Despite the damage caused by covid, corporate caterers are refusing to die. Instead they’re adapting to fit new working patterns and client demands in ways that can bring sustainability benefits too. Nick Hughes reports.
When Britain was plunged into a first national lockdown in March it quickly became obvious that foodservice would be among the business sectors worst hit financially.
But while national news outlets were preoccupied with the plight of Pret and other high street chains, a less public crisis was unfolding behind the scenes of the country’s institutional caterers.
“In London it was overnight devastation”, says Sarah Miller, BaxterStorey’s managing director for London. “We probably lost around 90% of our volume and it stayed pretty much at that level until around June.”
Although volumes gradually climbed back to a peak of around 30% as autumn approached, the second national lockdown, coupled with the government’s ‘work at home’ guidance, has extinguished any hope of a ‘v-shaped’ recovery for those like BaxterStorey who are heavily invested in the corporate services segment.
Speaking to caterers, however, it is striking how the dominant tone is not one of despair but of cautious optimism and excitement at the opportunities presented by the so-called ‘new normal’ for our working habits.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a reimagining of workplace catering that was already in progress before the pandemic hit. It has hastened the application of new technologies, spawned innovative service models and forced caterers to reassess the execution of sustainability policies – many of which were designed with centralised, communal dining in mind.
Indeed, far from sounding the death knell of the sector, covid-19 has forced companies to stop procrastinating and start planning for a future where for most workers the 9-to-5 office routine is a relic of a bygone era.
A key challenge caterers faced in the early days of the pandemic was to understand how their various corporate clients would be affected by restrictions imposed by the government. Workplace clients are not a homogenous group – while certain technology companies instructed all of their employees to work from home other white collar employers in metropolitan areas kept their offices at least partly open, while many manufacturing and distribution businesses continued to operate at full capacity.
In each case, the way caterers operate has had to adapt. First, and most importantly, sites that are still feeding customers have had to ensure they are covid-secure. As a minimum this has meant kitting service staff out in PPE, installing screens in service areas and creating one-way systems through kitchens and restaurants.
Moreover, with communal eating unviable due to social distancing requirements, service propositions have had to evolve to minimise the number of touchpoints between staff, customers and their work colleagues.
Adrian Evans, food transformation director for Sodexo’s UK & Ireland corporate services business, explains how customers can self-scan retail products like drinks and snacks and pay for them on a personal mobile device removing the need to queue at a till. Customers can also use an app to pre-order food for collection or for delivery to their workspace. “Everybody is looking for technology now,” says Evans. “People are comfortable with scanning a QR code whereas before it would have been pretty alien to a lot of people.”
In some of its manufacturing facilities, where workers would commonly descend on the restaurant en masse for their designated lunch break, Sodexo has split the restaurant into zones so that people pre-ordering food can stay within the bubble of people they are working with on the manufacturing floor.
Such moves are unlikely to be easy or cheap – the government’s guidelines for workplaces are “too woolly” some suggested during a recent Footprint Responsible Business Recovery Forum – but by and large sites have adapted quickly, efficiently and innovatively in order to make everyone feel safe.
One positive outcome from moving towards a system of pre-ordering has been the ability to manage waste more effectively (something that’s also been evident amongst school caterers). A traditional workplace catering environment involves rows of counters serving various types of hot foods alongside salad bars and food-to-go options. Planning the right volume of fresh food to produce on any given day is challenging – a multitude of different factors can affect restaurant footfall while some clients make it a contractual obligation to ensure every employee has every meal option available to them.
A wholesale shift to pre-ordering has removed a lot of those variables. “You can control your food waste much better and as time’s gone on we’ve got better at doing that,” says BaxterStorey’s Miller. Evans at Sodexo says it also allows chefs to portion meals so they are nutritionally balanced rather than have customers going down the counter asking for more starch or carbohydrates. “We can really give people a balanced diet so they get the nutrients they need,” he says.
A significant downside, conversely, is the increase in single-use packaging – whether plastic, cardboard or compostable – required to pre-portion food and make it portable for takeaway and delivery. Not only is there more packaging to dispose of, the logistics of disposing it responsibly become more challenging when food is taken out of the restaurant environment and away from designated bins for food waste and recycling.
To reduce the risk of a spike in packaging waste, Sodexo has combined practical measures to relocate recycling stations with efforts to educate customers. Evans explains: “One advantage you’ve got in a crisis like this is everyone is focused on doing what people are telling them to do within a workspace and actually they were quite comfortable with us putting recycling stations in places that perhaps previously wouldn’t have been accepted.”
Where food isn’t being transported large distances, Sodexo is also looking at reintroducing crockery and cutlery in a secure manner by removing it from communal areas and allocating it to individual customer orders.
Environmental policies will inevitably evolve over time as caterers and their corporate clients settle into new ways of working that will increasingly require both parties to operate outside of the closed environment of an office or restaurant.
“From a client point of view there are going to be a lot of challenges as they reshape their businesses,” says Evans. “Work habits are going to change and they’re not going to go back to what they were. All the research points to people only going into an office in a metropolitan area once or twice a week instead of four days a week pre-covid.”
As a result, Evans says clients are going to be looking for “flexible, agile solutions” that can be “dialled up or down” depending on how many people they have on-site on a given day. This will of course challenge caterers as they try to meet shifting rather than steady demands.
One prediction Evans is confident in making is that off-site food production will become more important in future. Over the summer, Sodexo’s Good Eating Company brand launched ‘good eating delivered’, an app-based service that allows urban clients to order in dishes and ‘grab & go’ options made in Sodexo’s central production unit in London. This was another trend that was happening before March but has been accelerated by the pandemic.
Caterers are also considering how best to serve and engage customers outside of the office. As part of its new ‘delivered by Gather & Gather’ service, Dublin-based customers of CH&Co’s Gather & Gather Ireland brand have the option of having a ‘care package’ sent directly to an employee’s home, ranging from standard meals to tailored packages for Zoom parties.
BaxterStorey too is providing meal kits and hampers direct to people’s houses when they are on furlough or working from home. “We’re finding that clients are really interested in that – being able to send colleagues a lovely burger kit on a Friday afternoon for the weekend, or a hamper at Christmas,” says Miller.
The business is also supporting smaller suppliers that have been especially hard hit: it’s partnering with them to deliver home fruit and veg or fish boxes to those working from home.
Evans says Sodexo is likewise exploring the opportunities around serving people not just in their own homes but “wherever they choose to work from”. He believes “third spaces” like co-working hubs will become “a really key area” in the future, adding: “When we come out of this, businesses are going to be really focused on company culture, recruiting and retaining top talent. Actually food is a vehicle to enable you to do those things.”
The challenge for caterers will be in finding the right balance between developing new service models and continuing to serve the needs of office-based customers. “We’re going to have to think differently, but also increase the penetration of people when they are in our buildings [from the current 50-60%] by making sure what we do is fantastic,” says Miller.
The pandemic has caused colossal disruption to workplace catering, but it has also forced operators to confront a new reality in terms of the way people want to work that would have continued to advance with or without covid-19.
Businesses must adapt or die, or so the mantra goes. Caterers, so far, are choosing the path of adaptation.