As the return to the office continues, more importance is being placed on providing breakroom spaces that are far removed from the old cafeteria style. Lisa Veeck finds out how independents can take advantage
Remember when breakrooms were bland areas where people went to grab a cup of lukewarm coffee to wash down a donut in the morning, and a somewhat stale candy bar or a frustratingly small bag of chips from a vending machine to stave off the 3:00 p.m. hunger pangs? Well, things have changed—and, as one commercial says, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
What’s hot, what’s not
One of the more unique breakroom offerings comes from Herald Office, Dillion, South Carolina, reflecting an innovative way of thinking that helps explain why the company is approaching its 130th anniversary.
“We sell more five-gallon jugs of water than we do copy paper and we were spending all the money on freight; then there’s the hours it takes to ship, etc.,” explains Herald’s president Myers Jordan. “So, we decided to open our own water treatment center. We will use a reverse osmosis process, and the water will go through four to five stages before we bottle it. Our customers rent the water coolers, we pick up the empties and now we will deliver ones full of our water. We expect to have it up and running by ISG’s Industry Week.”
For Guernsey, Inc., Dulles, Virginia, where breakroom supplies account for 20 percent of total sales, coffee reigns supreme. But it is not the coffee that your parents might be thinking of.
“Our number one breakroom seller is coffee: we have an incredible selection,” says CEO and president David Guernsey. “We offer Keurig, Expresso, a variety of bean to cup—so many options.” The company boasts at least 16 high-end coffee machines but prefers not to sell them—and not only for the obvious reason that the company can supply the coffee. “We lease most of our machines because technology changes so fast that in two, three or five years’ time, that model might be obsolete,” explains Guernsey.
According to Jordan, Herald’s also sells a lot of coffee, but has seen a move from Keurig to more pod-pack options. He also reports there is more call for plumbed equipment—so much so that the company now has its own plumber on the books. And Herald’s is not alone.
“We sell refrigerators, ice machines, microwaves—whatever a customer needs,” says Guernsey. “But we also install, maintain and repair them. We have an electrician and a plumber on staff. It’s important to see the project through from start to finish. Customers not only want to buy from us. They want us to install and maintain the equipment. They want the full package, and they want to know we can take care of it for them.”
And the “full package” for Guernsey includes all facets of the breakroom: “Sometimes customers know what they want; but sometimes they will walk into our showroom and point to a whole space we have set up and say, ‘I want that!’ We suggest designs and can install the walls, ceilings, carpet, lighting, electronics—everything needed.” Guernsey has distinct vehicles for its various technicians and departments to ensure customers feel confident in the company’s diverse capabilities.
At Office 360, Indianapolis, Indiana, quantifying breakroom sales depends on how you define them. “We consider breakroom and janitorial together, since if a wipe or towel is used in the breakroom, which one is it?” explains Rayce Nahmias, category manager—facilities and breakroom. He estimates the two categories together account for about 17 percent to 20 percent of sales, while strictly traditional breakroom is about 10 percent. He goes on to observe that health and wellness trends are now clearly in evidence in this space.
“I don’t know about other places, but we’ve been doing well with Essendant’s Green Rabbit program—better, honestly, than I thought we would,” says Nahmias. Green Rabbit offers fresh and frozen products, like frozen meals and fresh fruit, that can be ordered and delivered in one to three days. Nahmias suggest Green Rabbit’s distribution center in Indianapolis could account for some of 360’s success with the program. Part of the reason for his initial doubt rested in pricing. “It’s a convenience item, so it’s not cheap,” he acknowledges. “It’s not like going to Walmart for a bunch of bananas; but many companies don’t want their employees having to do that. For the employees, it’s a perk. They like being able to grab an apple or something healthy instead of a bag of chips from a vending machine they’ll feel guilty about later.”
Adeline Border, Office360’s marketing manager, agrees that the Green Rabbit program has proved successful, even with minimal promotion.” We use it here at 360 and love having fresh food in the office,” she says. “We’ve not marketed the program. People see it on our website and order.”
Yet other types of “green” have been struggling since the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Office360’s breakroom sales hard—as it did many independent dealers. “During COVID-19, the concept of green [in terms of the environment] went out the window,” Nahmias recalls. “The sentiment was, ‘Get away; don’t touch my coffeepot, cup or fork.’ It made sense, but it was awful for the environment. It’s not 100 percent back to where it was pre-COVID-19, but there’s definitely been a swing back toward bulk. Single-serve is expensive; and with high interest rates and inflation, people are trying to find ways to batten down the hatch.”
Color my office world
Regarding color trends, “Today’s breakroom walls are definitely not brown and gray,” says Guernsey. “Companies want color. Orange is huge; so is red, but orange feels a little safer for most.” And textures? “The key is soft but cleanable,” he says. “Textiles and fabrics are in, but there’s a lot more attention being paid post-COVID-19 to the ability to keep the breakroom super-clean.”
Joe Breczka, director of sales—office products division for Intivity, Inc., Rochester, New York, agrees that brighter colors are in but broadens the scope: “People are looking for lighter, more vibrant breakroom colors—bright and light greens; white; a bit of purple; blues, but not the traditional ones—vibrant blue.”
He reports artwork is also following a similar trend: “The days of photos in dark wood frames are gone. Now, acrylic and art complement the color schemes and more modern motifs. It all goes along with companies’ desire to create a more inviting experience.”
Similarly, “Today’s breakrooms aren’t the tables and chairs of the past,” he says. “The cafeteria-style is gone in favor of more modern gathering areas. We don’t see many closed offices. We see some panels, but mostly open spaces with chairs and side pedestal-type tables, which are more modern. They are looking for more casual and comfortable environments.”
Breczka observes clients also want breakroom materials that are easy to clean: “The textile chosen depends on the overall design of the breakroom, but easy to clean is a priority post-COVID-19. We are seeing some vinyl coming back for this reason.”
Border agrees that companies are going for comfort, but it’s still a difficult road luring people back to the office: “It’s tough to make breakrooms better than an employee’s own kitchen, stocked with exactly what they like, and to offer the same coziness and everything they have at home. But we try!”
While a breakroom may not be the same as home, Breczka suggests it’s still a strong attraction: “I 100 percent believe the more contemporary and comfortable environment helps bring workers back to the office. Hybrid workers are in and out of the office; and when they are there, they want a touchpad that’s a relaxed environment—someplace where they can meet to talk, collaborate and grab a coffee or something to eat.”
Views on the competition
When it comes to Amazon, how serious a threat it is in this space depends on who you talk to. “It’s not at all a competitor,” says Guernsey. “The coffee machines are an example. We seldom sell them but we service them. Amazon doesn’t provide service.”
But Nahmias feels the opposite. “Any dealer that says Amazon is not a competitor doesn’t realize it is,” he insists. “Amazon does an incredible job of making it easy to do business. People use it for their personal shopping; why not business?” That said, while he says people may buy straws, cups or even a coffeepot from the mega-retailer, he reports, “We’ve not lost whole customers to Amazon.”
Advice from the ranks
The dealers we interviewed are united in the consensus that breakroom is a segment with rich potential. “For the past 15 years, breakroom has been a product category of upward growth,” says Breczka. “The introduction of Keurig made it easy for independent dealers to enter the coffee machine world. Keep moving forward. Expand. It’s not just a product category with coffee. All the peripheral supplies, cups, etc., and other categories can be brought in, like promotional products; partners may want to put logos on their cups and glasses. Anyone in the office products world understands office products have been in decline since technology advanced. Breakroom is a great and growing category. Don’t walk away or sidestep it. It’s a great opportunity to engage with your customer partners.”
Guernsey also sees a bright future for breakroom, with a few caveats: “Breakroom can be a very successful category, but you need to put a lot of dollars into it. You need to have a balance sheet for it and the technical ability. It’s not a category that you just sell. You need to be able to maintain and repair the equipment. You can’t go in with half a loaf. You need to be willing to invest to complete the whole project from start to finish.”
Nahmias’s advice is twofold and includes a great example of making sure you understand the whole picture. “First, make it as easy for your customers to do business with you directly as with Amazon,” he counsels. “Second, ensure you understand what’s required to provide a full breakroom offering. For example, we have really hard water where we are, so our techs need to know how to handle that for coffee makers. Our techs have to go in and descale them, sometimes up to three times a year—and in older buildings with older pipes, even more often. In some cases, even using extra filters isn’t enough. Warranties don’t cover hard water. Suppose a dealer’s quote doesn’t consider the cost of descaling, extra filters and broken machines. To keep a customer, you may have to eat those costs and it can really add up.”
Guernsey concludes by summarizing what today’s clients are looking for in a breakroom: “The top basic points are: exciting, pleasant, clean and variety.”