Seventh Wave Refreshments is bringing joy to the workplace

Sept. 12, 2022
Centered on that simple mission to bring joy to the workplace, Seventh Wave Refreshments’ founders are no newcomers to Atlanta’s workplaces, but they’re off and running with a fresh approach.

Seventh Wave Refreshments was established in March 2020, at what few operators would argue was the most unsettling and unpredictable time for workplace refreshments. Its founders, fueled by a deep passion for customers and innovation, had the simplest of business plans: bringing joy to the workplace.

Linda Saldaña, a self-described “super-passionate salesperson,” and her partner Dave Carroll, who she admires as a “nothing-is-too-big operations guru,” had worked together for many years at Southern Refreshment Services where they created and installed refreshment solutions for hundreds of Atlanta workplaces. The company was acquired by Five Star Food Service, one of the largest regional convenience service providers serving the Southeast and Midwest, which was when the duo decided to pursue their own venture.

Why Seventh Wave? The business name was birthed from a passion for refreshments and the desire to create a movement that would bring joy. “Since coffee comes in waves, the Seventh Wave would represent creation and completion.”  Saldaña explained. “It also represents our partnerships. Waves don’t run alone. They run in groups, and together, they have impact.”

This people-first, white-glove approach rooted in delivering joy, Saldaña declared, has led to fulfilling her quest to deliver the best coffee, tastiest food experiences and most innovative solutions. The company has grown to serve hundreds of locations throughout the greater Atlanta market with office coffee and pantry service and micro markets.

In recognition of Seventh Wave Refreshments’ running start to success, Automatic Merchandiser recognized Saldaña among its 2022 40 Under 40 Award winners. The awards highlight innovators who demonstrate leadership and a commitment to advancing convenience services for vending, micro markets and office coffee service. Saldaña credits her partner Carroll, her team and loyal suppliers who share Seventh Wave’s vision and go above and beyond to help bring it to life.

Meet the co-founders

Saldaña’s passion for coffee was what led her to the refreshment industry nine years ago as a salesperson at Southern Refreshment Services. In those years, she advanced to director of sales and reportedly sold more than $22 million in coffee, vending and micro market business.

The business was acquired by Five Star Food Service in 2019. With this corporate change, she found herself asking: What if she could take her passion a step further by creating a company that was 100% employee owned and delivered the ultimate refreshment experience to breakrooms around Atlanta.

She took a bold step and approached Carroll, who was set to retire, and convinced him to instead take a leap of faith and join her to launch Seventh Wave Refreshments.

Carroll brings 37 years of experience in the refreshment industry to Seventh Wave Refreshments. He began his career working for Servatron, distributing OCS products to customers throughout Southern California and advanced to vice president of sales. After Vistar acquired Servatron, he left to accept a position as general manager for Aramark in Atlanta. In 1992, he became general manager of Southern Refreshment Services and oversaw its growth from six routes to more than 60 servicing the metro Atlanta area during his tenure.

Together, he and Saldaña pooled their experience and their passion and set out to launch their employee-owned company dedicated to creating a refreshment revolution.

A wing and a prayer

“Have you ever felt so passionate about something that you risk absolutely everything to see it come to life?” Saldaña asked. “That is where Seventh Wave Refreshments came from.”

Starting just as the pandemic had shut down much of the world had its challenges, but there was also no way to go but up, and as it turned out, there were also many unexpected silver linings.

“Launching one week before the pandemic locked everyone down in March 2020, the greatest tool to grow was LinkedIn,” she recalled. “Everyone was working from home or at home working on their resumes when we started. We shared our story, and facility directors saw it on social media. It created an opportunity for storytelling and accountability; because we shared what we promised and delivered for our earliest customers, so we had to do it for others.”

Another unexpected door opener was that Seventh Wave Refreshments entered the scene offering an arsenal of hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps and UV light fixtures to disinfect the air. Concern over the virus’s spread was especially high, and such products were in scarce supply and high demand.

“Hand sanitizer got us in the door and then people said: ‘That girl with the hand sanitizer, she has coffee, too!” Saldaña recalled.

Despite their combined decades of convenience service expertise, the pandemic required a whole new level of strategy – as they navigated the ways it so drastically changed the workplace environment and how they could most effectively and practically serve it while upholding their highest of standards, Saldaña said.

“We had to be very strategic and say hard things to educate the customer,” she recalled. “We had to say this is the program for now, until 2,000 people come back, which hasn’t happened in most places and most likely never will. We had to shrink down programs that they had before us and consolidate and do a lot of cleanup work for the new reality of the downsized, remote and hybrid workforce. It’s a lot of education that was not needed before, and we had to be much more intentional than just depending upon what the customer said.”

Word of mouth

Seventh Wave’s first customer to sign on for its service was a large business in Atlanta that was “the name drop of all businesses,” according to Saldaña. The power of word of mouth has led to its growth in two-and-a-half of the most tumultuous years in the industry. Seventh Wave serves more than 200 customers with four micro market routes, two pantry routes and one coffee service route.

“We’ve grown strictly by referrals because we did something impactful for our initial customer and each customer that has followed,” Saldaña commented. “We’ve only dealt with really big customers or ones that wanted to get people back into the office with more than just OCS who asked us to provide pantry service or micro markets, so we have not had to dip into vending and don’t plan to. What was really needed was a great food program, which can only be available through a micro market. It’s been a huge differentiator for us.”

Another silver lining to launching during the early days of COVID was that it led to Seventh Wave partnering with some large food management companies to install and operate micro markets in place of cafeterias that they were forced to shut down without enough employees onsite to support them. And for those still wanting hot meals, Seventh Wave worked with its food supplier partners to provide a “pop up” concept at several sites.

The more the merrier

“Companies are still wanting to offer more, and many want to fully subsidize refreshments to entice people to come back and attract talent. That transition has been big,” said Saldaña. “The hybrid workplace is working for a lot of businesses, and micro markets lend themselves to that. Even in blue-collar environments that were not traditionally micro market locations, we converted many from vending machines.”

She added that many manufacturing locations had essential workers and stayed open throughout the pandemic, and employers wanted to keep them onsite by adding food to the mix and reward them by subsidizing their purchases.

Seventh Wave set up its first “pantry room” in a blue-collar environment three months ago, which is proving its value outside of the white-collar offices that had traditionally been the only types of sites that provided the service prior to the pandemic. 

“We’ve had lots of stops and goes over the past two-and-a-half years and learned a lot and adapted to a very different environment than the industry has ever seen,” the operator reflected. “Pantry has blown up, and it has been the sweetest surprise to watch it blossom for the ones who are in the office, from employers who want to offer them more … bring them joy.”

The right mix

Micro markets have also been exploding in popularity, bringing employees hundreds of items right in the breakroom with little reason to go elsewhere. Seventh Wave starts by merchandising the known national and regional top sellers and then, over the first 30 days, makes it a mission to learn directly from employees what specifically they want and the appropriate price points.

QR codes posted in every micro market and on fliers that employers can distribute invite end users to submit suggestions for products and equipment that will bring them joy. This approach has proven to bring in a steady stream of valuable feedback and suggestions to match the right products to each customer base, with some exception.

“If they want a super-duper, fancy-schmancy bar, for example, we might look at what else might sell better and also bring joy,” Saldaña said. “After 30 days, every market is completely customized. The big fit that’s had a far bigger impact has been focusing on the people present at each location, versus the money or set programs.”

Food glorious food

The centerpiece of every micro market is fresh, locally made, artisan-inspired food, the majority of which is available through Seventh Wave’s partnership with Atlanta-based, locally owned, high-end caterers.

Hand-crafted by experienced chefs, the products offered at each location are carefully chosen with employee preferences and employer goals in mind. On-trend selections like Budda Bowls, Southwestern Fiesta Bowls, and Ham Po Boy sandwiches are just a few examples.

“We set out to transform the caliber of food traditionally expected from a vending machine and from many micro markets to rival that of local delis and restaurants in our micro markets, and we succeeded,” Saldaña said. “But we had no idea of the level to which the pandemic would lead to a movement of many businesses replacing their cafeterias with micro markets, providing more demand than we could have imagined.”

The price is right

The operators have found that they can charge a fair price for food, ranging from $3.99 for snack-type items like fresh fruit and parfaits, to $12.50 for heat-and-eat from-scratch entrees in microwavable containers.

“We’ve also been forced to pass along two prices increases because of the crazy world we live in, and customers understand and value having delicious, high-quality food right in the office,” said Saldaña. “Because our goal is so people focused, it flows both ways. My customers text me just to ask how we’re doing with all of today’s challenges, from gas prices and product costs to the pandemic, and that is a dream.”

The convenience service veterans have structured Seventh Wave Refreshments to be 100% cashless, since micro market customers have the ability to use touchless transaction technology via 365 Retail Market’s 365 PayApp, loyalty cards and biometrics, along with credit and debit cards.

“We took over a lot of manufacturing firms that were traditionally used to paying with cash more so than white-collar locations do,” the operator recalled. “We went in and said, with COVID, everything is cashless to minimize surface contact with the virus’s spread, which helped set the foundation, and we were pleasantly surprised to find overwhelming acceptance that has stuck.”

Many employers also choose to subsidize their micro markets by adding funds to employees’ market accounts.

At your service

In addition to providing micro markets, many businesses are taking it a step further and catering in meals for their employees to make them feel valued and to boost productivity by encouraging them to remain focused and on site. Seventh Wave owns the relationship and works with Atlanta’s top caterers, who deliver the food and pack it up at the end of the day, whether it's daily, weekly or monthly, to suit the location’s budget and needs.

Their food partners’ message to employers, which Seventh Wave spreads, is that providing free lunch can save 30 minutes of commute time, five days a week, for 50 weeks a year, that adds up to 125 hours. That’s the equivalent of roughly three weeks of full-time work per employee that they feed. Not leaving for lunch also helps employees reduce their carbon footprint – with sustainability front and center of many minds on both a personal and corporate level these days.

With selling fresh food, there’s always a concern about waste and spoilage. Seventh Wave’s philosophy is that the better the food and the more closely tailored it is to what customers eat outside the workplace, the higher the turns and the lower the spoilage. Additionally, Seventh Wave’s agreement with the majority of the locations it serves with fresh food is that the employer absorbs the cost of all waste.

Coffeehouse appeal

While the pandemic has certainly had its impact on the number of employees on site at many locations, a quality coffee program is more important than ever in the Atlanta market, according to Saldaña. To reward those who have returned to the office and to entice back those who have not, and recruit new ones, Seventh Wave is finding many employers investing in creating an experience that rivals the local coffee house.

“Our mission is to create the ideal coffee service space for each Atlanta business partner we have, to bring an oasis to the workplace that will inspire and engage employees,” Saldaña commented. “That means that these break areas aren’t mass-produced, but thoughtfully designed to cultivate productivity and community with advanced brewers designed to create a cafe atmosphere with specialty drink offerings.”

Seventh Wave can install any type of solution, from Cafection bean-to-cup brewers, Starbucks, Newco and cold brew coffee on tap, to an onsite coffee bar with a high-quality espresso machine complete with fresh milk.

Craft coffee is in high demand, and there’s no limit to the brands and blends Seventh Wave can deliver. Sustainability is also important to both Seventh Wave Refreshments and many of its customers.

“From bean to cup, we take pride in partnering with coffee companies that offer sustainability programs,” Saldaña emphasized. “From livable wages to less waste in landfills, our partners are taking steps toward a greener world with each sip of coffee.”

Clear choice

Pure water is a vital component of most workplace refreshment programs, and whether it’s a bottled cooler or point-of-use filtration service, Seventh Wave provides it.

Beyond the basics, Seventh Wave offers Bevi and Lavit machines, which allow users to add fruit flavors, sparkle and sweetener to create a customized drink. Many locations opt for these machines both for the variety they provide and because cups and bottles can be refilled, which saves money and cuts down on waste.

Dream team

To support Seventh Wave’s rapid growth, holding true to its cofounders’ employee-owned commitment, the operators have hired only family, friends and friends of friends, none of whom hailed from the industry. Their team has grown to 30 strong.

“With everyone who has joined us, they knew it was not just about filling a machine or shelves, but to do something real and big,” Saldaña explained. “We have developed amazing managers as passionate as we are, and the customers have fallen deeply in love with them. We can say absolutely that our secret sauce to our growth and success has been our people in two-plus very short years.”

Saldaña also takes every opportunity for her children, Lucas, 14; Jacob, 12; and Yeselyn, 11, to do their part to pitch in and feel personally connected to Seventh Wave Refreshments and its mission to deliver joy.

Additionally, she credits the long-established relationships the operators had with suppliers, including Nestle, Segafredo and Bevi that carried over to their new venture, as being critical to Seventh Wave’s success.

“We felt so supported in the middle of a pandemic,” said Saldaña. “The greatest blessing was to win together in that season and continue to build upon that foundation.”

The good news is that with the darkest days of COVID in the rear-view mirror, many existing accounts continue to grow as more employees return, some fully and many on a hybrid basis.

“We work with every company’s budget and product options to create the right solution,” Saldaña summed up. “We transform the breakroom into an employee recruitment and retention tool with a fully managed pantry, OCS or micro market solution. And for the record … as romantic as it all sounds, bringing joy to the workplace is not easy … there are a lot of long hours, sleepless nights and sacrifice. We are looking forward to what is ahead!”