The long-time competitor of contractor caterers, as many commentators have argued, has been the high street, tempting employees away from their workplace offerings. These days, however, caterers have a new foe – the kitchen or pantry in people’s homes.
So says Dean Kennett, founder of Fooditude. Indeed, the high street has been struggling for many years now, but the pandemic has increased the pressure.
“Ask anyone in the trade at the moment – whether in hotels, restaurants, cafés, or even competition contract caterers – there’s a unified feeling of just despair and sadness,” says Kennett. “The high street is really going to battle, not only with rents and the Covid situation. Footfall is going to be much lower and not all of those establishments can serve the same numbers as they used to.
“We’re approaching winter already and my patience for standing outside of places is about 30 seconds. If you have to queue at work at lunchtime in the city – Home Counties and smaller towns will be different but big cities will be under huge stress – they will need to set up gazebos outside of shops to keep people dry and warm. It’s not going to look great so maybe there’s a chance for these open food halls to do well; they'll probably survive better so perhaps we will see clusters of those popping up on the high street rather than people grabbing a quick sandwich and drink.”
Positively, he says, the caterers are a resilient bunch and, with the right blend of creativity and tenacity, they can survive this crisis.
Tracey Fairclough, managing director of TAF Consulting, thinks of the external offering – the high street – and the interior offering – on-site catering – as two provisions that can complement each other rather than be seen as competition.
“It’s not about feeding different people,” Fairclough explains. “It’s about feeding the same people at different times, in different places and for different reasons. To my mind, one can’t operate without the other. The biggest difference is that one’s more likely to be “white label” and non-branded and that’s likely to be fuelled by the innovations of the pure-blood brands (with the specialists defining their identities).
“The most innovative contract caterers and those who have, as they say “‘their fingers on the pulses of the high street’ and can adapt, every day, week, month and year. Having spent 16 years in marketing and advertising, working for some of the biggest brands on the planet, I believe passionately about innovation driving new ideas and creativity around the ‘new’ needs of the changing world of facilities and food services.”
Innovate to reinvigorate
Important to the survival of contract caterers will be their ability to think creatively and adapt to the new workplace demands that prioritise safety and flexibility – the latter to accommodate the unpredictability of staff numbers on-site as a blended model of working from home and the office become more common.
Expect to see more individually packaged food items and food boxes as organisations move away from big self-serve areas and salad bars. Additionally, there will likely be an increase in hot grab-and-go options, says Simon Houston, director of Houston & Hawkes.
Houston explains: “People will be much more innovative in what they do as a hot takeaway option. They don’t just want to have a box sandwich, they still want a really nice hot home-made meal and some really good comfort foods. But it just needs to be presented and slightly differently to make sure it’s safe.”
Food safety is the priority right now, but Houston says clients still have sustainability front of mind. Compostable or reusable packaging are available options but he warns that costs, clients’ budgets and priorities will determine just how much safety outweighs sustainability in the immediate term.
Of course, individually packaged food portions will add more packaging material but it will also help to reduce waste, as will the shift towards click-and-collect, order-on-demand and the introduction of certain technology. “Customers will order what they want,” he says and technology will help control food waste, provide better data about what end-users are ordering, when they order it and, perhaps, even why they’re ordering it.
Phil Roker, managing director of Vacherin, says his company’s immediate response to the pandemic has been to remove self-serve menu items and provide packaged products instead, reducing any touchpoints.
In the longer term, he says rewarding those staff who come to the office with “truly exceptional food and drink, with an emphasis on healthy meals” will be vital to deliver the goal of making the office a destination. “We foresee the catering service extending to incorporate concierge service and an increased focus on supporting the FM function as we maximise the corporate services resource.”
For more on how the contract catering model is changing, check out the October edition of Facilitate.