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Café to Café

It's Not Just Lunch -- It's Gourmondo

By Ronald Holden

In the Old World, lunch was (and often still is) the highlight of the workday. Dwellers of corner offices descend to the sidewalk and saunter to the neighborhood bar & grill for a burger, to the local pub for a pint, to the corner bistro for a plat du jour. Three-martini lunches with clients, power lunches with industry colleagues, raucous lunches with longtime BFFs, clandestine lunches with rivals, furtive lunches with romance in mind.

Anything not to eat (and be seen eating) in the company cafeteria.

Sit-down restaurants nationwide have suffered from 400 million fewer restaurant lunches, according to the Wall Street Journal, representing $3 billion in lost lunch business over the past year alone. That's billion-with-a-b, as in box lunch.

Gourmondo lunch boxes, photo courtey of Gourmondo

Because the new norm, in our Brave New World, is the working lunch at the office. That one bit of private time during the work day when wage slaves are allowed to escape their cubicles and stretch? Stretch their legs, stretch their lungs, stretch their minds? Can you imagine anything as craven as the company that schedules meetings during an employee's private time?

But that's the way things are these days, so we've got to make the most of it. Make it better than a bologna, lettuce & mayo on Wonder Bread. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that. Along with the PB&J, the baloney sandwich is a reassuring lunch-box staple.

So let's get on with it. Ingallina's, for example, operates (aggressively) in Seattle, Portland, LA, and Phoenix. No charge for delivery, minimum two box lunches, priced at that sweet spot of $15, give or take a buck. Sandwich, bag of chips, bottle of water, cookie, knife-fork-napkin. Executive version gets fruit, "value" turkey san only for $11.

There are plenty of storefronts making sandwiches that will gladly deliver. Papa John's, Homegrown, prestigious restaurants like Blueacre, not-so-prestigious chains like McDonald's. Used to be, there was Gretchen's Shoebox Express, founded by the late Gretchen Mathers, bought by Schwartz Bros., sold to an international chain that took it out of play. But there are still plenty of services that pick up and deliver: Bite Squad, Uber, Yelp's Eat24, Caviar, Amazon, Grubhub, the list goes on.

Then there's Gourmondo, celebrating 21 years in business. Alissa Leinonen (photo by Ronald Holden) and two business partners pooled their resources in 1996 and opened the doors to their 470-square-foot sandwich shop next to Madame Lazonga's Tattoo Parlor. Leinonen refinanced her Jeep Wrangler to come up with $4,000. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was an early customer (the original Starbucks store was just down the street) and recommended the fledgling cafe to his managers. (Today Starbucks sells many times more lunches, but not boxed, and certainly not delivered.) Slowly, slowly, Gourmondo built a customer base, and left its Pike Place Market location in 2001 for larger quarters in the Coverdale Business Park south of downtown; starting with a single 1,200-square foot module, and growing to 12 spaces. A rebranding in 2004 with a new, more elegant logo and website bumped up sales sharply.

Today Gourmondo is one of Seattle's largest catering and gourmet box lunch companies: more than 10,000 lunches every month to 150 businesses, in addition to a growing catering business. Its salad dressings are sold at Metropolitan Markets, its cafés operate inside Amazon and other corporate locations.

Revenues are sneaking up on $10 million a year. And this for an operation that runs five days a week. Most of the company's 150 employees go home by early afternoon so they can pick up kids from school and be with their families.

I ate my way through much of the Gourmondo menu over the course of a week. The sandwiches were impressive. Brie and apple; roast turkey breast, havarti, dijon mayo, lettuce, Roma tomato. The baguettes come from Le Panier, the same bakery, located in the Market, that Gourmondo has been using since the very beginning. Delivered par-baked, finished in-house, they're crunchy with a soft interior. Fresh greens from Alvarez Farms enlivened with dried cherries and homemade salad dressings; Gourmondo even imports its own olive oil. Every lunch box includes chips and a mini Bundt cake from Jenny Wren bakery (see below). Tired of sandwiches? Gourmondo also offers salads (I enjoyed the Cobb as well as the pepita-crusted salmon [photo], and a grilled steak that came with red onion, tomato, and feta). The more ambitious items push up against the $20 wall-the mythical point at which a Human Resources manager is likely to opt instead for a buffet, hot or cold, which is fine with the Gourmondo folks; they're ready with half a dozen options. Exec chef Tom Black signed on in 2013 to shepherd the culinary team, part innovation, part quality control, part flavor enhancement. But catering and box lunches also involve a complicated "Dance of the Hours" system of logistics, which falls, in Gourmondo's case, on the shoulders of another relatively recent hire, Jonathan Zimmer (former GM at Lisa Dupar Catering). Between them, Black and Zimmer keep the quality higher than anyone has a right to expect, whether it's a $14 boxed lunch or a $19 "Parisian" menu of mushroom crepes.

In addition to delivery and catering, Gourmondo is making a move into freestanding cafés as well. They tried this once before, and it was disastrous. Companies that were closing their in-house cafeterias to save money thought they still needed full-service cafés to replace them; Gourmondo found the staffing alone to be a money-losing trap. Two of the company's six new cafés are open to the public for grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches delivered from the South Park commissary; there's no food prep on-site. And they contribute 20 percent of Gourmondo's revenue. Catering is also about 20 percent; box lunches 25 percent. The balance, over a third of revenues, is Gourmondo's surprisingly strong buffet business.

"No one knows I own Gourmondo," says Leinonen, "my name wasn't on the website until just recently. The focus is on the team." And the challenge, inevitably, is logistics. Fine dining is vulnerable because à la minute cooking doesn't translate into a two-hour hold.

At 11 in the morning, the shopping bags are lined up in the light-industrial space called Georgetown Industrial Park. Some two dozen bright red delivery vans pull up to the doors and are loaded with box lunches; they will deliver to over 150 businesses a day, 300 to 1,000 boxes on an average morning, ordered online as late as 5:30 the night before. Some 8,000 per month, and that's just the lunches, don't forget, which make up only a quarter of the Gourmondo business. When you include the catering operation and cafes, a total of 60,000 meals per month.



She was one of the three Gourmondo founders, a longtime pal of Alissa Leinonen's. They'd met in Italy, on a UW study-abroad program in Siena, became friends, then business partners. A couple of years into the venture, though, Jennifer Clancy became pregnant. She quit, but she didn't leave altogether. A baker with a strong work ethic, she became the supplier of Gourmondo's signature brownies, miniature chocolate bundt cakes that provide the perfect two-bite dessert for the box lunches.

Clancy prepares them in a 300-square-foot commercially certified kitchen in her West Seattle home, and bakes them in a Moffat turbo-convection oven (made in New Zealand) that turns out batches of 100. Twenty batches a week, 80 a month. The chocolate (Guittard) is delivered by Pacific Food Importers; for the butter, flour, sugar, and so on, Clancy drives across the bridge to the SoDo Cash & Carry like every other small restaurant owner. It's a not-quite-full-time job for Clancy, which nonetheless allows her to walk the dog (a Yorkie-Chihuahua mix named Darwin) and look after her family. The house smells like chocolate perfume.


June 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.

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