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Beyond the fuel of the workforce…

On the official first day of Spring, the time for all things centred around “new”, “revival” and “optimism”, we have taken a fresh look at workplace dining. While there was a time when foodservice provision within the workplace was a fairly basic additional function, today the quality, value and innovation in the workplace restaurant, kiosk, café, or bistro is seen as directly impacting the recruitment, retention and engagement of employees for many organisations.

Employee engagement has been big news for possibly the last ten years, but “wellbeing” has been the buzzword of the last few, so it was only a matter of time before foodservice contracts were linked in to wellbeing promotions, efforts and employee benefits. Food may have been historically seen by employers as a requirement for fuelling a productive workforce, but it has remained emotional rather than functional for many of the end users of the service. The question today’s companies must ask themselves is whether they are aiming for food service to be a real welfare provision and benefit for their staff (and as such continually impress their prospects and staff) or whether they are primarily delivering a simple function – and some commercial benefit – through their catering contract? To be clear, we positively encourage and support clients to gain commercial improvements and introduce cost saving initiatives, to revisit operational methods and costs of delivery – but those companies with a sustainable quality approach, and with consumer led ideas – are the most successful at engaging their user and ultimately managing a more cost effective and valued service to their teams.

The companies with the most success at delivering the staff dining facilities are those with caterers who consider their menus and dishes from a regional, or even better – local, perspective and by demographic. Understanding not only the job that the employees are undertaking while on site but also their age group, family status, likely supermarket preferences and eating habits at home for example enables great operators to sell consumers what they want, where and when they want it. They consider how they’re eating all day not just at the point at which they may visit the workplace facility and they sell the right things according to what they may be looking for at that time. Those companies that are really successful – are the ones that work in partnership with their caterer – allow them access to the end user to promote offers and ideas in a way that adds value to the consumer, engaging in cookery classes and regular food forums, selling ingredient baskets for the emergency family supper complete with the recipe to recreate at home.

With all this to bear in mind, workplace dining operators have a difficult job on their hands. Competition in the form of off-site retail outlets close to, or en route to, workplaces is high and food-to-go is now seen as one of the most competitive segments of the eating out market. It has benefitted from a workforce that are increasingly time pressured but with higher expectations and greater knowledge of cuisines, quality and provenance than ever before, along with growing accessibility for many (through value, availability of diet specific and allergen free goods for example).

Big Hospitality recently implied that yet more opportunities in this sector are to be had by operators who execute with “conscious consumerism” and “ultra-convenience” at the forefront of their mind. In the USA, Silicon Valley corporates are already providing this in the form of nourishment on demand through devices such as LeanBox (smart fridges with grain boxes, salmon and greens type dishes) or services such as a virtual cafeteria with a digital menu of multiple cuisines akin to Deliveroo, that is then delivered to the workplace for each individual employee.

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In the UK, workplace restaurants have been slower to address remaining issues of the quality of food available and payment systems in these new vending formats, and to implement them, and are still reliant on traditional counter service styles.  However, they have been quicker to look at ways to provide popular and new flavours and cuisines and as such, we are still seeing variations on street food being evolved for workplace restaurants to compete with the pop-up markets in each city, town and even some out of town locations.

The Thread team have recently supported several repurposing projects of estate architecture that sees a move to more streamlined café and micro-market offers which are more labour efficient and lends itself easily to quick and healthy food on the go solutions.  We are seeing some consumer kick back away from high street branded coffee offers by workplace caterers allowing those consumers with an appreciation to choose their own artisan coffee blends and premium leaf teas through tastings and voting/focus groups. The desired choices can then be selected across national contracts to suit regional and varied tastes within a budget that will support multiple purchases. This level of personalisation across national catering contracts ensures happy consumers and can be utilised by the client as an area of engagement with employees.

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We have also seen larger caterers take a more bespoke approach and combine the might of their purchasing power and their ability to scale to deliver a more tailored solution to achieve great success for the end consumer and the employer – but there is still a long way to go. We believe companies and caterers need to work together to find capacity to ensure the offer on site is meeting the modern employee expectations around global food influences with quality of delivery – however simple the offer may be. Ultimately the more users of the workplace dining environment there are, the more the higher level of sales will sustain a more cost effective or profitable solution for the company.

Finally, with global companies announcing head count reduction more regularly than we would like, it may be that companies could go beyond using their foodservice provision as a benefit for employees, and also look to use their foodservice spaces better for wider collaborations such as art fairs, local markets or even food entertainment  (in the style of Lane7 or Flight Club or Bounce),  rest areas or relax/ research and meeting space to help futureproof the estate to accommodate potential workforce changes or reductions or to increase occupancy of the space outside of “usual” hours. For the younger generations, this more meaningful provision of facilities to encourage playful collaboration is an attractive feature and could have a direct impact on the recruitment, retention and engagement of employees.