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How covid-19 changed the office lunch box

Not only has the corporate cafeteria gone virtual, even the water dispenser in your office pantry might become contactless

A software company got pizza home-delivered to a team of 15 for a virtual pizza party
A software company got pizza home-delivered to a team of 15 for a virtual pizza party (Photo: iStock)

There was a time, not too long ago, when the best of mother’s cooking could be found in a colleague’s lunch box. On the community tables of office cafeterias, digging into a co-worker’s Tupperware tiffin was to discover flavours from regional kitchens—be it Kerala-style chicken, Kashmiri pulao or Maharashtrian puran poli. It was a momentary respite for those who had moved cities and sorely missed home food.

Or, if the cafeteria’s lunch options felt too mundane, someone would quip: “Chal, aaj kuch achha khaatein hain (come on, let’s eat something nice today)." This meant queuing up in cramped, nondescript eateries with formica-topped tables with no dearth of locally popular menu items, such as hot lunch thalis, spicy biryanis and fresh puri-sabzi.

For now, these lunch routines have become a thing of the past as office cafeterias go virtual. Mumbai-based Rebel Foods, which owns around 300 cloud kitchens in India under brands like Faasos and Behrouz Biryani and services multiple corporate groups, has been delivering food to delight employees through the lockdown. A legal firm wanted to surprise employees working from home. It got in touch with Rebel Foods, which delivered biryani and gulab phirni to the homes of 49 employees. Similarly, a software company wanted to hold a virtual pizza party for a team of 15. Pizza was delivered to homes in Pune and Bengaluru at the same time—the team enjoyed them on a call together.

“New models are emerging, with town halls and office parties shifting online," says Raghav Joshi, CEO, India business unit, Rebel Foods. Organizations are seeking integrated solutions, with employees working both in office and from home. This means replicating the cafeteria experience online in terms of food variety, ordering process and low price. These items are delivered to the employee’s desk, whether it’s in a corporate office or at home. Their online platform allows an organization to share the database of its employees. When employees log in, they get a digital food token and meals can be purchased for as little as 50.

Food safety is the top concern and technology has come into play to enable sanitization and contactless delivery. Along with the bill, they share the details of temperature and even medical certificates of the staff handling the food. Rebel Foods’ in-house technology team is experimenting with the use of ultraviolet boxes. These are refrigerator-style storage compartments in which boxed food can be kept for a short time post-delivery to fully sanitize the packaging surface. At a time when most F&B companies are suffering heavy losses, Rebel Foods has raised $50 million (around 375 crore) from US-based fund Coatue Management., the cloud kitchen venture of the fitness brand, already has high-tech automated features that enable contactless cleaning and sorting of ingredients like vegetables. For instance, cleaning and cutting potatoes involves machine-washing and chopping, without anyone touching them. Additionally, they have IoT (Internet of Things) devices and wireless sensors to track the movement of kitchen staff based on colour-coded caps. For instance, the colour of their caps sets apart the staff in the non-vegetarian and vegetarian segments of the kitchen—and they cannot move into each other’s territories for hygiene reasons. When it comes to packaging, the kitchen offers an additional biodegradable layer of covering to guard against contamination in transit.

It helped that already had plans to introduce contactless delivery to address an absolutely different concern—office-goers not wanting to be bothered by a delivery person if they happened to be in the middle of a meeting. Today, their kitchens follow social distancing norms and the quality assurance audits are more frequent. There are daily audits by the internal team, quarterly or monthly audits by corporate clients and weekly audits by the external agency QDegrees Services.

“Pre-covid, our corporate clients would focus on variety, price and hygiene. Now, their top concern is whether what their employees are eating is safe food," says Sachin Kotangale, business head,

Earlier, they had buffet formats for catering in office cafeterias. Open food services have now been replaced by box meals. These can be customized—more than 240 combinations of vegetables, dals, roti and rice are on offer, with prices ranging from 90-150. Since the parent company is a fitness brand, meal combos incorporate weight loss and calorie counts. For instance, they have a butter chicken dish without the butter which is quite similar in taste and texture to the original.

Pantry services in offices too are seeing a covid-19-appropriate makeover. Pantry staff are donning PPE, or personal protection equipment, kits over uniforms, beverage machines are temporarily off limits and employees have been advised to bring their own crockery and cutlery. Sodexo, a facilities management company that operates in the country’s major corporates hubs, believes the demand for vending machines that run on digital payments and stock non-wet foods like dry snacks and sandwiches may increase. Even water dispensing, it predicts, will become contactless.

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