We want people to understand what’s out there,” says Deepti, “People can usually only name a few types of food: Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese.” What about Nigerian cuisine? That’s where Egunsi Foods comes in. Founder Yemisi mixes West African flavors (and works with West African vendors for her spices) and explores different African cuisines to help “normalize” these flavors for first-timers. What about Chinese food beyond lo mein? Mr Bing is a newer FoodtoEat vendor that offers savory crepes, a common street food in China that is still unfamiliar to many Americans. “China is a huge country and there are so many different kinds of cuisines! We want to bring something to our clients that’s out of the box.”
For larger local food vendors, FoodtoEat will even do small tastings to showcase less familiar flavors. “We try to explain everything so people know what to expect. Dishes like chicken and rice, which are available in many cultures, make people feel more comfortable about branching out.”
For Deepti, the mission of FoodtoEat is personal. “As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up with kids calling me a ‘smelly Indian kid,’ not understanding that my food has a specific flavor. I’d try to give them a taste but it took a while to convince kids that my culture was cool.” As a woman of color who grew up in Queens, Deepti is intensely aware that many local food vendors, food truck and cart owners are immigrants, and many are women. Helping them build their businesses is essential to the strength of the community. As small operations, many local vendors don’t have the bandwidth to proactively pitch new catering clients, coordinate large orders, or integrate new technologies into their business.
As a middleman between corporate catering clients and local food vendors, FoodtoEat can help an office manager place a great meal order that their teams will enjoy. One can always go with a big chain, but, points out Deepti, “There are hundreds of awesome local food vendors in your community, why not support them?” FoodtoEat does all the vetting, tasting, testing, and ordering. They make sure vendors are consistent, and ease the minds of office managers everywhere by ensuring that if they give a new vendor a try, that food vendor can deliver big orders on time.
Ordering into the office isn’t just a perk for employees, it’s also about creating a family-style meal that brings co-workers together who generally don’t get to talk to each other. “When you’re in line picking out food, you start talking about it. You ask each other questions, ‘have you ever had this before?’” Deepti adds, “We’re bring new experiences that can be shared with your coworkers and friends.”
And what do the local food vendors get out of this arrangement? The bottom line! Consider Mama Gyro, a Greek food vendor run by a mother and daughter team. Their operation grew from two small storefronts that could only serve about 50 to 70 people per meal to include a commissary kitchen thanks to a consistent increase in business from working with FoodtoEat. The more substantial space allowed them to take larger catering orders and serve up to 500 meals. In addition to helping to find their vendors clients, FoodtoEat assists with pricing, suggests small changes to optimize the business, and recommends marketing strategies.
As FoodtoEat expands beyond New York, Deepti wants to offer other services to the restaurant owners, caterers, local food vendors, and pop-up vendors they work with, such as social media and email marketing. She says to the local food vendors , “Let us do what we do best, market you and get you business, so you can do what you do best, make kickass food.”
Photography by Jeff Mertz