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Are contract caterers champions of balanced diets?

24 January 2007
Are contract caterers champions of balanced diets?

A lot is written about healthy eating these days too much, if you ask Chris Piper, director of sales at contract caterer Artizian. "The word ‘healthy' conjures up images of people in cords and sandles saying you must eat this or you must eat that," he says. "The term is so vague these days and is being increasingly overused."

It is a buzz word that growing numbers of business and industry (B&I) caterers are using. At a time when the term can encompass anything from reduced-fat mayonnaise to food provenance, what exactly counts as "healthy eating", and are B&I caterers meeting these criteria?

Kenny Tranquille, holistic adviser for Artizian, says that the term is entirely subjective. "Someone who eats frozen vegetables is healthier than someone who eats none at all," he says. "Whether you are healthy or not depends where you are on the spectrum compared with other people."

Food service consultant Chris Stern believes it is difficult for contract caterers to place themselves on that spectrum. "From a business perspective, a caterer will want to sell what people want to buy," he says. "A caterer will do whatever it can to survive."

Piper agrees. The danger of focusing too heavily on healthy eating, he stresses, is that people do not like to be told what to do or to have their choice limited by someone else. "We can't say, ‘You can only eat this and this,' because people will vote with their feet."

Tranquille argues, however, that the vital plank to healthy eating is not what food is on the plate, but what information is in the public domain. "If you give people the information and the choice, then they can go and eat healthily if they want," he says.

Socially responsible

Despite Stern's insistence that they need to put survival first, he is adamant that contract caterers should not just be pure profit-making machines. "Being socially responsible is a key role these companies can have if they choose," he says. "They are in a great position of power and can use it to educate."

Tranquille concurs: "What makes a healthy-eating initiative is the information made available. Take that away and you cannot label the programme ‘healthy'."

The Artizian healthy-eating programme, entitled Equilibrium, focuses a lot on soâ€'called superfoods (foods with high nutritional benefits - see panel, page 46) as well as encouraging a balanced diet both in and out of work, with emphasis placed as much on information as on produce. Posters, table-top adverts and the client's intranet advertise monthly "discovery days", which focus on a particular theme of healthy eating, with seminars on topics ranging from "essential fats" to "eating for energy". Customers can also approach Tranquille for advice on how best to tweak their diet to make it healthier.

Letting customers come across the information rather than preaching to them is vital to the programme. As Piper says: "There is a danger of customers reeling away if you ram information down their throat."

If lip service is being paid to healthy eating, it is hard to argue the case that Artizian is a guilty party. As well as offering healthy lunchtime and breakfast meals, the programme can extend so far as to inform participants about the best meals to eat in the evening and can also supply them with a pedometer to make sure they cover at least 7,000 steps a day.

Subtle approach

BaxterStorey operations director Paul Nicholls believes the subtle approach to changing diets is the only feasible way. "We have a duty of care to our customers, but if we make a song and a dance about them eating healthily, then we put them off," he says.

The softly-softly approach includes bold initiatives such as lowering the price of fruit from 40p to 20p - meaning each item makes a loss of up to 15p - which, although "financially a disaster", admits catering manager Ricky Wilmont, of BaxterStorey site Edexcel, encourages customers to veer away from high-sugar alternatives, which are restricted to one vending machine in the restaurant.

Information is also slipped into the public domain via posters, the intranet and themed days focusing on healthy food options, while a traffic-light system, rating dishes as either red, amber or green according to their nutritional values, allows customers to instantly recognise a dish as healthy or not.

This encouragement of healthy eating is obviously an advantage to the client company. The stress on superfoods, lighter dishes and fruit and nuts, as opposed to chocolate and sweets, is not only beneficial to their employees' health but to their work performance. An employee who has lunched on an undressed tuna salad is more likely to perform better in the afternoon than someone who has treated themselves to a tartare sauce-laden fish and chip meal.

Subsidised

While their attitude is laudable, it is, of course, easy for subsidised caterers such as BaxterStorey at Edexcel - where it receives £300,000 a year from the client to feed the 1,200 employees - to offer healthy choices and to spend extra on fresh produce and expensive superfoods. Much more of a challenge is faced by caterers dealing with nil-subsidy contracts on less populated sites.

Stern points out that these sites can often present no-win situations for caterers, where they are either criticised for selling what they must to survive or they operate at a loss by spending money on less popular, more expensive but healthier produce. The act becomes a tightrope walk between appeasing the client company and the healthy eaters and providing popular items such as chips in order to keep enough customers in the restaurant.

A marriage of nil-subsidy, low numbers and healthy eating is an unstable one. "The client has to sit down and tell the caterer what they want," says Stern. "And if that means digging into their pockets to ensure the happiness of the staff, then so be it."

The trick to offering healthy eating at nil-subsidy sites is not to overturn the menu and alienate customers, but to implement initiatives within budget. Not every company can afford to knock 15p off the price of fruit, or mark up chocolate bars when there is such fierce high-street competition. Instead, a company can follow examples such as Lorraine Rutherford, general catering manager of nil-subsidy Charlton House site TRL, where on-site numbers can vary between 650 and 900. Recognising that cakes and flapjacks were popular among customers, she made sure the kitchen found time to bake its own, reducing the fat content in them while increasing the margin.

Other cost-free, labour-light initiatives include thorough briefings for staff on healthy cooking techniques grilling, not frying, foods pushing fruits and nuts at tills rather than chocolate and using available kitchen labour to produce attractive fruit salads and healthier, E number-free yogurts.

Dedication is a hard quality to judge, especially from the lay perspective of a diner at a B&I site, and it can take a forensic eye to identify caterers which are less impassioned by the healthy-eating trend.

Both Charlton House and Compass B&I arm Eurest have recently launched their respective healthy-eating information services for diners - the website Well Being, Being Well in the former's case and the Balanced Choices initiative by the latter. But ingrained company philosophy rather than PR-friendly initiatives best indicate to what extent healthy eating is taken seriously by caterers.

In some Eurest sites, for instance, simple actions have at times been lacking - such as placing fruit and water rather than high-margin chocolate and soft drinks in grab-and-go places, training staff thoroughly in healthy-eating cooking techniques, and making information readily available. It is only now that the trend has fully established itself that a comprehensive healthy-eating initiative, Balanced Choices, including broad staff training on nutrition, is being undertaken.

New initiatives

Asked why this should be, Compass communications manager Sara Matchett is tentative about commenting on past procedures before new initiatives are in place. "We have been moving in the right direction, giving customers more choice and more information," she says.

When it is suggested that, should the Balanced Choices initiative achieve its aims, some sites will be undergoing something of a revolution, Matchett refuses to agree. She cites the choice of a daily low-calorie option and a salad bar, but won't comment on the lack of a strategic overview. In the past, admits a Eurest employee, initiatives have struggled to drip down fully to the coalface - so to what extent Balanced Choices will revolutionise previously overlooked sites remains to be seen.

Healthy eating has soaked up more and more public attention over the past 10 years, and some companies have led the trend rather than followed it. The past five years, Stern says, has seen boutique B&I caterers steal the march on the bigger companies by pioneering healthy food, while many larger outfits have stuck with tired menus and operations that are not being updated until now.

While praising the innovation of smaller, health-orientated caterers, food service consultant Jonathan Knight defends as business-savvy the reluctance of bigger companies to dive head-first into healthy eating. "Lots of companies are scared to be pioneers," he says. "Because what happens to pioneers? They get shot by the Indians." Although, in this case, the pioneers seem to be winning.

For more on healthy eating

The Fresh approach

Artizian director of sales Chris Piper outlines the financial advantages of using fresh ingredients:

Generally speaking, the industry has got itself into a spiral. It has cut labour costs in the kitchen and taking labour out of the process means having to buy in pre-prepared meals and reheat them.

Labour costs have been reduced, but pre-prepared foods are more expensive than fresh ingredients. If meal uptake stayed the same, then buying in meals would be cost-effective. However, when you consider that most sites that have introduced freshly prepared meals have increased uptake from about 40% to 60%, then the net effect isn't that different. Also, by using fresh ingredients, chefs are better-motivated, eat better food and increase productivity.

10 top superfoods

  • Avocados
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Oats
  • Oily fish
  • Soya
  • Walnuts
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