The steady decline in numbers of high street retail shops has left room for more and more casual dining outlets to open their doors to consumers after new, exciting flavours, fast. Whether you're in the mood for Mexican, Peruvian or a big bowl of ramen noodles, there's likely to be a high street concept - complete with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients - on hand to help.
There'll probably even be a street food cart or two rumbling by that might take your fancy. Why, then, with such diversity just a few steps away on the high street, would anybody opt to stay in their boring old workplace canteen?
Well, business & industry (B&I) foodservice caterers have been doing their research too. And 'boring' and 'old' are the last things youcan expect them to deliver to their increasingly
foodie clientele. On the other hand, they also understand that staples are crucial and consistency remains the name of the game - an offering made up entirely of exotic South American street food is unlikely to go down well with everyone in the workplace.
"We first recognised the trend for fast casual food nearly three years ago. It was clear then that consumers were loving more urban styles of dining, such as street food," says Wendy
Bartlett, managing director of independent foodservice caterer Bartlett Mitchell, which has responded to this with its Global Kitchen street food concept.
"Probably our most popular is the shawarma grill, the type of vertical grill found in kebab shops. When this features on the menu, main meal sales often double. It has been used as a pop-up throughout the business; no matter how big or small a site."
Bacon butties On the other hand, Bartlett and her team know that traditional dishes done well - and increasingly using sustainable ingredients - are just as crucial to success. "Our bacon butties, for
example, are fantastic and made with homemade sourdoughs and Old Spot bacon. The biggest trend that will never go out of fashion is quality and value for money - that will always be our main focus."
Bartlett Mitchell, the first foodservice firm to achieve the Sustainable Restaurant Association's (SRA) top 3-Star rating, is by no means the only B&I caterer to have caught on to the importance of sustainability for today's consumers. At CH&Co's Lusso business, for example, the team have worked with their B&I customers to create compelling sustainable food offers tailored to their specific priorities.
"This is a genuine partnership that is often harder to forge on the high street," says CH&Co's chief executive of B&I Caroline Fry, adding that Lusso's initiatives have included campaigns with the National Fruit Archive at Brogdale to share 'forgotten fruit' varieties at clients' venues that simply can't be bought on the high street and Ugly Fish Friday, which served unfashionable fish on a weekly basis.
"This was so successful that we took it to the high street in a pop-up stand at Whitecross Street Market. We sold our entire stock," Fry says. "We are now launching Pig Tales - an initiative with Surrey Docks Farm. This is a stand for local sourcing and snout to tail eating, with a year-long sponsorship of the free-range pigs at this farm just a stone's throw from
many of Lusso's client sites."
Other foodservice offers that have been inspired by the high street include: Genuine Dining Co's Chow Down Van, Baxter Storey's street food pop-ups, Host Management's Ground café concept, which has a strong focus on ethical sourcing and sustainability, and Vacherin's Nutritious & Delicious healthy eating range. But how have they identified these specific opportunities for innovation?
Social media For Simon Esner, director of BaxterStorey, social media engagement plays a key role. "We are not only engaging in the conversation on social media - Twitter, Instagram, and so on - we are also occasionally leading the conversation," he explains. "This is a great way of capturing what consumers are looking for."
At BaxterStorey, development chefs also conduct 'street walks' to learn about the latest trends and take inspiration from the diverse range of people employed by the company.
Says Esner, the latter is where they got the idea for trialling Peruvian recipes at a couple of client sites just a few weeks ago.
Talking to customers is also absolutely essential, believes Deborah Homshaw, UK operations director at Host Management, whose clients include the Salford Royal NHS Foundation
Trust and Scottish and Southern Energy "We always do customer research and a local competitor analysis for every site we cater at, which also involves identifying customers' favourite external places to eat during the day and what products they buy there," she says.
"This gives us the ability to profile our customers and make sure we can offer the foods they are looking for at a competitive price."
Menu changes For example, at call centres where the customer base is generally younger, Host offers quick snack foods, simple soups, home baked pies and pasties, burgers, curries and kebab wraps.
"In outlets with a more affluent customer base, we match their preferences by offering a healthier range of more unusual soups, Mediterranean-style salads, hearty pasta bowls, and interesting jacket potato fillings," notes Homshaw.
A key benefit foodservice caterers have over their high street competitors is that once they know what their customers want, they are able to roll it out almost immediately. "Because we
are nimble, agile and responsive - and because we use local, British artisan suppliers, we're able to get those products very quickly into the client restaurant," Esner confirms. At
BaxterStorey, the menu changes every week.
According to Homshaw, it all comes back to the 80/20 rule. "80% of the food offer needs to provide the range of products that are familiar to the customers on site and 20% must be innovative, frequently changing ideas. The 80% could be very different on a site by site basis - very traditional meals at one place and grab and go, snack-style at another place, but
the core range of food styles will not change too much at their site and that's the way most customers like it.
"However, the other 20% of the menu gives caterers the freedom to upsell and invite customers to try new dishes. It keeps the team interested and gives customers a reason to return every day."
B&I caterers all agree that the cost implications of innovation are fairly insignificant - it's the other side of the coin that matters. "Given that the biggest complaint of most clients that change contractor is lack of innovation, the cost of not making regular changes could be very big indeed," Homshaw concludes.
Htting the road Street food stalls have been rolling onto high streets up and down the country to rapturous receptions, but, increasingly commercial street food operations are having to compete with their contract catering counterparts.
At Genuine Dining Co, for example, which caters for sites including RAC Manchester, Croxley Green Business Park and Shepperton Studios, the Chow Down Van concept has
been incredibly popular.
"The Van keeps customers interested and enables us to offer a street food style, a popular food trend to be accessible during working hours," says director Chris Mitchell.
"This gives people a break from their day and an escape from the office, with an opportunity to socialise and engage in a friendly and inviting space."
The Phat Buoy Thursdays theme (100% British beef burgers served in brioche buns with Cheddar, mushrooms, gherkins, onions and the company's special burger sauce) has gone down well too, according to Mitchell.
At Vacherin, too, street food offerings have been popular with customers and chefs alike, with the caterer's Street Food Friday concept proving particularly successful.
"It's a winning concept for everyone," says Vacherin's commercial director and owner Phil Roker. "It also allows us to build sales and showcase our creativity to our clients and customers. Our chefs love it, as enables them to try out ideas or bring in dishes inspired by their home countries or places they may have travelled to. Feedback tells us that the customers also love the theatre and interaction."
Adds Simon Esner, director of BaxterStorey: "It's a great way of adding vibrancy to a contract caterer's offer without a big reinvestment in hard or soft furnishings. It really does generate positive revenue, which helps keep costs to our clients exactly where they should be, which is as low as possible."
Fast, casual yet healthy
Many of the high street's most popular fast casual dining spots are not only innovative - they're healthy too. Again, foodservice caterers haven't been left behind. "Our stand-out success for Charlton House is in the provision of healthy meals that are more than the equal of the high street," says CH&Co's chief executive of B&I, Caroline Fry.
These meals have come out of the company's chef nutrition programme, led by nutritionist Amanda Ursell and Charlton House's executive chefs. "We asked 167 of our chefs to take a long, hard look at their staple recipes for everything from scrambled eggs to sandwiches," Fry says.
"They have reduced fat in mashed potato by 30%, cut 11g of fat per serving of scrambled eggs and cut 20% fat content in chips - and much more."
Also, at 30% of client sites, there is a Wellbeing Day every year with Ursell on hand to provide healthy eating advice. Vacherin, too, is constantly innovating around its healthy eating range, Nutritious & Delicious, and has also introduced monthly health promotion days, focusing on a specific subject like stress management or metabolism boosting.
"We offer customers free health and nutrition information packs that show how eating certain foods can help support the body to deal with and overcome certain symptoms associated
with each given topic," explains Vacherin's commercial director and owner Phil Roker.
On these days, the company also promotes its Nutritious & Delicious ranges. "Gary Baverstock, our nutritionist, highlights dishes that contain the key nutrients that support the body in relation to the month's chosen topic so that everything is linked," Roker notes.