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Appetite for change

How can employers encourage healthy eating at work without driving staff out into the high street? Sara Bean asked a panel of FMs and a cross-section of caterers for their views

According to a recent report by catering analysts MCA, nutrition, healthy eating and sustainability are the key driving forces in the food service management sector, with healthy options the number one thing customers want to see in contract catering over the next few years. This trend is being driven by both employers and staff, who are increasingly acknowledging the important role good nutrition plays in wellbeing at work.

This means offering fresh ‘healthy’ options alongside ‘treat’ options. We asked our editorial panel of client-side FMs and a group of caterers for their tips on balancing healthy choices while managing the costs of running a workplace catering contract.

Simon Francis, until recently Head of Estates Services at London South Bank University, says it’s important to recognise the role FMs play in encouraging healthy eating. “Over the last few years, with the move towards FM having a more active impact on the productivity and wellbeing of an organisation, the opportunities available for FMs to make a positive impact have grown,” he says. “Our catering services are now not just there to fuel the workforce, keep them on site or to bring in a profit, but can actually help to improve the wellbeing of our building users.”

He adds that with the UK suffering from poor productivity in relation to our European neighbours and the US, and a study in Population Health Management journal showing that unhealthy eating is linked to a 66 per cent increased risk of loss of productivity, there is clearly an opportunity for FM to show its worth.

But, as a joint report by hospitality trade association UKHospitality and food wholesaler Bidfood acknowledges, while customers may want healthier food options it is important that caterers not only provide healthy foods, but ensure they don’t turn people off by limiting their food and drink choices.

Says Alan Hutchinson, Facilities Director at law firm Howard Kennedy: “The challenge for contract caterers within corporate environments is to consider what style or type of alternative they are serving compared to what’s happening in the big brands on the high street. Are they trying to mimic the brands, or are they offering something different?”

This is an important point, and begs the question of whether the workplace can ever replicate the same level of experience customers enjoy in the high street. FMs have even noted that the staff within their building will choose to leave the site and pay a premium for similar food available on site, simply because there is a pop-up food cart in the area.

Caterers agree this can be a challenge. Says Lin Dickens, Marketing Director at Bartlett Mitchell: “We take the view that food needs to be interesting in the first instance. Dull, healthy food is never going to be chosen and people will vote with their feet, so we need to ensure that we are competitive when it comes to variety and interest.”

She adds: “Competition is fierce for the lunchtime trade, whether it’s caterers versus the high street, or high street outlets competing against each other. But our market research has shown that, while the pop-up concept is becoming more common, not many of them have a healthy base which they work from.”

This is why, she explains, Bartlett Mitchell has introduced its Vitality Kitchen range in creating pop-ups. These are healthy, but “first and foremost, are delicious and enticing, something which is always going to work better for workplace caterers.”

Nicola Morris, Divisional Managing Director at Sodexo Corporate Services, agrees that a huge challenge for workplace food service providers is the fast-growing category of food to go, with employees offered “multiple cuisine types to choose from, which gives them the variety they crave.” Employee restaurants, she argues, “need to deal with this competition by altering their traditional mix and concentrating on portability, authenticity, taste and wellness.”

Changing demographics are also having a huge impact, she says. “With lunchtimes getting shorter due to working practices and technology, many diners want to browse their smartphone while eating. They cannot do that as effectively if they are holding a knife and fork.”

As the furore over the Greggs vegan sausage roll demonstrated, there is also a growing number of people, particularly those from the younger demographic entering the workplace, who are demanding more vegan and vegetarian options – what Morris defines as the rise of ‘flexitarianism’, as people cut down on meat and adopt a more plant-based diet.

Ian Wade, Head of UK Estates at the British Medical Association, has already risen to this challenge. “At the BMA we have decided to trial vegan food to replace our vegetarian main offers, as we recognise this is a trend that is growing. However, as we have less footfall than a high street retailer, we are not in a position to offer as large a range on everything we do, so we offer a mixture of vegan-only dishes as well as ‘build your own dishes’ that allow customers to create the dish that suits them.

“Our cake offers have always been popular, and we continue to develop healthier options that may use vegetables, are dairy free, gluten free, low sugar and so on. If anything, I have seen an increase in our sales.”

The FM team at London South Bank University (LSBU) has also responded to changing tastes among its student customers. “This academic year we have significantly increased our vegetarian and vegan offerings,” says Simon Francis, “and have worked to replace the sweet, sugary treats at our tills with healthier alternatives as well as increasing our selection of salads. This has not only made an impact on the health of our students, but appears to have grown sales as well.”

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