Meat-free/plant-based food has leapt up the agenda to become one of the key eating trends identified by foodservice firms, coming from almost nowhere two years ago.
That's one of the findings of the UKHospitality Foodservice Market Report 2019, produced in partnership with Bidfood, which outlines key challenges and opportunities for the sector.
The report showed that foodservice businesses are now making sustainability a core consideration, driven partly by consumer pressure and partly by their own desire to change.
Some 70% of business leaders who responded to the report said that sustainability is now "critically important" to their business, with 30% identifying it as important. Not a single respondent denied the importance of sustainability to their company's future.
And while street food remained the number-one eating trend identified by business leaders (chosen by 90% of respondents), the phenomenon of meat-free/plant-based/vegan eating has now risen to 70%, up from just 10% in 2017. Some 60% of respondents chose healthy eating as a trend, while allergens and sugar reduction both scored 20%. Perhaps surprisingly given the focus on sustainability elsewhere in responses, sustainable packaging and growth in breakfast scored just 10% each.
Nonetheless, respondents said reducing the use of single-use plastic was the number-one consumer driver, identified by 60% of respondents, followed by smart payment (50%), and more grab and go/eat at desk (40%).
Nine in 10 operators have now instituted changes to business as a result of customer feedback including removal of single-use plastic where possible, new digital solutions allowing transparency and customer loyalty, new technology to manage waste, and new environmental/CSR initiatives.
The report, which was carried out in conjunction with Ignite Economics, put the size of the foodservice sector at £10.9b, with employment in the industry growing to 293,000. Ignite forecast that the sector would grow by a relatively subdued 1.3% over the next four years, held back by pressure on client contracts and faltering consumer spending. In a best-case scenario, it could grow to annual turnover of £12.1bn and employ 311,000 people by 2022, Ignite predicted. In a worst-case scenario, the number of people employed could fall to 275,000 on a turnover of £10.4bn over the same period.
Despite that, operators responding to survey reported an average of 17% year-on-year revenue growth and 30% were "highly confident" of future growth, with a further 70% "confident".
Nine in ten saw the strongest opportunity for growth over the next three years in winning market share from the competition, with 60% identifying more efficient business practices, and 30% through mergers and acquisitions.
Meanwhile, the number-one factor constraining growth, chosen by 50% of respondents, was tighter consumer spending, following by rising input cost inflation (40%), client cut-backs (30%), difficulties in passing on price rises (30%), and an economic slowdown (30%).
Dr Andrew Kemp, group sales and marketing director at Bidfood, said: "We are encouraged this year to see contract catering, and the hospitality sector in general, rise above the political uncertainty that has been haunting us, and to read of a buoyant and confident industry with the right mindset and ambition to continue playing its crucial role as an engine of growth for the UK economy.
"The report also highlights a sector which is clearly focused on getting to grips with pressing issues like climate change, allergen management, attracting talent and driving diversity, and how vital it is for us to work closely together and engage with government to achieve this, and support UKHospitality in its work as a voice for our industry."
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls added: "Contract catering is a hugely important aspect of the UK's hospitality sector and a vital component of the country's economy. It arguably does not always get the recognition it deserves, though, as other areas of the sector tend to hog the headlines.
"This report shows that catering makes an incredibly valuable contribution and acts as a pillar which supports a great many aspects of hospitality and a variety of other sectors both public and private. This year's market report shows that, with a supportive trading environment, turnover in the catering sector could reach £12.1billion by 2022. It could also be employing 311,000 people by 2020, so its importance as a provider of jobs and investment around the UK should be a key concern for government."