Cater2.me brought a full Mason Dixie breakfast to the BYT office on a day I was wildly hungover, so I am forever in their debt. At they’re most basic level, they may seem like a boring catering company, but they’ve managed to partner with some of the best local restaurants and food trucks in the city, meaning the food is actually… good.
I sat down with the Elan Bar to talk about what sets Cater2.me apart from other catering companies, whether or not I should go to Philz Coffee, and the importance of the Florida Avenue Grill. It’s clear that he loves talking about food more than he loves most things.
Take me back to the beginning. How did Cater2.me get off the ground?
Sure! So Cater2.me got started back in San Francisco five and a half years ago. The company co-founders, Alex and Zach were both based out there and really fell in love with the local, small production food scene. Walking through the different markets and working with all these Mom & Pop shops. They were both in the private sector and felt like there was this abundance of great food options, but all these different companies were just ordering in the usual Corner Bakery, Panera, generic stuff. So seeing that market gap, they launched Cater2.me with the idea of connecting these companies that have a need for corporate catering with some of the best, local, small production vendors the area had to offer. We’ve kind of taken off ever since. The concept has proven very much in demand. We’ve been able to work with companies that have the need for corporate catering, and we’re able to provide nice options for them. We have a wide variety of options, from food trucks, to private chefs, as well as brick and mortar restaurants… and also we take over all the logistics and coordination that might be beyond and office manager. To be able to really get to know an office and do that, has resonated really well.
So, we’re in San Francisco, things pick up there, and eventually we were able to move to New York, then to Chicago and D.C. We’re up to nine total markets now. Boston, Austin, Denver, Seattle, and LA. We’ve been in D.C. now for close to three years. I’ve been with the company since they started in D.C., and now I oversee the entire market and make sure everything runs smoothly and that we’re always finding cool new vendors, making sure we’re finding companies that need our service, and that we’re sort of knocking it out of the park.
What made Cater2.me want to come to D.C.?
I think there were a couple of things. I’ve been living in D.C. since before I started with Cater2.me, and it’s no secret that the food scene here is just taking off. I think it’s really exciting to see that it’s taking off on so many different levels You’re really looking at everything. The food truck scene is booming. Everyone, from big name chefs like Jose Andres see the value in food trucks. You can take it all the way to the highest level of dining, I’m sure you guys know that Michelin announced that they’re going to do the Michelin Guide to D.C. We’re the fourth city in the entire country that’s going to be featured. That really speaks to the breadth of cuisine offerings and the development of the D.C. food scene. Couple that with the fact that we have a growing tech scene. That’s really where Cater2.me got its first foothold, with these companies that are really valuing corporate benefits, that are really trying to make sure their employees have an awesome work / life balance, so doing things like providing meals. D.C. is full of companies that are valuing that more and more. As well as more traditional companies that just want to do something nice for their employees on occasion. D.C. is full of those opportunities.
I like to think we’ve helped a lot of businesses smooth over their food program or help them develop food programs, meal programs when they didn’t have them in the first place, and that’s really what we’re going for. Companies who see the value maybe need a little bit of guidance.
How did you get involved with Cater2.me?
I kind of took a slightly circuitous route. I have a background in economics and international studies and I actually spent my first year studying in Italy and that’s what really gave me the food bug. I came back to D.C., finished my masters, did the typical D.C. thing, I worked for a consulting firm for a little bit, I worked for the World Bank for a little bit, but the food bug needed to be scratched. I was looking around at different companies, I had a little experience in Startups. I saw a job listing for Cater2.me and learned a little bit more about what they were trying to do and what really resonated with me, and still does is the fact that we really partner exclusively with local small businesses in terms of the vendors we work with. That’s still, to me, the greatest contribution Cater2.me offers. Obviously I think we do a terrific job and coordinating the meal programs for our clients and making their lives so much easier, but knowing that everyday we’re creating business opportunities for a lot of folks that are taking a risk, food trucks, new restaurants, people who are trying to juggle a job in pharma sales while cooking up some awesome cuisine on the side, because that’s really where their passion is. Being able to create these opportunities for talented people is so rewarding. It’s the biggest thing that drew me to Cater2.me and the thing that I enjoy the most. We worked with Rito Loco when they were a really popular food truck in D.C., they were winning all these awards, and it’s been so exciting to see them put together a brick and mortar. Some of the concepts we talked with them about way early on are now in their menu. To know we had a small hand in their success is very rewarding.
Oh man! They’re right around the corner from the office.
Yeah they’re great. They’re good guys with a good concept who market themselves well. It’s exciting to see where they’ve gone. We also work with Florida Avenue Grill, which is also not too far from there, and this is a historic D.C. establishment. One of the oldest black owned restaurants in the city, or, one of the two pre-riot black owned restaurants in the city… I think it’s them and Ben’s basically. They’re a D.C. landmark and the fact that they also happen to make awesome food, they do a killer job a catering. To be able to work with them and associated ourselves with them is almost humbling. I used to go there when I was in school. That was my breakfast spot and now that we’re partners with them and to get to create business opportunities for them is very rewarding.
That’s lovely. How do you decide what restaurants you’re going to work with?
A couple different ways! We have an active vendor relations team in every market that’s dedicated to getting to know their city and really committed to staying on top of the food scene.. It’s really rough. They have to read Eater everyday. [laughs] So that’s a part of it, finding restaurants with concepts that we don’t already cover, or a new spin on a concept that we do offer. It’s important to us that we’re not over saturating our vendor base with one type of cuisine. There’s no value for us or our vendors if we have fifteen chinese restaurants. We want to make sure we’re able to give business to the restaurants we partner with. We’re very selective in that process. We do have channels, people do write in. We have a channel on our company site where prospective vendors can inquire about a partnership.
The toughest part of the job is… we do a tasting. They come in and provide a meal for ten and at that point we look at the food and see how it holds up in catering. Something you buy fresh off a truck might not work. If everything goes well there then we on board them as a vendor and start finding them opportunities to get them more business.
What are your favorite restaurants or food trucks you’re working with now?
What are you most excited about?
You guys had Mason Dixie and they’re awesome. They’ve started rolling out new concepts, they started doing lunch, you know, fried chicken on a biscuit and that kind of stuff. Our office is funny. I think we all like to say we really like eating healthy, and we do, but we all definitely have a slight… indulgent tooth I guess. Fried chicken and biscuits is definitely something we enjoy. We really like people that are providing something unique. For me, Florida Avenue Grill is a really special institution because of its significance to the city. I think of folks like Bullfrog bagels where they’re really trying to establish themselves. They’re idea is so cool. I’m not going to name names, but you think of some of the other local bagel places and they’re trying to re-do what someone else is doing. Bullfrog is trying to create a D.C. bagel. Not a Montreal bagel, not a New York bagel, this is a D.C. bagel. I love that. That’s what we’re going for.
They’re so good.
Yeah. I’m up in Adams Morgan and Philz Coffee and Tryst both carry them so it’s pretty convenient.
What do you think of Philz? I haven’t been.
I like Philz a lot. I’m going to digress for a second… I think there’s still a lot of room in D.C. for good coffee places. There are always new ones opening up and I think there’s a lot of space for that. The interesting thing about Philz is that they only do pour over. Also, when you go… when you go to most espresso based coffee shops they’re measuring every last gram, but at Philz there’s something kind of freer about the whole process. And they make a good cup of coffee. When you go, I definitely recommend you get it with cream and sugar. It’s the right way.
Why should companies and restaurants partner with Cater2.me? What truly sets you guys a part?
There’s a couple of reasons. You can’t put a value knowing the market. We were the first people in D.C. to do what we’re doing. We were the first ones in basically every city we’ve been in. I think there’s a reason for that. We do a very good job of it. We have a good process in place. We place a premium on really getting to know our clients. It’s not just clicking a couple of buttons and your food shows up, the way it would with Seamless or something like that. That’s not really the service we’re competing with. We really want to make sure that every office that works with us gets catered, tailored meals that everyone can enjoy. So making sure that the office that has the soy-free, nut-free paleo has an option that they can enjoy that’s not just a salad with chicken on it or something. We eat together almost every single day in the office and we really feel there’s value in that. You can get passive work done, you build camaraderie as a team. We really get to know our clients and drill down not only their dietary restrictions, but what do they really like to eat?
So many companies will say, “Oh well, we’re adventurous.” We always like to test that. How adventurous are you really? It’s important, right? You start throwing things out there and you realize, okay, they say they’re adventurous, but maybe we need to define the parameters a little bit. Maybe we should avoid this cuisine, but can probably go with that cuisine. The other thing we do in getting to know our clients, is we really try to expand their culinary horizons. We feel like it’s our obligation for our vendor to create more opportunity for them. It’s also a little bit we can do to help push D.C. forward in the direction of being a more adventurous city. We might say, “What’s your familiarity with Venezuelan food? None? We’ll we have a Venezuelan vendor we really want you to try.” We’ve gone through this process and we know your taste at this point, so we really think you’re going to like it. I think we do a really good job at expanding people’s culinary horizons.
Fundamentally, we have a crack operations team here that makes sure meals are executed well, they’re executed on time, that there’s good follow up if anything goes wrong, that we’re responsive, we’re retentive. The sphere we’re in is relatively new and I think we’re on the forefront of developing it.