By KATHY AMES CARR, Crain’s Cleveland Business

Spice of Life is firmly planted in the special events catering business, with traditional celebratory affairs dotting its annual calendar along with its signature alfresco Plated Landscapes events, fundraisers and business dinners.The Detroit Shoreway chef-driven operation now is tapping a new line of business — boxed lunches, hot lunch buffets and plated meals for the corporate lunch crowd — a niche that operators say is underserved and ripe for growth.

“We’ve been handling some orders in the Midtown area,” says Spice Cos. executive events planner Jess Edmonds. “Now we really want to ramp up this line of business.”

The Spice boutique catering company is targeting tech-minded companies and other organizations that prioritize fresh, wholesome eating. Menu items vary according to season, but a boxed lunch during the winter season addresses a variety of dietary preferences with items ranging from green curry tofu to soy molasses brined chicken. Recipients even receive a small potted plant of basil, stevia and mint, with instructions on how to pluck and simultaneously chew the leaves for an after-lunch breath mint.

All ingredients are gathered either by the chef himself or harvested by a small, sustainably focused partner purveyor.

“The lunches offer beautiful presentations with creative ingredients,” says Jackie Bebenroth, Spice brand manager. “This really connects people to the experience of where their foods come from, which is at the heart of our mission.”

Other chef-driven restaurants with catering arms also are extending their reach toward the business lunch hour, as more wellness-savvy, time-crunched professionals seek healthier alternatives to the conventional grab-and-go sandwich chain.

“We’re certainly seeing a lot more restaurant operators building their lunch catering business within the catering realm,” said Melissa Wilson, a principal of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm. “There’s a potential for higher margins when you have higher-spend orders in bulk volume.”

The lunch crowd

The average business spends $1,000 per month on catering, with the average order size about $181, according to Technomic.The lunch catering stream also gives restaurants another opportunity to leverage their bricks and mortar, Wilson said.

“These meals are being prepared before their peak lunch hour, so this is a great way for them to add in additional revenue to their operations,” she said.

Scott Kuhn, owner of Driftwood Restaurants and Catering, said his operation’s foray into the lunch catering business began a little more than a year ago, shortly before its catering command center — Rothschild Farms — opened in the PlayhouseSquare District.

“Lunch was one of the latter pieces to come into catering, and we’re trying to expand upon that,” Kuhn said.

He attributes the palatable margins as a motivating influence for beefing up this line of business, which is why Driftwood is planning a more assertive outreach with the corporate segment.

“It’s also really about cultivating deeper relationships with the clients you serve at other functions, and creating new relationships with others,” he said.

Kuhn and co-owner Chris Hodgson are in discussions with other businesses about emulating a relationship similar to that of Driftwood’s biggest client, Cleveland law firm Calfee, Halter & Griswold, Kuhn said.

Driftwood is the sole supplier of food for that downtown outfit, supplying each day grab-and-go hot meals, sandwiches and soups for the firm’s cafe. The catering company also prepares and delivers hot buffet lunches on a daily basis.

“We have on average about 65 hot meals a day that we serve here for client meetings or group practice meetings,” said Phil Dawson, Calfee’s chief operating officer, who noted the firm traded its former catering partnership with an institutional food service provider for its current local purveyor, located just a couple blocks away.

“We’re very happy with Driftwood,” Dawson said.

Leaving a good taste

On the corporate end, offering boxed lunches or a similar creative spread prepared with hyperlocal ingredients provides an opportunity to impress its clients.

“A lot of firms are looking for something different to offer because it makes them stand out from other companies that offer the traditional Panera or Au Bon Pain during client meetings,” Technomic’s Wilson said. “It reinforces an impression that they are willing to spend more on their clients by delivering higher quality, unique offerings.”

It’s not just about client impression either.

More companies want to bolster employee well-being — and therefore productivity — by enticing them away from the vending machines and giving them the access to more nutritious lunches.

Thus was the impetus behind LunchOwl, a Cleveland-based startup that launched in summer 2013 with the sole focus of delivering freshly prepared nutritious lunches — even embellished with personalized notes — to downtown and suburban businesses. LunchOwl’s modest but fledgling client base ranges from a Beachwood-based pet insurance company to a downtown Cleveland accounting firm.

Doug Katz said his Katz Club boxed lunches were a boon for his business before a fire forced that Cleveland Heights nostalgic diner to close in October. For the time being, his Fire, Food & Drink in Shaker Square is handling larger catering orders.

“We used to be able to do six of these and six of those because it was easy to do at Katz Club,” the chef-operator said.

“But in our current state, we need to do a certain volume — we look for 25 people minimum. Our service is high quality and customized according to what the customer wants. We don’t have a menu where you pick only A, B and C.”