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A catering experience to remember

Facilities Management is a competitive sector, particularly when it comes to food where contract caterers are having to compete with the shops, restaurants and cafes, on the high-street. Here Mike Sunley, CEO at Lexington, talks food trends, customer experience, innovation and the need for caterers to be flexible and versatile in today’s competitive environment

James Beard, chef and author, got it right when he said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” 

Every one of the world’s seven billion population needs food. It’s something we all have in common regardless of where we live and what we do. But for the large majority of people – our employees and customers – they don’t just eat to refuel and get energy, they eat to enjoy. Food brings people together.

Food provides conversation, which in turn can provide an intense and powerful positive experience, and it’s these positive experiences that smart organisations are using food to help create. The savvy organisations know that this will be their point of difference.

Using the language of food we can bring people together. Whether you operate in finance, sales, marketing or hospitality doesn’t matter, using food and creating a positive environment for your employees or customers to come together can help improve your bottom line. Customers are more likely to return and employees are likely to remain more motivated and perform better.

So how are contract caterers, who often operate within a tight budget, responding to what customers want to create a positive experience that keeps customers coming back for more?

Lexington_Winter_09.01.15_Vitalicious_MainResearch shows eating the right food throughout the day can improve your health, energy and performance. People are much more aware of the impact food can have on their health today and as a result customers want to know more about what’s in their food and where it has come from.

This together with the fact that the number of people with food allergies has risen sharply over the past few decades means it’s become far more important for caterers and their front line to be able to offer advice/provide information about what customers can and can’t eat when it comes to their health.

Footfall is naturally much smaller for many contract caterers than it is for restaurants on the high-street. Contract caterers often have the added challenge of serving the same people day in day out, which is why variety is essential.

People don’t want to eat the same thing day in and day out. It’s important to provide access to different styles and menus of food depending on the occasion and time of year.

Sheila de Cordova, partner and head of events, hospitality & charity at Knight Frank LLP, agrees. She says, “We work with Lexington to create a food offering that provides enough variety to meet the needs of our workforce and compete with what shops and restaurants on the high-street are providing in order to keep them coming back for more.”

It’s also important to understand individual tastes: Whilst some people will watch their health and never eat sugar others want the occasional treat – if you fail to cater for these individuals they will be quick to walk out of your door.

Rather than restricting opening times to cater for lunch and diner, more and more organisations are extending their opening times and offering breakfast, as well as afternoon tea in the traditionally quieter post-lunch timeslot.

A recent survey, The Millennial Eater, published by Elior shows breakfast seems to be one casualty of the millennial lifestyle. The survey shows Generation Y skip breakfast twice a week on average and opt for mid-morning snacks.

People work on the go and don’t always have time to eat breakfast before they leave home or eat lunch over the traditional lunch time period. Ashley Thorburn, general manager at 200 Aldersgate says, “People expect more from the organisations they work for and this includes facilities in their workplace, such as catering. By providing breakfast at work and access to the cafe throughout the day we are better meeting the needs of employees working in the building, and hopefully helping them remain more energised.”

People talk. People will recommend you if they’ve had positive experience and they will walk if they have a bad experience.

It’s the people who can make or break a service related experience. Caterers need people who have the right attitude and love working in hospitality to take ownership of these relationships.

One of our team is known for picking up the phone to customers and letting them know what’s on the menu for the day, if she knows it is something they love – this creates a real personal feel.

Forming these strong relationships with clients, customers and suppliers is key. Doing so will create a much more unified approach which will create a more seamless journey and positive experience for customers.

In this increasingly competitive industry, attracting customers and building brand loyalty is playing a crucial role for the successful performance of caterers.

Lexington_CC_Chefs_Group_5_01Communicating with customers regularly is slightly more challenging for most contract caterers who don’t have direct access to their customers. This requires clever marketing, such as:

  • Loyalty schemes: Teaming up with clients to offer loyalty schemes can offer real benefits and are a way to attract customers and prompt them to pay repetitive visits
  • Online presence: Whilst it can be more difficult for contract caterers to reach customers online, having an online presence is incredibly important as consumers nowadays turn to their mobile phones or iPads to check reviews and to interact with their favourite brands
  • Social media: Research from Elior shows social media is a second home to millennials, with two thirds saying they favour outlets that are active on social media, and expect technology to be part of the eating out experience. Chefs can make the most of their social media activity by successfully engaging with customers over sites such as Facebook and Twitter

The current pace and scope of change facing caterers is fast; today’s global economy and the digital revolution has impacted everything. Customers are much more aware of what they are eating – there is much more choice today and customers will go elsewhere if they can’t get what they want.

Contract caterers, like Lexington Catering, who are often operating on an extremely tight budget, have to remain creative and innovative in order to compete with the big players on the high-street.

We need to be moving constantly, coming up with new ideas and trying new things. As well as making sure there is a stable but interesting and tasty food offering the food team at Lexington run regular chef tables and have themed events to attract customers: From a big Summer BBQ on the terrace/outside to street food events and healthy eating demonstrations. These create excitement and an element of surprise that keep customers coming back for more.

Sheila de Cordova says, “Food brings people together without the need for any words! We work with Lexington to create an offering to encourage people back – the aim is to help create a collaborative space for our team, where they can mingle with other people they wouldn’t necessarily talk to.”

About Sarah OBeirne


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