Life Made Simple is the name of Jackie Bunn’s Princeton-based business. Its mission is to use technology to ease the thrice daily what-in-heck-are-we-going-to-feed-them dilemma. "It’s amazing, when you delve into it, how much food is used," she says.
Yes, families everywhere have a disconcerting habit of insisting on meals day after day, but this is not Bunn’s worry. No, her business fills the tummies of corporate men and women. Between week-long training programs, depositions, meetings, and efforts to woo clients of all stripes, there is quite a bit of eating going on along the Route 1 corridor.
The task of providing repasts generally falls to a company administrator, says Bunn, and it’s a lot of work. Her company, through its affiliation with Charlottesville, Virginia-based Vmeals (the "V" is for virtual), has been seeking to take a measure of pain out of the process for about one year – and is just now launching a new product, Virtual Cafe, which caters not to those trapped in meetings, but rather to every deskbound employee too busy to run to Nassau Street or Nassau Park for lunch.
Vmeals works like this. Bunn signs up local restaurants and caterers, who put their delivery menus online, along with information about their minimum order requirements. Office administrators faced with, say, a week’s worth of round-the-clock meetings concerning a mega-merger, log onto the Internet, peruse the menus, schedule delivery of any number of breakfast, lunch, and dinner orders for that week, add credit card information, and sit back and wait for the food to arrive.
A whole year’s worth of food could be ordered at one time, if, for example, the administrator knew that her firm’s partners need to be provided with refreshments every Thursday night at 6 p.m. as they hold their weekly meetings. The menu for the Christmas bash could be set in October. What’s more, the food could be ordered from many sources with just one trip online, and could be paid for with just one credit card transaction – with data that had been stored, if the administrator so wished, when she signed up with Vmeals.
Companies pay nothing for the service – no delivery fees, no tips. Vmeals covers it all.
Bunn has signed up 52 restaurants and caterers to provide meals to her clients. They include Apple Spice Junction, Malaga, Massimo’s, Flavor of India, Vidalia, Cafe Ole, and Ya Ya Noodles. (For a complete list go to www.vmeals.com and type in area codes for Princeton-area towns.) Her company makes its money through the discounts that these eateries give it.
She says that negotiating the discount is the biggest hurdle to signing up more businesses. She points out to them that joining the Vmeals network is a good deal for them because she absorbs credit card fees, and because they reel in business they might not otherwise have gotten – without having to tie up any personnel to get it. Also, she says, this new business brings exposure that could generate even more business. She puts her company’s share of the bill at about 10 percent after credit card fees and other expenses.
She can only work with restaurants and caterers that are set up for delivery, and that, in her opinion, put out a quality product. She also looks for a strong customer service bent. "Accidents happen," she says. A Route 1 back-up, for example, can mean that food will arrive late. But when there is a problem, she expects her partners to pitch in with her to make things right for the client.
Vmeals’ headquarters takes care of all technology and billing, while Bunn spends her days signing up and working with food providers.
She is also busy selling her new product, Virtual Cafe. This service uses the same online ordering scheme as Vmeals, but is geared to individuals. But not all individuals. Virtual Cafe clients will be companies – most likely small companies. Ideal candidates are outfits that are not large enough to have an on-site cafeteria. Rather than watch their workers stream out of the parking lot, headed for an extended lunch/errand/shopping break, the logic goes, they can sign up for Virtual Cafe – at absolutely no cost – and keep their employees pinned down in their cubicles, eating lunches that come to them.
Virtual Cafe sets up a site on the company intranet where employees can order, paying by credit card. The choice for desk-bound employees is rather limited. The company will pick one, or at most two, restaurants a day. Each company can go with the same restaurants every day, or can rotate its choices. The restaurants chosen will be informed in advance so that they are prepared for a surge of business. Allowing employees to order from a large range of restaurants would not work, says Bunn, because it could result in orders that would overwhelm an unprepared restaurant.
Bunn, a native of Coventry, England, came to Vmeals via a career in consulting to the technology industry. She arrived in the United States in 1982 to work for PA Consulting. She then earned an MBA at New York University in international business and corporate strategy, and soon after began a career with Merrill Lynch, first in institutional sales. After working briefly for another financial services company, she returned to Merrill Lynch’s assent management group, where she worked from 1991 to 2002, rising to head of HR for that group.
When Merrill Lynch, after a number of management shake-ups, offered eligible employees a buy-out, Bunn decided to take it. "Something was not right with life," she says. "It was right after 9/11, and I had two young children." Opting for change, she looked to her alumni website for ideas, and there, posted on the NYU site, was information on Vmeals.
She visited the company’s home offices, thought it over, and decided that the enterprise, with its emphasis on smoothing out a service wrinkle, was in tune with the times. "I’m for any product that makes life easier," she says. "Life is so complex, if you can simplify it, it just makes so much sense."
She bought a license, not exactly a franchise, she says, but something similar, for the central and northern sections of New Jersey. She is now operating in 10 counties.
A Princeton resident, Bunn is married to Harry Bunn, the founder of RONIN, a global market research company with headquarters on Research Way. Their children, age 9 and 12, attend the Princeton Montessori school.
Business is good, she says, still marveling at just how many food-centric occasions business begets. Pharmaceutical reps send food to doctors’ offices all the time; financial services companies meet around meals constantly; and any corporate group being trained in anything is nearly always sequestered and fed three meals a day.
Summing it all up, Bunn says: "There is a lot of food eaten in a corporate environment."