Boxed lunches are big, and we're not talking about the nondescript packages with a standard sandwich and chips you used to get on school trips. Just about any caterer who works with corporate or nonprofit clients is bound to offer boxed lunches on the menu, often with high-quality ingredients and a good measure of creativity.
And because they can make for a convenient and efficient meal at any time, they’re a popular option for meetings and events. They’re easy to serve, saving time during business meetings. And they’re perfect for large events, as it takes less time to distribute boxes than it does to set up a buffet or platters of sandwiches. Instead of people spending time at a buffet looking over options and filling their plates, the boxed lunch options mean participants will simply choose from a few options and take their entire meal in a nice, organized package.
“It’s for when people have meetings and the meeting is over, and they need to get on the bus to the airport or whatever,” says Lisa Epstein, chef and owner of Encore Catering in East Hanover. “Or if a company is taking employees on a trip, everyone can grab a box and go.”
Encore has been in business for 21 years, and started offering boxed lunches when it began serving corporate events about four years after it opened. Encore has several boxed lunch options, including its “executive bag lunch,” which offers a sandwich or wrap, an apple, large gourmet cookie and a beverage. A “signature” lunch includes a sandwich or wrap, fruit cup, granola bar, chips, cookie and beverage.
Encore also has high-end boxed lunches that include half a sandwich or wrap, a salad entrée, fruit salad, pasta salad, a dessert sampler and beverage. These come in a higher-quality box than the standard lunches.
For an event of any number of people, Epstein says Encore provides up to four sandwich options, or sometimes the organization may want only two selections. The higher-end options offer additional sandwich options. Encore can also prepare lunches for people with food allergies. For other accommodations, such as providing kosher meals, Epstein says Encore can outsource those meals.
Ally Vitella, who runs Franco Vitella Catered Affairs with her husband, Franco, says factors like special meals also require extra attention to organization. If the whole idea of boxed lunches is a more efficient eating experience, you don’t want people trying to figure out where their vegetarian or glutenfree lunch is. Being able to accommodate people with allergies is another important factor for caterers.
“We did an event for Hackensack University Medical Center. It was a special event for cancer survivors and there were special dietary restrictions, gluten free and vegan,” says AJ Bassani of In Thyme Catered Events in River Vale. “We sourced different products, like gluten-free chips, for example. It comes up with almost every event, it’s becoming the norm, whether it’s dietary or kosher.”
Those boxes the food comes in also can help with marketing, branding and reinforcing messages by taking steps such as placing logos on the box or including information or swag in the package. Vitella says that a lot of the creativity that goes into a boxed lunch comes through collaboration with an event planner.
“What is it that they’re trying to achieve? Is it a brand they’re trying [to promote] because that box can serve so many purposes,” she says. “The box itself can be branding, from the time they open it up, there can be a message or directions as to what’s going to go on next and/ or where they’re supposed to be next.”
Among the events Franco Vitella Catered Affairs handles are movie premieres, so for a movie about a submarine, the company served, of course, submarine sandwiches. “There are no limits, and that’s the fun part of boxed lunches,” Vitella says.
Epstein adds that boxed lunches don’t have to involve an actual box. Some companies supply insulated bags with a company logo on them, as a way to reinforce their messaging. For example, Encore did a boxed lunch for Microsoft a few years ago involving 1,800 people, and Microsoft provided bags with its logo.
Bassani says that while In Thyme Catered Events handles all sorts of occasions, it specializes in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. He says those clients often choose the boxed lunch option because they want something simple that can accommodate a large number of people.
Among the challenges for the caterer, according to Bassani, is making sure the food served is up to high standards. “We like to use wraps for our sandwiches because we find that when you do refrigerate them, they will keep their quality, where if you use a standard-type bread, it degrades the quality of the sandwich,” he says. “Who likes refrigerated bread? No one. You want your bread crusty on the outside, soft on the inside or toasted right before it’s being eaten. That can’t happen when you’re serving a boxed lunch, especially for hundreds or thousands of people.”
Also, because the wraps are being made a few hours prior to being eaten, Bassani doesn’t put lettuce or tomato on them, so they don’t get soggy. He also chooses firmer cheeses, such as Swiss or provolone.
Another factor he had to consider was condiments. Mayo or oil and vinegar could lead to sogginess if kept on the wraps too long. But having them on the side wouldn’t work because you can’t open a wrap, put condiments on it, and close it like you can with a traditional sandwich.
So Bassani creates homemade dips to go with the sandwiches. Each boxed lunch comes with a container with a few ounces of a dip made specifically for each sandwich. For example, a rare roast beef wrap with provolone comes with a roasted red pepper mayo. Turkey and Swiss will come with an avocado relish, while the vegetable wrap would be complemented by a pesto mayo or pesto aioli. “This way, people can dip their sandwich into the cup with every bite,” he says.
Side dishes are another consideration, and the sides chosen have to hold up to refrigeration. “Based on experience, we know what cookies hold up,” Bassani says. “Presentation is important—people eat with their eyes—even with a boxed lunch as simple as it may be. How the box looks is important, how it’s labeled is important. Each of our items is labeled with a logo sticker that clearly states what’s in the sandwich.”
Getting the Job Done
Many caterers can offer boxed lunches for groups of various sizes, and on short notice. Epstein says Encore requires a minimum of 10 people for a corporate event during the week, for a cost of $150 (weekends focus more on larger groups). For a group of 10 to 100, she says they can provide a boxed lunch with a day’s notice. For groups of 1,000 or more, two or three days’ notice is required.
And what’s the limit as to the number of people Encore could prepare lunch for? “Bring it on, give me a million people, I’ll make it work,” Epstein says. “The larger the better, whatever I had to do to make it work, I would.”
While boxed lunches can make for an easy meal at the event, caterers say they require a lot of work, even more than a standard lunch standup.
“Say we have a corporate sandwich order for 200, versus boxed lunches, we’re just making the sandwiches and putting them on trays,” Epstein says. “Where for boxed lunches, we have to wrap each and every sandwich, we have to portion out each sandwich, we have to wrap every cookie in a bag. And then we have to close the box, so it’s definitely more labor intensive by far. And when you’re transporting 600, 700, 800 of them, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.”
Vitella says boxed lunches require the most work of any meals, especially when people get creative with them. “I remember thinking when we did our first boxed lunch, ‘This is going to be so easy, all we have to do is put a sandwich, some chips and a water inside the box,’” she says. “But really the truth was, the entire kitchen was filled with boxes, and it took an entire team of people to manage the boxes. We really didn’t expect that much work to go behind it. Where are you going to put 400 boxes in a 1,000-square-foot kitchen?”
Now, she says, her team has experience in putting together boxed lunches efficiently, even to the point that Franco Vitella Catered Affairs offers hot meals, such as sliders, in boxed lunches.
She adds that clients can be surprised at the options that are available for boxed lunches. “A lot of clients want the boxes because they’re cheap, but when they see what we can do with the box and the value and what goes behind it, that’s when they see how special they can be,” Vitella says. “A boxed lunch should never be below $19 a person, I really truly believe that, if you really want it done right.”