| Columbus CEO
Anyone who’s ever been part of an office lunch order knows how hard it is to please everybody. Over the last year, Shannon Bowman has managed to please 5,000 people a week.
Bentos Catering, her 5-year-old company, prepares, delivers and serves lunch for business clients in central Ohio. It’s a perk still more common in Silicon Valley than in these parts, but it’s a growing perk that employers swear by in their worker-retention bag of tricks.
Bowman spoke with Columbus CEO about how she got into the business and how there really is such a thing as a free lunch.
Question: Many people who love to cook dream of opening a restaurant. What sparked you to follow through on that dream, and how did you choose lunches for office clients over a restaurant?
Bowman: My passion for cooking stemmed from feeding my sons, who both have autism. I watched how foods affected them in really positive ways, so I kept getting more creative.
I eventually realized that the one thing I would get up at any time in the morning for was to serve. Serving people is my passion. And I wanted to do catering, because I didn’t want to be stuck to a number of chairs. I wanted the ability to grow.
Lunch is my favorite meal of the day, so that’s where I drove the business. I felt like lunch needed a makeover. Most people get a sandwich, a bag of chips and an apple that rolls around in their bag before they ever bite into it. So I set out to give lunch a facelift.
People loved it. One company started asking us to bring food for their whole team one day a week. Then I wanted to try hot lunches, so I offered to take them a couple of hot lunch buffets at half price to give me feedback. They called and said, “We have a strange question. Can you bring these every day?” I was like, “I like where this is going!”
Q: Anyone who’s ever been part of an office lunch order knows how difficult it is to please everyone. How do you do it?
Bowman: We work really hard to keep things fresh and healthy while making sure people don’t get bored with the food. We’re constantly reworking our menu offerings. We have about 200 options. And from a literal perspective, the trick is toppings, toppings, toppings.
Most of what we do is build-your-own, even in our compartmentalized boxed lunches. We have things like our Asian noodle salad, which includes chopped greens with fresh cilantro and everything else on the side: lemongrass chicken, red curry shrimp or lemongrass tofu; rice noodles; chopped cucumbers; sliced red peppers; Vietnamese dipping sauce; chili oil; jalapeno coins; crushed peanuts; and fried shallots. So everyone gets to eat the meal the way they want.
Q: What’s your most popular lunch menu?
Bowman: The pasta salad. It’s a penne pasta base, then you can layer in a bunch of goodies: roasted chicken, a blend of capicola and salami, a mélange of roasted summer squash and roasted peppers, caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, roasted tomato basil vinaigrette and an herb and asiago crostini.
We make an awesome vegan version, too.
Q: How did you cope through COVID-19? Is your business back on track?
Bowman: Pre-pandemic, our business had evolved into mostly buffets, so it dropped to zero almost overnight. But it’s not in my nature to wallow. I asked, “How can I come out of this time stronger?” So I invested in our brand: new logo, new tagline, new website, new business cards and an app that will launch soon.
I kept my team on, and we started creating and testing new recipes, then sending them out for feedback. We started rethinking the business, asking what else we could offer.
We’re now launching a “Catering on the Fly” option, because I have consistently turned down last-minute opportunities through the years when people wanted a meeting catered last-minute. So we have a new option where people can order and have it delivered for a corporate meeting or even just a gathering, all in 24 hours.
Our business is not even close to being back on track. Everyone in the catering industry is struggling. But we’re pivoting and doing what it takes to meet people’s new needs and stay in business.
We’re figuring it out. Nobody will outwork us.
Q: Lunch isn’t a perk for most workers. What benefits does an employer get from providing lunch for the staff?
Bowman: Studies prove that nutritious food helps people perform better. So you get higher-performing, more productive, happier team members. It’s great for talent retention, too. And it also means employees aren’t leaving the office, which not only means accidental two-hour lunches don’t happen, but right now, it keeps people safer.
I’ve had associates tell me how much they look forward to our lunches. One said she was willing to take a pay cut to keep the perk. Not that I’m advocating for pay cuts! But that’s how much people like what we do, and I love that.
Bob Vitale is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO, a sister publication to The Dispatch. You can read the full story about Bentos Catering at www.columbusceo.com.
Title: founder, Bentos Catering
Address: 1528 N. Cassady Ave., Columbus
Business: corporate lunches, event catering and snacks delivered to Columbus offices
Revenue: would not disclose