Contract caterers went from feeding buildings full of people to grappling with reduced work and earnings as well as job losses — all in a matter of weeks. Nevertheless, the sector believes that despite the challenges, there is hope through innovation and flexibility. Bradford Keen reports.
If anyone says they’re having a great time at the moment, particularly in hospitality, they’re probably lying.
So says Fooditude founder Dean Kennett, admitting that while “everyone loves a challenge”, the problem with the current challenge is its unpredictability. “You know the ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ scenario?” he asks. It’s like that only the donkey is “going round and round and round on a roundabout”.
Fortunately for Kennett, his company operates on a delivery model and short-term contracts. “We have a service that you can turn off like a tap so that has served our clients quite well.” He predicts longer-term contracts and older models "hedged by supplier agreements” will be relegated to the past. “Everything can change in a minute and people will be looking for flexibility,” he says.
Given the uncertainty of the times, however, Ian Thomas, CEO at Bartlett Mitchell, expects clients to extend their partnerships with their incumbent providers. “Tendering in a meaningful way will now be tricky, so businesses will want their caterers to be in it with them for the longer term,” he says.
“In the short and near-term, most contracts have shifted to a ‘cost-plus’ model to enable transparency and the sharing of risk by both parties,” Thomas adds.
What is clear when it comes to brokering contracts, now is not the time for competitive tendering as more immediate organisational demands take precedence. “My gut feeling is that clients will use the next few months to get people back to work, find out what normal looks like and what the requirements are longer term, and then go to market,” Simon Houston, director of Houston & Hawkes, says.
Clients might then tender for a new contract or, at the very least, review and benchmark their current agreements. He adds that right now “it’s very difficult for clients to say what they need”.
Most agree that clients need a provider that is flexible, says Allister Richards, COO of CH&CO, particularly as they try to calculate personnel numbers on site, with their varying needs and preferences. “Being quick to respond and implement change will most definitely be the focus areas moving forward.”
Despite the uncertainty, Tracey Fairclough, managing director of TAF Catering Consultancy, says she has already seen how adept the sector is at innovation. Foodservice providers, she explains, have focused on three key areas when evolving their business models: central production units (CPUs), cafes and technologies.
Fairclough elaborates: “CPUs being the medium through which foodservice providers can prepare freshly prepared food, snacks and meals, with reduced on-site catering teams supported by a single behind-the-scenes labour structure in a remote kitchen delivering into sites.
“Cafes being the channels to generate additional revenue from high street ready-built kitchen facilities (from high street retailers, no longer trading).
“Technologies being the driving force behind the latest cashless, on-line, cloud pre-order customer payment solutions that deliver data behind the purchases and solutions that provide food for different users, different dining occasions, and different locations around sites that save labour, save waste and deliver healthy, tasty and safe feeding solutions.”
Predicting staff numbers on site
As a hybrid of remote and onsite working becomes more prevalent, the task of accurately predicting staff numbers at the workplace will be challenging. Key to the solution will be increased collaboration between client and caterer and, for many, the implementation of technology such as foodservice apps.
The technology will provide end-users with the ability to have food delivered to their desks or central hubs in the office, along with click-and-collect, pre-order and pre-pay, and reserving slots at any workplace eateries.
“Contract caterers could work in collaboration with their clients to determine staffing levels via HR or check-in software, and could adopt hotel-style occupancy level processes to determine the number of meals required,” says Rob Paterson, head of sales at Kafoodle.
He suggests pre-ordering meals through an app or website in the immediate future to predict numbers on site and help to reduce food waste.
Catering apps are not new. Vacherin and CH&CO have developed their own apps in the past, while Fooditude is working on an app presently.
Vacherin launched an app for its clients more than three years ago and continues to invest in tech to deliver “very sophisticated order and pay functionality”, Phil Roker, managing director of Vacherin, explains. “The app is only as good as its content and it’s up to the caterers’ marketing team to support the sites with exciting content and purchasing incentives.”
Apps provide clients and end-users with convenience but Roker says it can also decrease human engagement – which bucks the prevailing narrative that the office must become a destination for collaboration, interaction and perpetuation of company culture. “Our vision in catering and front of house is using technology to minimise the functional interactions with our staff, but maximising the experiential interactions.”
Paterson says app-based solutions should be customer-focused, intuitive and simple to use. “Customers shouldn’t need a list of instructions on how to use the software.”
“MANY OF OUR CLIENTS ARE INTRODUCING WORK- STATION RESERVATION SYSTEMS TO DETERMINE BUILDING POPULATION. IT’S ABOUT ASSESSING THE WEEKLY TRENDS”
“Outside of the current climate, consumers are wanting more convenience at the touch of a button and expect to be able to order and pay for things via their mobile devices. This, paired with the rising trend of healthier eating and demand for food information, means the right software solution can add a lot of value to a business,” Paterson concludes.
Richards advises partnering with app developers for a more robust long-term strategy. “It’s so important that all of the app functionalities are in one area, from payments to checking loyalty credits to giving feedback. Consideration also needs to be given to the range of products available. More isn’t always best. If necessary, cut back on the app-based menu, as this will make scrolling easier and provide a better user experience.”
Change in design
Workplace food provision is going to change in the wake of the pandemic. It has to. Kennett says: “I’m having talks already with clients who are looking to repurpose space; they’re not saying take away catering completely, but it won't be as heavily invested in as before.” He envisions standalone contract catering being swapped for a customer-led solution that provides individualisation and choice.
Roker predicts plug-and-play moveable pods to replace food counters; free-from dining hubs that “blend into peripheral zones to accommodate activity-based working” through lounge areas, pods, call buttons for table service, screens to create meeting rooms and semi-private dining rooms.
Lighting will be used to create “dual daytime and evening ambience” and Roker says to expect digi-screens that can be used for corporate messaging, news channels and digital photo screens for events. He also envisions gathering and conferences within the catering area as businesses eschew large dedicated catering spaces, which could be seen as an “unnecessary luxury”.
As workplaces are touted to become collaboration spaces first and foremost, Thomas says restaurant and café spaces will serve these needs as collaborative hubs for colleagues to meet and work. “The social interaction that teams are craving is best realised over food and drink. Food has always been a workplace culture and social glue so we believe these spaces can create the environment for people to come together to collaborate.”
Houston thinks similarly, noting how important the food offering is to an organisation’s staff. “Customers are returning from what has been a tough summer for most people to a workplace that is uncertain. Great food and service, along with a smile from the barista have always been an important aspect. There’s lots of data to support that idea that catering is critical to people’s workplace and that won’t have changed.”
Salad stations and buffet tables will make way for grab-and-go areas, including hot pots, says Houston. Expect technology being integrated into walls and table tops, and large staff restaurants making way for multiple smaller outlets for variety, distancing of people around the building, and quickly adaptable areas.
Despite the challenges, Houston says the moment presents a “fresh opportunity” for clients to redefine what they want “with absolutely no limits”. It could well mean ditching what they had before in favour of what they really need now and in the future.
The three most significant changes to the contract catering model
Phil Roker, managing director of Vacherin
- Flexibility to overcome the unpredictability of workforce numbers on site on any given day. Expect more on-demand solutions in the form of call-order, delivery to desks or office hubs, restaurant style table service, longer serving hours to accommodate changes in work patterns.
- Social: Food to bring people together at the office as a destination.
- Convenience: The future workplace as a destination will become a one-stop shop in the form of mini-markets and cook-at-home concepts.
Tracey Fairclough, managing director at TAF Catering Consultancy
- Feeding phased populations returning to buildings across all sectors at different times of the day and/or the week and/or the month, safely.
- Delivering flexible, fresh, authentic, tasty and hot food services – hot being particularly poignant as the UK heads into colder winter months.
- Maximising the skills, expertise and efforts of reduced on-site catering teams.
Ian Thomas, CEO of Bartlett Mitchell
- There will be an increased reliance on delivered-in models and, for the first couple of weeks, pre-packed food solutions before customers gain confidence to return to a full hot food offer.
- ‘Meeting Room Hospitality’ in the workplace will take longer to return. Some suggest this won’t be until 2021 but we are already seeing an increase in bookings for events and catered meetings in September.
- We don’t believe it’ll be the end of larger events, cocktail parties, etc., but we don’t expect the same volumes for a little while, certainly not until a vaccine has been approved.
Allister Richards, COO of CH&CO
- Faster changes around technology, service and delivery.
- People are adapting to different work patterns and this will be mirrored in their catering needs.
- Those in the office every day will want classic favourites with a focus on health and wellbeing; whereas those going into the office on a rotational or ad hoc basis are more likely to want team lunches and perhaps an indulgent afternoon treat.
Rob Paterson, head of sales at Kafoodle
- Pre-order and pay with specific collection or delivery times.
- Contactless order and pay will become the norm.
- Caterers will start by offering reduced menus that will maybe change more regularly to adapt to availability, season and demand.
Ian Thomas, CEO at Bartlett Mitchell
Allister Richards, COO of CH&CO
Rob Paterson, head of sales at Kafoodle
Phil Roker, managing director of Vacherin
Simon Houston, director at Houston & Hawkes
Dean Kennett, founder of Fooditude
Tracey Fairclough, managing director of TAF Catering Consultancy