With a pandemic pivot, a Seattle catering company offers food-centric baskets for design-minded gift-givers.
By Rachel Gallaher
Bite Society offers a handful of themed baskets for gifting, such as this "Pacific Northwest" bundle.
It’s a story told over and over again thanks to the pandemic: we had a business and then all of a sudden we didn’t. And while no industry escaped the past year unscathed, few were hit as hard as those in food and hospitality. Such was the case for Seattle-based City Catering, a woman-owned catering company of more than 20 years that ran four cafes and catered thousands of events. Last March as COVID-19 started its spread and events and gatherings were canceled, City Catering owner Lendy Hensley and two business partners, Shana Hicks and Katy Carroll, suddenly found that 98 percent of their business was gone. While devastating, the loss soon presented a unique opportunity. With their combined industry experience the women decided to launch Bite Society, a smart and stylish update on the decades-old, tried-and-true gift basket.
“We wanted to keep connecting people through food,” says Hensley of the pivot. “Katy and I had to cancel a planned trip to London, so she sent me a hamper from Fortnum and Mason. I fell in love with them long ago, and I loved the idea of doing something with gift baskets that was more modern. We knew that the direction of the artwork for our packaging would be as important as the quality of the food we put into it. We turned to old-school flash tattoo as the inspiration for the Bite Society brand. We produce and package most of our products, so they have a distinct point of view in both appearance and flavor. It all works together.”
Bite Society's branding and packaging was designed by tattoo artists, a look that gives the products a modern edge over more options on the market.
As the pandemic rolled on through spring and summer, Hensley, Hicks, and Carroll realized that they, along with most people, weren’t about to return to “normal” anytime soon. The trio started gathering each week to pitch ideas and test them out—rather than source a random assortment of items from other companies, they make their high-end culinary gems including pickles, cookies, mustards and sauces, candies, nuts, and other snacks. (They do offer a few items not made in-house including some meats and cheeses well as coffee from Lighthouse Roasters, with whom the trio have a long-standing relationship).
“The only certainty over the past year was that we were not going to be catering anytime soon,” Carroll says. “Once that was clear, the risk of starting something new seemed small compared to the risk of doing nothing. We had backyard meetings with Lendy, Shana, and often Shana’s girls, hired people across the country with the expertise we needed and became friends with them, tasted so much food that we dubbed Tuesdays and Thursdays ‘tasting belly’ days, and tested recipes first at home and then in our commercial kitchen. Every Friday when Filip, our main designer, would drop his week’s work on us to consider over the weekend. The whole process never felt like a chore.”
Most everything, including an assortment of candies is made in-house by the Bite Society team.
Thinking of gift baskets can bring to mind the cellophane-wrapped monstrosities full of stale cookies and shrink-wrapped sausages that are often shelled out in corporate settings around the holidays—the exact stereotype that Bite Society has set out to overturn. Items arrive in modern, gray felt baskets with wooden handles, and many snacks (from cookies and chips to nuts) come in reusable tins decorated with vintage-tattoo-inspired graphics.
“From the beginning, we wanted a graphic-forward look to the packaging that felt a bit retro and a bit modern,” says Carroll. “We settled pretty quickly on the idea of using old school tattoos as inspiration for the logo and packaging. After walking away from a design company that was struggling to get us what we want, we realized that tattoo artists were in the same covid boat as the caterers: no work and uncertain prospects. So, we put out ads and hired tattoo artists to design for us.”
Vintage-tattoo-inspired graphics as seen on a box of cookies.
Bite Society has carved out a unique space within the gift basket industry—it’s the gift basket for people who thumb their nose at the idea of gift baskets. Currently, the trio is working on expanding its offerings to include more vegan and gluten-free options, additional cookie and potato chip flavors, and they are also looking at moving their salsa and mustard into retail outlets.
“When we were City Catering, our motto was ‘Nobody Parties Like Us,’ says Hicks. “And it was true. We produced some pretty darn fantastic and memorable events. When Covid hit and we had the opportunity to do something different—that motto remained in our minds. We wanted to create a new way for people to connect, no matter the distance—and it had to be memorable. It was also important to us to create a product for people who wanted to gift something fresh and new, and frankly a little edgy and daring.”