Pandemic pivots often include a drop in productivity and revenue. Just look at restaurants trying to feed people in sheds in the street, yoga teachers trying to finesse a class online and sports teams trying to hang on to their fans remotely.
One pivot that promises to open up a new revenue stream however is Remote Breakroom. It is a sub section of Agora Refreshments which provides coffee machines, drinks and break room snacks to offices. (Agora is the Greek word that means open market.) Agora has done well in high tech workplaces where staff have all the bagels and Alpen they can eat so long as they stay at their desk. With Remote Breakroom, office bosses can send boxes of (new and trendy snacks) to their workers as they toil away at their kitchen tables/standup desks.
Cloud services, mobile apps and cardboard packaging make it easy to send anything anywhere. And home workers love an interruption from the parcel delivery person.
Eleven-year-old company Agora is Seattle-based but for the last three years has expanded its coffee service in Portland that caters to company break rooms. In April 2020 it took a five year lease on a warehouse near Portland International Airport (6841 N.E. Columbia Blvd.) and has added two Portland staff there to handle its growing snack business.
Agora CEO Andrew Didier explained to the Business Tribune how the spin off Remote Breakroom, took off.
"It's for companies that are trying to build morale and boost connections with their employees working from home," he said. "Giving them the same amenities that they were getting at work delivered right to their door."
Remote Breakroom might be a good barometer of the return to the workplace.
"May through July is when people I'm hearing are coming back full-time. But I would say Q2, it's going to be a hybrid of people coming back and working remotely."
Return the urn
After piece-mealing it since April 2020, Remote Breakroom has recently launched its own platform.
Remote Breakroom targets human resources professionals and office managers, who can compile a list of staff to whom they want to send a box of treats. They can load names by hand or just send in an Excel spreadsheet of staff and addresses. The more convenient, the more traction, according to Didier.
When COVID sent everyone into work-from-home mode, Agora quickly started a business sending custom boxes of snacks to workers. In the beginning, Remote Breakroom was all done with phone calls and web forms. They started out using Shopify software. Later they developed a web platform to make it easier to customize the contents.
"At first it was like a lead request page online," Didier said of the process. But there are introverts in HR and office management too. "Some people just don't want to talk to anyone, they just want to be able to set it up themselves and then interact with us online. So, we can do it either way."
After 11 years, business was going well and growing in Portland. Agora had just expanded in early 2020 and rented a large, modern warehouse on Columbia Boulevard when the pandemic hit. Orders screeched to a halt. Then offices began returning their coffee urns and fridges.
Pick up snacks
On average they do about 5,000 boxes a month. Peak time was before Christmas 2020, when companies were doing virtual holiday parties, lunches and happy hours in the depths of the pandemic.
On a slow week most pick and pack is done in the Seattle warehouse and driven to Portland in one of Agora's six vans. The web platform has had the added benefit of giving Remote Breakroom national reach. Boxes can go anywhere. In February, they did 800 movie night boxes for a tech company, Infoblox. Workers all over the U.S. got their box and were encouraged to watch a movie together.
Clients include Propel Insurance, Infoblox of Tacoma, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, JP Morgan and "a large sportswear manufacturer in Portland," as well as donation boxes for Providence Hospital workers who were doing COVID-19 testing.
Aside from pet and offspring appearances in Zoom meetings, this is often the closest firms can get to office culture.
Didier says companies are running out of ideas of how to boost morale with their employees as the pandemic drags on.
"One tech company told me, there's only so many times that they can send a Starbucks gift card to an employee. They're kind of burned out by that." They talk of workers stuck in front of a computer all day with no time to make a proper meal or with kids they're trying to homeschool.
What they need is "A box of assorted healthy treats that they can eat throughout the day and help give them energy so that they're not fatigued from 11 Zoom meetings, one after another."
They offer Northwest coffee brands such as Coava and Caffe Umbria. The snacks are often "clean eating," in the sense of not being stuffed with chemicals and corn syrup, and clean as in they won't grease up your hands and screens. There's a lot of banana chips, organic jerky and dark chocolate, as well as organic teas and coffees. Individual boxes start at $30. It's a volume business however, and companies have been known to send out 250 boxes at a time. Agora buys products at the wholesale rate, but is courted by snack companies who sometimes give free samples to get on the menu.
Didier's staff have tasting sessions where they try out new snacks. The pressure is on to keep the fodder interesting and cool. Items such as vegan pork rinds (made of white beans) may seem normal in Portland but folks west of here find them a novelty.
"Sometimes if we work with a company that has a bigger marketing budget, they'll be like, 'Hey, if you guys buy 50 cases of this, we're gonna throw in an additional 10 cases for free' or something like that. So usually, we can make up (the) margin when we're able to work with local companies that are wanting to get their name out nationwide."
With small snack companies, social media often cuts out the wholesaler or middle man. Mutual Instagramming can save money for both sides, Remote Breakroom and the snack company.
The snacks are shelf stable things like pretzel crackers, fruit and nut bars, chips, and brands such as Boom Chicka Pop, Honey Mama's chocolate and www.lesserevil.com popcorn. They don't fill the boxes with the usual unhealthy breakroom fare of PepsiCo products.
"(The companies') whole goal is to make sure that their employees are not getting drained and feeling lethargic throughout the day, they want to energize they're really okay."
They don't offer drinks or alcohol yet because the container recycling fees and alcohol tax laws differ so much from state to state.
"It's kind of a tough," he said. "We don't have a huge legal team to do that. But it's something that we're working on."
The goal is to give workers an energy boost, but it's also to keep links with the company alive.
Didier sees a post-pandemic, back-to-work future for Remote Breakroom, saying there will be times when remote teams will need to bond. Events such as remote happy hours and other work-social meetings.
"We've had some insurance companies that wanted to do prospecting. They've sent boxes out as sales prospecting campaigns, saying like, 'Hey, we're thinking about you. We're hoping to work together in the new year.'"
It's sort of like the corporate Christmas card meets the MeetUp with an open bar.
The company offers a custom card service, so the box of snacks can contain a note saying things like "Welcome back" and "Looking forward to working with you in 2021."
Ultimately, Didier thinks it will not cannibalize the Agora breakroom business.
"I think it will supplement our business. When any company can have more arrows in their quiver to be a resource, it's always going to be beneficial. We have a way of reaching every type of staff member, employees that are working in the office and the ones that aren't. I think if you can do both, you're just set up to be a lot more successful company."
Remote Breakroom (A division of Agora Refreshments)
Portland Warehouse: 6841 NE Columbia Blvd UNIT 3