Will Corporate Catering Change Post-Pandemic?

The lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has typically resulted in, at best, significantly reduced workplace catering services and in many cases no services at all. Now that the government has set out a timetable for relaxation of the restrictions, organisations are better able to define clear return to work programmes. But what might this mean for catering services? Are we likely to see a fundamental shift in the post COVID-19 world?

Many contract caterers have sought to introduce alternative service delivery models over the past year, including greater use of on-line ordering & delivery, home-delivered meal kits or simply fully flexible staffing models to support ongoing, if limited, on-site services. Some were better geared to alternative forms of delivery than others, but looking ahead, there is certainly now a more mature and broader market of operators who are able to support client catering requirements from their own off-site production kitchens. In the longer term, this will enable clients to consider scaling down on-site kitchens, with greater confidence that they will have options in terms of service provider.

A second key driver over coming months is likely be much greater use of integrated technology to support and, to some extent drive catering operations. The use of mobile apps to communicate nutritional or dietary information as well as for pre-ordering, payment, click and collect/deliver and so on was already available pre-COVID. But whereas its use was often viewed as a bolt-on to core services, moving forward technology will be a core component of workplace strategies as employee working patterns change and potentially become a lot more fluid. Understanding when people will be in the office, when they may require a desk or meeting room will be critical to determining what catering requirements will be and the ability to integrate multiple tech platforms will be crucial.

The biggest challenge for operators in the short to medium term (perhaps over the next 12-18 months) is likely to be adopting a much more scalable and flexible model as clients adjust to new working patterns and changes in circumstances. Operators will need to be able to react to a client’s requirements, understanding and delivering the optimum balance of service levels and costs. This will inevitably mean a change in approach to contractual terms, impacting both parties. Operators will need to be more adaptable, perhaps less reliant on fixed, multi-year contract turnover. Clients may need to accept a greater degree of commercial risk if they cannot provide their operator with certainty over business volumes.

Ultimately, and has always been the case, every individual client will have their own requirements. Some will want to scale down their services, perhaps as a result of reduced headcount, a tightening of operating budgets, or smaller office footprint meaning less space can be devoted to catering. Some may want to maintain historic service levels but reduce the scale of physical facilities so they can save on space and real estate costs. Some organisations will want to enhance their catering, recognising the benefits that an on-site catering service can deliver in terms of nutrition, wellbeing or social integration.