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Contract catering: rising to the challenges of 2023

The latest Contract Catering Tracker shows sales are substantially up year-on-year and are approaching pre-COVID levels. However, it also acknowledges the impact of record levels of inflation hitting the contract catering businesses hard along with the challenge of servicing hybrid workplaces. How can suppliers adapt over the coming year to deliver affordable, sustainable and nutritional sustenance to clients and consumers?


2022 was a relatively positive year, which saw a steady return of face-to-face meetings after a short period of adjustment. We left a few years of working from home behind and moved towards agile working – a format we are witnessing many large organisations adopt.

This adjustment was certainly not achieved overnight, and it’s safe to say that we are still not back to pre-COVID levels of office-based working. In fact, an argument can be made that the pandemic accelerated a new way of working that we could see on the horizon and that a younger generation was demanding. For quite some time, younger generations have been looking for a healthier work-life balance and swapping long commutes five days a week, for more time with loved ones.

The technology is now more widely available to support remote working in ways that a few short years ago were unthinkable. It is a learning exercise, and perhaps agile working will establish itself as the way forward, or at least for the foreseeable future, if productivity levels remain high and it continues to deliver positive results on other fronts, such as wellbeing and mental health.

Agile working has brought a lot of challenges for suppliers and their service teams, and placed enormous pressure on our buildings, with the new pattern of Tuesday to Thursday being the preferred days for people to be in the office.

This of course translates into everyone coming in with a need for a desk as well as space for their teams. They also want collaboration and meeting spaces, and client entertaining and networking across fewer days than before. This all creates a spike in demand during those days, pushing hospitality and facilities teams to their limits, and challenging labour pools.

2023 will bring fresh challenges for suppliers, not only to adapt to this new reality of a three-day office-based working week and condensing the delivery of services into a shorter weekly span, but also combating worrying inflation and staffing shortages, and difficulties with supply chain.

Sustainability, flexibility, and proactivity will be key elements suppliers to address this year to overcome these challenges and continue to deliver outstanding services to customers and clients.

Working with suppliers based in the vicinity will not only support local businesses and communities, but also promote a sustainable approach by reducing your carbon footprint. The importance of having a defined sustainable strategy is key not only for the environment but also for consumers.

Suppliers need to be fluid in their approach to identifying opportunities and trends, such as support initiatives like ‘meat free Mondays’, promoting plant-based ranges, and introducing simple, seasonal offerings that can deliver good value for money, with consumers more likely to shop around for better offers, deals and quality.

We should take the opportunity afforded to us in the last few years to keep driving innovation, creativity, and originality, to ensure our businesses remain sustainable, profitable and relevant in this new era. 


Sales have been higher in restaurants where people have decent food, proper service and interesting concepts. This isn’t a great revelation but it’s hugely important in the new competitive landscape. The market has moved and we are seeing fluctuating trends across the board. Where we could once predict consistency, trends are more volatile these days so flexibility of the offer is vital.

The public sector workplace is thriving as people are in the office for the whole working week. Whether it’s the education, healthcare or defence sectors, we are seeing both satisfaction and uptake increase across the board in the sites that we are working on. In business and industry (B&I), we have seen the market move and stabilise more since COVID but it’s increasingly becoming more vulnerable particularly with industrial action, hybrid working and other unforeseen disruptions.

We were seeing more highly subsidised offers to get people back in work although that’s now levelling out. Free food loses value for some so it’s important to find that balance to help reduce waste and cost.

With the current challenges at play, suppliers need to think about innovation and bringing in different ways of processing food, perhaps looking at dark or cloud kitchens or a central production unit (CPU) vs a traditional on-site production kitchen model.

The shortage of skilled catering staff means it becomes more viable to have one chef managing kitchens for a number of businesses. This is where the CPU is potentially becoming a more attractive proposition.

Suppliers also need to think about menu engineering, where they can make the most of what is available rather than what they want. This distinction is important with the current supply chain issues, largely due to post-Brexit, the war in Ukraine and COVID related impacts.

Businesses need to look at using dead space and under-utilised spaces to maximise return. This can be achieved by turning them into events or collaboration spaces, bringing in more revenue while creating better working environments.

Suppliers and clients can get ahead of the game by taking more calculated risks to use spaces more effectively. This principle applies across all parts of the sector but subject to security implications as we have discovered with some Government buildings and high-profile companies in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors.

A constraint on catering is the ever-burgeoning safety legislative burden, albeit borne out of highly sensitive issues such as Natasha’s Law or listeria in NHS sandwiches – these showed that sometimes not going the whole way on statutory compliance can actually be detrimental to business health.

Any caterer has to balance out their profitability against the additional cost of meeting requirements which could be even more difficult during these times – although technology and better training & awareness can help.

This could mean only larger companies can cope, with the risk pushing out smaller operators, who we are trying to encourage to grow. When that happens, either SMEs get bought out, which reduces competition, or they leave the market. Finally, I think many chefs have had enough of red tape which has been a major contributory factor to the skills shortage.

About Sarah OBeirne

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