Many breakrooms remain closed as companies struggle to get employees to return to the office full time after the pandemic shutdown. However, those that are open are not the same places they once were and reflect renewed efforts to appeal to the next generations. Lisa Veeck explains…
“At this point, we have not seen a measurable increase in our breakroom category,” says Jeff Lurcook, president of Strive Workplace Solutions based in Portland, Oregon. “Most of our customers are in hybrid mode and haven’t opened their breakrooms back up since the pandemic.”
David Guernsey, president of Guernsey, Inc. in Dulles, Virginia, says breakroom supplies used to account for as much as 30 percent of the company’s sales. “Breakroom business was destroyed by the pandemic so that at one point it was 5 percent of our business,” he reports. “It is clawing its way back, but the hybrid work model is still sorting itself out. I am not 100 percent sure our breakroom business will be increasing immediately. But while the hybrid model is in vogue, I think it will become less popular as employers start measuring productivity and creativity, which usually involves in-person interaction. I also think there will be cultural bias issues, since not everyone can work from home.”
According to Guernsey, he’s not the only one banking on a return to the office. Increasingly, companies are spending money on breakrooms to make them more appealing in hopes of accelerating employees’ return to the office and attracting younger professionals in today’s tight labor market.
“There are big changes in the breakroom, with employers increasingly looking to upgrade them—not just with new equipment, but also by making furnishings more attractive and versatile,” explains Guernsey. “The days of the watercooler and coffee pot are gone; we get no orders for them. It used to be single-serve Keurig cups that were the desired model, but no one is asking for single-serve cups today. I’m a simple guy—a cup of black coffee and two sugars—but not today’s young professionals. Now, it’s specialty everything. Companies want machines with a variety of buttons and features that make what people usually buy at Starbucks. We are selling machines that make cappuccinos and frozen frappés like crazy. The old watercoolers are also gone. Employees want sparkling water; coolers that feature lime and strawberry water. For the younger workers, it’s all about choices.”
Guernsey believes that larger companies that once had cafeterias will begin offering these choices through micromarkets.
“Companies with 500 employees could economically support a cafeteria,” he explains. “But now, with so many working from home, they may only have 250 workers in the office, which is not enough to sustain a cafeteria. Instead, some of these companies are turning to micromarkets: small 7-11 type places where employees can get coffee, tea, sandwiches, salads and cold drinks. Some more advanced ones have a microwave for cooking frozen food like pizza. Companies with 200 people in a single facility can justify a micromarket.”
Randy Dixon, vice president of Charlotte Office Supply, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, says he has started seeing a significant increase in breakroom orders. “A lot of big companies are just opening up from the pandemic,” he says. “So in the past 90 days, there’s been a big uptick in breakroom sales, with companies wanting to improve and enhance their offerings to get employees back in the office. Some are also expanding their offerings to show appreciation for the employees who worked with them throughout the pandemic.”
Dixon also believes today’s breakroom is all about choice. “Companies are looking at higher-end coffee K-cups and pouches, and asking for more information on high-end coffee machines that make espresso and other hot and cold drinks,” he says. “In the last two months, there’s been an increase in soda; although the ratio of water—spring and purified—we sell compared to soda is 10:1. We’ve also seen an increase in crackers and Nutri-Grain bars, and a big increase in candy.”
Recycling and beyond
According to Guernsey, the environment is another major breakroom supply driver: “A big part of breakroom supplies is aimed toward green and recyclable, whatever it can be. There’s no demand for the old white Styrofoam cups.”
Greg McLeod, president and CEO of 1st Source Business Supplies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, says breakroom supplies—especially foodservice disposables—accounted for 10 percent of the company’s overall business until the recent win of a casino boosted this to about 15 percent. “If other opportunities we are pursuing work out, that number could go to 20 percent and even as high as 25 percent,” he predicts.
He agrees the environment is a driving source for breakroom products, but says it goes beyond recycling: “On the foodservice side, it’s no longer recyclable or even green; it’s everything compostable, which means you can bury it and a year from now, it will have returned to soil. A year ago, I would not have guessed this; but the compostable solutions are accelerating. Companies are asking for compostable everything: straws, eating utensils, cups.” He believes this trend is fueled by the younger generations, who are “more in tune with the environment,” as well as product improvements and greater availability.
“Many compostable products are made out of sugar cane and bamboo, which are sustainable sources,” he continues. “But many contain PFAS, which is used to coat products to make the sugar cane and bamboo hold up to things like grease. PFAS has been called ‘the forever chemical.’ It has been banned in five or six states, and I think it might be headed toward a federal ban. But manufacturer Naturezway doesn’t use PFAS and the products hold up well. Plus, the company has been willing to work with us and has a much better price point, which has increased our sales.”
Brian R. Peters is president of Peters Supply, Inc., Horseheads, New York—a jan/san dealer that has expanded into other categories over the years. He says breakroom products now account for 25 percent of the company’s business. He, too, has seen some changes in the category due to environmental concerns. “We’re based in New York, and we’ve seen plastic and foam bans over the past years,” he says. “That’s giving us an opportunity to help customers make changes that are better for the environment in all the categories, including breakroom.”
Dixon believes recycled breakroom sales are beginning to return to pre-pandemic levels: “We were selling a lot of recycled products before the pandemic; but during it, even the price of Styrofoam cups doubled and tripled. Dart, Dixie and other big cup manufacturers had big shortages, so people were buying whatever they could get. Now, cups and other paper products are still high. We have to keep an eye on prices day to day, to try to maintain our margins; but we are hoping to see the prices drop.”
Safe and healthy
According to Dixon, other breakroom trends include individually wrapped utensils and touchless items due to the continued focus on health and safety.
Peters agrees this is driving increases in certain breakroom products and equipment, including foam soap, hands-free towel dispensing and right-sized can liners. “Health and safety are top of mind of many customers,” he says. “Dealers need to educate customers about things that can make facilities healthier, such as touch-free systems.”
Meanwhile, McLeod notices changes in some of the food companies are ordering: “We are seeing more water than soda and a lot more options such as gluten-free and vegan, although there aren’t a lot of older employees in those lines.”
Guernsey notes that while many employers would like their workers to eat more healthily, that isn’t always how it works: “Employers want their employees to eat fruits and healthier food choices, and employees say yes, but then they end up eating the candy bars.” But that’s not always as unhealthy as it sounds: “The candy bars aren’t the Hershey’s or Three Musketeers they used to be. The Kind bar brands that contain fruit like cranberries, nuts and dark chocolate are healthier and very popular. Gluten-free cookies are ordered more frequently, and non- genetically modified is a big deal.”
Another area where change is afoot in breakrooms is furniture.
“It’s all over the place!” remarks Guernsey. “We have a large showroom—two-thirds is furniture and one-third is a café—and we have everything there: chairs, booths, sit-down tables; although today, I’d say the most popular are stand-up everything. We sell a ton of stand-up desks because they’ve found it’s not healthy for people to sit for eight hours. We sell a lot of stand-up breakroom tables for that reason. As for materials, there is greater awareness and interest in cleanliness and materials that can be wiped down easily with a cloth. We hardly sell any fabric sofas anymore. Society is more aware of cleanliness and it begins in the restroom. But breakrooms are right behind them because it is critical for breakrooms to be clean. We sell a lot of microbial products that can be easily cleaned and resist bacteria.”
While Dixon reports his company hasn’t experienced a boom in furniture sales thus far, that’s not to say this isn’t coming: “We haven’t seen an increase yet, but many companies are still trying to get a handle on who will be back and what space they will need. I think we might see an increase when companies are doing their 2023 budgets.”
Breaking into breakrooms
For dealers looking to establish or expand their breakroom offerings, Peters suggests: “Customers want help solving problems. Focus on the customer problems you’re able to solve—lead time on shipments, cost, productivity, health/hygiene and environmental sustainability.”
Guernsey’s advice for expansion in the category is innovative, but comes with a warning: “There’s much more interest in micromarkets today and dealers can do well if there is a sufficient number of people to consume food. If there are not enough people, it can cost dealers; so they need to be sure the economics make sense.”
Dixon sees breakroom supplies as an area of growth, but only for those dealers who pursue it. “You just need to ask your customers what they provide in their breakroom and don’t be afraid to ask about providing it,” he advises. “This area is expanding, and it will continue to expand. The new norm will be more perks in the breakroom.”
McLeod also sees breakrooms as a lucrative category for dealers willing to do what he believes is necessary for success. “Raise your hand,” he urges. “One year ago, we did that with casinos and got our first one; and as you get your second and third win, it gives you a higher level of confidence. Also, be willing to educate yourself. A year ago, I wouldn’t have known the first thing about compostable products. Also, be eager to get the business. It used to be relying on the fundamentals—being real, being honest, returning calls and being willing to respond—didn’t differentiate you. It was common. But now, fewer are doing it. Finally, don’t be intimidated by your big competition. When it comes to providing good service, to a large extent, the big companies are asleep at the wheel.”
Lisa Veeck is associate editor of INDEPENDENT DEALER and owner of Clean Communications, a full-service content-generating firm specializing in office products, cleaning and maintenance, and healthcare industries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-484-7412.