Foodservice Footprint Unknown-141 Responsible Business Recovery Forum Report: Social Distancing & Economic Sustainability Industry event reports  news-email

Responsible Business Recovery Forum Report: Social Distancing & Economic Sustainability

Responsible Business Recovery Forum Report: Social Distancing & Economic Sustainability – July 23, 2020


  • Cyrus Todiwala, chef proprietor, Café Spice Namaste
  • Daniel Stretton, senior supply chain manager, Greene King
  • Eunán Baird, head of safety, The Ivy Collection
  • Mike Hanson, head of sustainable business, BaxterStorey
  • Julie Munn, head of safety, D&D Group
  • Julia Wilson, technical director, Food Alert
  • Kate Gould, managing director, KEG Catering Consultants
  • Peter Backman, founder Peter Backman Foodservice Consultancy

Key takeaways:

  • Businesses are balancing plans (and hopes) for a return to normality as quickly as possible and adapting their business models so that they can find a way to operate sustainably whatever future may hold
  • Customers want to see businesses taking action: they want to see cleaning taking place; they want to see the messaging and communication; then they’ll feel comfortable
  • Businesses have been forced to innovate; and the fear has been taken out of decision-making. Making a profit will be very challenging.
  • People “feel safe” in hospitality spaces. Getting them to come in remains challenging though, especially in London.

Business as unusual

Walk into a café, bar or restaurant and it will look different to the last visit in February or early March. One operator captured some of the changes those in the foodservice sector are grappling with as they reopen during the pandemic:

  • Hand gels at the entrance
  • Staff with screens or masks (depending on which is more comfortable), with temperatures taken regularly
  • Toilets regularly monitored, with tables and chairs wiped down
  • Laminated menus disinfected after use but only put back into circulation the following day
  • Reduced menu to help reduce staff numbers
  • Covers cut from 110 to 76

“[Hopefully] more and more people will be bold enough to come out because our industry desperately needs people to start coming out. That will make us so happy.”

Sites managed by contract caterers have also been adapted. Food is put into rooms before meetings start (to avoid any contact between staff), with rooms locked so there is absolutely no contamination once cleaning has taken place. However, some noted that “a bit of hospitality is slowing creeping in again”, which is encouraging.

“In a couple of sites they are trying to rebrand ‘social distancing’ to ‘safe distancing’, fundamentally because our sector is all about being social so the last thing we want to do is encourage people to be socially distanced – we want them to be safely distanced.”

Much has been done to make staff feel safe too. There were stories of the excitement as people returned to work in an industry they “love”.

“Staff seem very happy. Every member of staff was invited to wellbeing day on their first day back with training on measures for them and for customers. We do staff temperature monitoring each day and they answer six covid-related questions; managers receive text alerts if anyone fails any of the questions.”

Is it safe to go out?

Businesses are all looking to strike a balance: they want to reassure diners that health and safety protocols are in place to minimise the spread of coronavirus without damaging the overall experience. This not easy and there is no silver bullet.

 “Restaurants are engaged in a lab experiment into what works and what doesn’t.

How do they create a welcoming restaurant environment that doesn’t look like a clinic?”

 “Do people feel less safe the more conspicuous safety is? One of the key challenges for my entire career is [how] to balance a good experience with safety.”

 The government’s guidelines are also flexible, to the point of ambiguity in some cases. This isn’t always helpful.

“A lot of businesses just want us to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. The [government’s] guidance [doesn’t do that] – it’s a risk based approach. I think it is too woolly in parts leaving too much for businesses to decide.”

It is also being regularly updated, so businesses have to keep up with the latest advice. The enforcement teams are out there and they are doing enforcement work, so the advice is to stick to the guidance and let members of public see you are doing everything you can.

“The last thing any of us need is for someone to become unwell because we’ve decided it’s ok to do certain things when actually it isn’t.”

The dilemma for caterers, landlords and restaurateurs is: should their covid-19 control protocols be gold plated?

“We have probably done more than others. A lot of what we are doing is for guest perception. We want our guests to feel safe so they come back again; that’s it, simple as that.”

There are of course cost implications – from PPE and plastic screens to extra kitchen utensils to prevent sharing. The availability of grants and loans will have helped many but every business needs to carefully consider its operations in this “new world”.

“Any mitigating actions, whether changed designs, new sanitation protocols or single-use menus, come with costs. How can these costs be offset? Simpler menus, more efficient staff scheduling; reduced operating footprint?”

From a customer perspective, perception is key

“Many people are more nervous and many are very nervous – their nervousness needs to be accommodated.”

Customers want to see businesses taking action: they want to see cleaning taking place; they want to see the messaging and communication; then they’ll feel comfortable.

“This whole theatre of cleaning and look what we are doing to make sure you are safe is so important.”

 “We have managed guest expectations before they even step foot in our restaurants – there is lot of information on our website about covid-19 controls and staff will talk through the [new] spacing [arrangements]. We have plastic screens in strategic places so we can get more tables in – and they are working quite well and are quite well received. Front of house staff have face covers or visors [and there] doesn’t seem to be any concern about that; I think they are quite reassured by that.”

Many are doing all they can to ensure customers feel safe and understand what to expect when they arrive. After all, the public is learning and adapting to changes in the way they go about life too.

Investment and use of technology has surged, with bookings made in advance and data collected to inform any track and trace efforts. Provided GDPR rules are followed this actually presents an opportunity for brands to get to know their customers better. Some are using QR codes for menus, with single-use or laminated options as back up. Businesses have been surprised by how quickly customers have got used to this.

Feedback on what is in place has so far been very positive.

“People analyse and assess you instantly. We are getting fabulous comments on the website [and other booking platforms]. People say they are happy with way we are looking and we are looking after our people.”

 “Some of the feedback has been really positive. That is key for all of us – employees and guests need to feel safe.”

What happens back of house…

Customers appear less concerned about what’s happening in kitchens. Still, there was agreement at the forum that health and safety was as important there as it is front of house.

“Guests don’t seem that interested in what we are doing in the kitchen. But from a business point of view if we are not safe in kitchen we are not going to be safe anywhere because our team needs to stay safe.”

“If your teams feel safe your customers will pick up on that. There are places where back of house teams are maybe not doing all they should be and that shows front of house.”

Kitchens are often the last things designed into a building; they are usually small and designed to operate within their means and there is very rarely any excess space. But now sites need that space – the ratios of space needed front to back have actually flipped and businesses need to consider that going forward.

“If a 20-grill oven goes down [operators need to consider if] they need another 20 or two 10-grills so they can have separate operators working them. This isn’t going away – if we get another pandemic we cannot close down so we need to ensure we are set up operationally to socially distance in back of house and keep staff safe.”

Some operators have introduced individual ‘pods’ in the kitchens. With staff working in siloes communication has actually improved; there is also “better organisation and better preparation”. Small kitchens at some sites have led to menus being slimmed down but this also has its advantages.

“We have taken out products we might have sold twice a week trying to be everything to everyone. Take them out and suddenly we are reducing wastage and reducing complexity.”

Finding their feet but footfall is a concern

“The feedback and feeling customers get when they are in your premises […] they are very, very comfortable with what’s happening and they feel very safe once they are at work.”

The real challenge however is getting people to work or into restaurants. London is a particular problem. Occupancy at some of the city’s sites where contract caterers operate is between 4% and 7%; in places like Birmingham and Manchester they can be 30%, 40% or even 50%. One site in Canary Wharf capable of taking 5,000 people will have just 1,500 by end of the year. Others painted a similar picture.

“In London it is so quiet – weekends are fine, we are doing really well but weekday bookings are lower than we hoped. We are hoping that will pick up with people encouraged to go back to work. That’s the challenge we are all facing.”

“Are we profitable at the current capacity? No way. Zero. If it gets to 70 covers we will scrape through the year and pay for our expenses. We are trying to keep a very tight lid on costs and expenses as we have the rent balance to pay, VAT bill to clear, PAYE. If we operate at optimum we may just scrape through; we may not make any profit but we may survive.”

“We are confident the measures we are implementing are working successfully but fundamentally you’ve got less people coming through the door – whether that is reticence or [the limited] covers you can do due to social distancing. If you are creating business models now you have to be creating them with the new world in mind. You have to adapt.”

Creativity, catering and the coronavirus

Indeed, these businesses are not standing still. They are innovating and investing all the time, which has inspired many others.

“Every downturn we have had in the foodservice world over the last 40 years has given rise to new ways of working and new successful business models. What success will covid-19 drive in foodservice?”

Takeaways are proving popular (though for some it isn’t practical or profitable) as is click and collect; this has in fact helped drive spending per head in some cases.

“We are finding that we are feeding a very high percentage of people in the building – much higher than normal – predominantly because they don’t want to go out. Once they’re in they don’t want to be going down to the high street and our clients don’t want them to either.”

 Some speakers also remarked how the current situation has forced them to make bold decisions – and quickly.

“It’s taken a bit of fear out of decision making. We’ve talked about takeaway for six or seven years but it accelerated drastically in March.”

“Click and collect was coming in slowly but it’s coming in very very quickly now out of necessity. We’d been talking about putting in minimarts with self service – we’d talked about it for a long time then all of a sudden we’ve done it in six weeks. Even after the pandemic some of this innovation will stay.”

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