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Appetite for change

As client demands grow within the foodservice sector, what can the catering suppliers, from the major brands to the smaller operators, do to remain competitive?

With new express supermarkets, fast-casual restaurants and independent sandwich shops popping up all the time, there are more high street lunchtime options now than ever before,’ says Damon Brown, co-founder of Olive Catering Services. “Yet businesses with a staff restaurant are essentially asking customers to eat there every day. That’s the reality of the situation as a workplace caterer, and it throws up a number of challenges that those in the industry must work to overcome on a daily basis.”

One of the reasons the high street is such a draw, says Brown, is that food trends are constantly shifting. “It’s a caterer’s responsibility to tap into those outside influences and make sure they’re working hard to provide customers with the variety they need.”

Olive’s food innovation team is constantly seeking “new and exciting ways to take our offering to the next level.” The company is dedicated to keeping its food interesting, vibrant and seasonal, Brown says. “Once per quarter, we’ll pick an overarching genre of food – anything from Italian to Indonesian – and our development chefs will go away to research ingredients, recipes and techniques.”

There is a delicate balance to be drawn between keeping dishes as authentic and as exciting as possible, while also being conscious of how food will be practically sourced, cooked and served in a contract catering setting. “But, by experimenting with the latest flavours from across the world, caterers are able to create competitive menus that appeal to a range of different needs.”

Another way for caterers to mark themselves out from the crowd is by making the most of the restaurant space itself. “As routines become increasingly stretched, there will no doubt always be a place for grab-and-go options,” Brown acknowledges. “But having access to a dedicated, versatile area where customers can eat and socialise could, and perhaps should, give caterers the edge over quick service competition.”

He continues: “For us, maximising the restaurant has meant bringing the theatre element of cooking into the workplace through our street food concept, The Kerb. We use induction technology to cook dishes to order, meaning customers get to see their food being prepared in front of them, and it’s a really versatile way of implementing the recipes created by the food innovation team.”

It’s important to remember that every workplace is different. “Although everybody used to stop and head to the canteen at 12 o’clock,” says Brown, “modern workplaces can be much more fluid. With that in mind, by far the most important tool in a caterer’s toolkit is the ability to tailor their offering to each individual client to give them the best value – whether that’s providing healthy food for an active office, or fuelling a busy factory floor.

“It’s down to caterers to provide for those needs, whatever they might be. If lighter options are required, then caterers may look to serve luxury porridge and ready-made granola pots at breakfast, with protein-packed lunch pots. Likewise, if a heartier menu is what’s required, then traditional breakfasts and homemade pies and casseroles will probably be the order of the day.”

Ultimately, he says, keeping up with the high street is about staying dynamic and playing to your strengths. “There are always going to be new venues to contend with, but with a whole world of influences to look to for inspiration, there’s no excuse for a caterer to sit still.”

Grazing Catering started life as a café before deciding to take its food into the workplace. The company provides food for companies whose offices have not traditionally offered food for staff because they don’t have the facilities. It knows that business is changing, and that a more agile workforce has different needs.

Grazing has evolved a business model that allows it to be quick and nimble in responding to and developing trends. “These days, you can get food delivered into offices from small food trucks, not just the high street, so everybody is competition,” says CEO Sam Hurst. “We also face challenges from the likes of delivered-in corporate models such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and now Amazon.”

In order to compete, Grazing strives to be flexible and offer more than a traditional canteen-style operation. “That’s a large reason behind why we have structured our business as we have,” says Hurst. “Our offsite production, onsite service model operation means we can offer variety and quality above and beyond some of the high street options. Customers can have the variety they would enjoy by ordering one-off meals from a Deliveroo, while having the quality of service in their venues.”

But it’s not just about competing – it’s about getting ahead and staying there. “For example, our menus have a 12-week cycle which includes over 240 dishes,” says Hurst. “You wouldn’t find that in the likes of a Pret or Eat.”

Bartlett Mitchell agrees that the catering industry has converged with the food retail sector, largely due to technology, investment in culinary training and advanced consumer research. But like Grazing, it believes that caterers can lead and drive their own food agenda. “It is, of course, hugely important for us to have a keen eye on other parts of the sector to ensure we are aware of new trends,” says CEO Ian Thomas. “But, given the talent we have in our industry, we are no longer reliant on simply trying to replicate what they do.”

Success depends on understanding why change is happening. “We used to see a clear dividing line between the workplace and the high street when it comes to the dining habits of employees,” Thomas says. “This is no longer the case. From coffee shops, food trucks, restaurants, fast food, and delivery firms – these are all competitors now. That’s why we have to ensure that our business offers a product that takes people away from all of that.”

Better educated food consumers demand more flexibility, choice and variety from their menus. To meet the challenge, Bartlett Mitchell invests in its people. “We regularly hold masterclasses for our chefs for them to be able to continue to develop as the market evolves,” says Thomas. “We formed a very conscious partnership with Michelin-starred Adam Byatt as we knew that our chefs would benefit from having another avenue to learn new techniques as they develop.”

Eating habits are changing in other ways. “We are seeing an increasing move from the usual breakfast, lunch, dinner model to the demand for food at completely different times,” Thomas notes. “The high street has historically been better at offering around-the-clock food. But this is something the catering industry has noticed.”

Gather & Gather believes there is potential for the catering industry to make better use of technology to gain a deeper understanding of customers’ needs. “Today’s retailers are focused on customer personalisation through the integration of data,” says Allister Richards, Managing Director at Gather & Gather. “Analysts are looking to capture broader intelligence and insight from life experiences, creating one holistic view of the consumer in order to personalise interactions with your brand. Whether at home, work or leisure, tech-enabled integration of data is undoubtedly the fastest growing trend influencing how customers experience service today.”

Yet too many in the industry confine technology to supporting or influencing transactions. “We’re addressing this because it ignores the huge opportunity we have when we engage with repeat customers in the workplace,” says Richards. “The connected workspace of the future will use data and insight to help businesses become more efficient, and blur the lines between a customer’s life at home, work and leisure in order to serve them better and more efficiently.

“It’s about flipping a well-versed industry challenge on its head – the challenge of serving the same customers every day while avoiding menu and environmental fatigue is a massive opportunity if viewed through a different lens. Establishing real customer intimacy through our use of technology will be a true differentiator for us in the future.”

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