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Build Your Own Lunch Adventure

Elan Bar

September 29, 2015


Psychologist Barry Schwartz gave a TED talk back in 2005, in which he discussed a concept he calls the “Paradox of Choice.”[1] Namely, he argues that more choice isn’t more freedom, and that too much choice leaves consumers feeling dissatisfied. Drawing a connection between a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and lunch may seem like a stretch, but bear with me.

DC has become a “build-your-own” Mecca over the last few years,[2] with a new concept seeming to pop up every few weeks. We can think of it as the “Chipotle-zation” (not my term) of the lunch experience.

While all these places purport to give us, the eaters, more control, I would argue that many, if not most, are just using these concepts as a way to get out of having to actually understand the way flavors come together to elevate a dish. These establishments put the burden of choice, and, consequently, the end result, squarely on the shoulders of the customer.

Don’t like your meal? Well, you built it, so that’s on you.

The truth is that most of us don’t know what goes with what, at least not instinctively. I cook a lot, and I eat even more. I still feel like a person running a restaurant should know better than me. When presented with a nearly-limitless number of options (more on that below), I feel like the business couldn’t be bothered with actually knowing food. They’re just providing a buffet of options that’s barely a step beyond going to the produce aisle of the supermarket.

The fact of the matter is that when I need to have lunch, I want someone to have done the heavy lifting for me. Lunch should be effortless and delicious. That’s not to say that I don’t want some level of control. But I also don’t want to have to worry that one of the countless combinations “won’t go.” I want to know that the vendor or restaurateur has already taken the time to ensure that no matter how I customize my meal, it’s going to taste great.

Make Your Own Salad

Certainly, the most egregious offenders are the “build your own” salad joints. As I mentioned above, using some 8th-grade math, we can truly appreciate the absurdity of some of these places. We have two popular salad chains here in DC: Chop’t and Sweetgreen. I pulled up their menus and wanted to figure out how many different combinations of salad I could make using the following criteria:

  • 1 “base”: greens or quinoa or millet or whatever
  • 1 protein: chicken, tempeh, seitan, steak, tofu, falafel, etc.
  • 4 toppings
  • 1 dressing

Wanna guess how many salad combinations you can make using those criteria and Chop’t’s list of ingredients?[3] What’s that? Oh, no, sorry, you’re wrong. It’s way more than that. By my rudimentary calculations, you have a total of 68,356,575 potential “build your own” salad combinations.

What about Sweetgreen?[4] They seem a lot more limited, local, etc., right? Kind of. Using the same parameters as above, Sweetgreen presents you with 14,876,400 combinations. Keep in mind that these calculations are limited to standard menu items. They don’t include things like seasonal or specialty ingredients.

That’s not to say that there aren’t versions of this concept that are good. While I think that’s commitment to working exclusively with local vendors is one of our strongest selling points, we’d be short-sighted in refusing to acknowledge the things the “big boys” do well. And, when it comes to build-your-own concepts, there’s nobody quite as big as Chipotle.[5] Personally, I think that’s the reason why Chipotle is so successful: a limited selection of ingredients, and they all taste pretty good together.[6] They make user-error in the “build your own” world (nearly) impossible.

So what is it that I’m looking for? I’m looking for that sweet spot: I want to hang out on the corner of Curation Blvd. and Customization Ave.

I want a vendor to thoughtfully curate the ingredients they’re going to feature in a build-your-own concept, and I want any combination of them to give me a delicious result. Curation is more conceptual than practical. Giving me a bunch of raw veggies without any rhyme or reason is not curation. This is the delicate flavor dance that a build-your-own concept should do. The vendor should do the curation, the eater should do the combination, and the end result should always be a beautiful food baby.

A vendor who has done an awesome job with this is Quickstep Catering. We came to Andy, the chef/owner of Quickstep, early in our partnership with the idea of developing salad bar concepts. Andy took to it like a fish to water. He developed a dozen different concepts, from an “Asian Crunch” bar with chow mein noodles and Chinese 6-spice chicken, to a seasonal “Fall Harvest” bar with spiced butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and a sage vinaigrette.

Take another of our most popular vendors: Medi. They make delicious build-your-own Mediterranean-inspired bowls. Through our collaboration, you get components that aren’t even offered in-store, but come together in the most delectable of ways, no matter how you choose to combine them.

All of this feeds into (pun intended!) how we develop vendors’ menus for our clients. We strive to ensure that no matter which combination you make, you’re going to enjoy your lunch. We’ve worked diligently with many of our vendors to find that perfect point of giving our clients a lot of variety, but making sure that when they come to that proverbial fork in the “build-your-own” road, they can take it.[7]


[1] I can’t recommend it enough:

[2] “Chipotle Wannabes Find DC the Perfect Place for Have-It-Your-Way Cuisine”:



[5] Maybe Subway..but don’t even get me started on Subway.

[6] I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a Gaucho shout-out to Freebirds (in IV, of course), who were doing build-your-own burritos (and nachos!) round-the-clock well before Chipotle ever existed.

[7] RIP Yogi



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