As we enter the New Year, we may resolve to eat more healthily by cutting out sugar and fat and consuming more fruit and vegetables, but it's already a major driver for the contract catering sector. According to the British Hospitality Association's (BHA) latest report on Britain's Food Service Management (FSM) sector, every one (100 per cent) of the FSM companies it surveyed provide healthier alternatives and lower-calorie options.
18 January 2016 | By Sara Bean
The sector itself is in good health with the current UK market size estimated at £4.1 billion, an increase of 3 per cent over the past year. But there are challenges ahead in 2016, including coping with much reduced real-estate space in which to prepare and serve meals, satisfying increasingly sophisticated customer palates and competing with an ever-growing band of high street food retailers.
But one thing is certain - the days of the large workplace canteen are numbered.
Allister Richards, MD of Gather & Gather, Mitie's catering business, says: "There's a real mix at the moment between the buildings that go back 20 years in the planning, with these huge cavernous kitchens that were designed for large-scale subsidised catering that are now unfit for purpose.
"Many clients want to reduce their footprint and go to zero subsidy so now when buildings are being designed and occupancy costs are being allocated, the catering space is often very tight."
This growing demand for value for money from the real estate dedicated to catering requires the maximum use of the space, which at the back of house means using less space, energy and water, and at the front of house delivering an environment that offers much more than just a place to eat lunch.
Simon Esner, director at BaxterStorey, says: "Our role has changed, and we can't just fill a huge space - as in the old days - with tables and chairs for two hours a day. That space has to be used all of the time for many different opportunities."
This may include meeting spaces to encourage collaborative working and what Esner describes as "solution-based environments where people not only do work but find time to have some time away mentally and physically from their busy lives to engage with colleagues or even take part in wellness programmes such as yoga or massage".
But this doesn't mean there is less emphasis on the food. Customers' tastes have evolved over the past few years. People today are well travelled and far more open to varied cuisine, says Caroline Fry, deputy CEO, CH&Co Group, and this can present a challenge for workplace caterers.
"Customers often visit us every day so we actually have a much harder job than the retail chains; our customers expect the menu offer to be different every day, whereas they wouldn't expect that if they visited a Pret or Costa, for example.
"The days of traditional hot meals and puddings at lunchtime are diminishing and many people now want to graze all day on grab-and-go food."
But demand is dependent on the demographics of the workplace. For instance, a tech and media company in London may have a younger workforce that prefers café-style food, while a more traditional manufacturing site will still have some demand for familiar lunchtime staples such as curry or shepherd's pie.
Overall though, food that is seen as fast and 'on the go', is increasingly what customers want at lunchtime, says Fry, which is why there is a decline in traditional plated hot meals and a rise in the popularity of street food.
Everyone is talking about street food so it's not a trend that is about to die out, but what exactly does it mean? Caroline Fry says: "It covers a vast array of food service styles and cuisines and it means different things to different people - from a tossed salad made by a chef in front of the customer to handheld burgers or real fusion cuisine like Korean tacos."
A health of options
There is some debate among caterers on whether you can truly deliver street food in a corporate environment. After all, a dish of paella in the staff restaurant doesn't really reflect the street food vibe. However, where they are all agreed is on offering healthier food choices.
The BHA survey found that amongst the healthy options being provided by food service companies; 94 per cent are reducing salt in their meals, 88 per cent are including more fruits and vegetables in menus, 88 per cent are training chefs on cooking healthy options, 81 per cent are working to reduce fat in meals, and 81 per cent are lowering the amount of added sugar in meals.
"Healthy eating is at the top of the agenda for all our clients as they want a healthy workforce," says Paul Cowie, head of standards and solutions for catering at OCS.
"This requires a balance between what the clients want and what the customer wants, which is why we offer a balanced diet - rather than everything has to be a perception of healthy.
"We've an offering called 'good for you' that provides customers with a roadmap of healthy options. And at the deli bar we won't offer you white bread unless you ask for it, while behind the scenes we'll use low fat spreads/mayonnaise and reduced salt."
The awareness that customers who are dissatisfied with what's on offer in the workplace are more well placed than ever to find a food alternative in the high street means that caterers are now in direct competition with the retail food trade, whether coffee shops, restaurants or even the deli-food available at the local supermarket.
"Contract catering used to compete on subsidy and proximity - and without any number of competitors outside your building as it is today," says Simon Esner.
"Today, proximity and subsidy is all but gone, so what we've to do is become hospitality providers who are competing for the pound inside the customer's pocket and to do this must be as good if not better than the high street. And we've also to market this and share this information with customers, which is what the retail market does very well."
The decline of the subsidised work canteen means that customers can expect to pay only an average of 10 or 15 per cent more if they buy lunch on the high street, so the quality and variety of the workplace food has to be good - especially in helping to recruit and retain the younger Millennial band of workers.
For this reason many of the media and technology companies, which boast the largest demographic of under-35s, are putting food and catering back at the heart of their business, offering a range of restaurants, from fine dining to real street food that is delivered in vans around their campuses.
Caterers have one big advantage over the high street in being able to more closely pinpoint customer demands.
Says Catrin White, retail marketing director, corporate services, Sodexo UK & Ireland: "We use a profiling research tool that identifies the attitudes and behaviours of our customers on a particular site, and this, combined with looking at national and global trends, enables us to create offers which appeal to the population we are serving."
Cups of kindness
There's also a move away from attracting staff by using big names such as Starbucks, Costas or Nero's and instead replicating the artisan coffee houses.
Anthony Bennett, director at Bennett Hay, explains: "Our coffee now is better quality than most of the brands out there as we source a high-quality blend. We treat it like a brand and use a barista who trains all our guys to make the whole hot drinks range attractive, and encourage people to stay in the building. In this way we can compete directly with the high street."
Clients also want to know where their food comes from and that it is ethically sourced, and this trend is no longer a differentiator between catering suppliers but more a of a hygiene factor in a catering contract. Bennett's firm, along with most caterers, is signed up to the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which works directly with restaurants and the contract catering market to meet set criteria on energy use, food miles and locally produced provenance.
How the catering service contract is delivered is also in flux, with a move away from the trend to bundle catering in with a Total Facilities Management (TFM) or Integrated Facilities Management arrangement in favour of a single service. The suppliers I spoke to, whether specialist caterers or facilities firms, agreed that the current split between single and blended contracts is around 50/50.
Andrew Wilkinson, strategy and marketing director, corporate services, Sodexo UK & Ireland explains: "While the market for integrated facilities management remains strong, there are still many organisations looking to outsource single services as part of their over-arching facilities management strategy.
"In those contracts where we provide only catering, it's important we work closely with the client to understand what exactly they want to achieve from outsourcing."
But however a workplace's catering is delivered, it won't meet the grade "if the food is not culturally part of the agenda of the client organisation and it becomes a commodity purchase", says Allister Richards.