Staff dining has come a long way in the past 20 years and is now more likely to resemble the high-street restaurants it is competing with. Diane Lane reports.
The staff dining facility has undergone a transformation in the past couple of decades. No longer are customers faced with the traditional straight-line, stainless-steel servery associated with "the work canteen" of old; instead there's likely to be a theatre cooking area, a deli, a refrigerated salad bar and a dedicated beverage section besides the hot counter.
"These days the word ‘canteen' is very seldom used in the contract catering world - it is nearly always ‘restaurant' and staff are regarded as clients," says Mike Mellor, managing director of Space Catering Equipment. "The standard of food on show has to compete with the high street at every level - even if the offer is subsidised, the food needs to be well presented and good quality to compete.
"In some market sectors, the staff restaurant and the food available within it is seen as a major factor in the recruitment and retention of staff and the look and feel of the restaurant is a high priority."
For Craig Fettes, operations director at Elior, UK customer demand has necessitated a culture change from canteen-style food to offer a more conceptual approach verging on the retail-type philosophy.
"Customers can easily look to the high street to compare quality and value for money, so a modern design incorporating a wide selection of food with different destination points for food delivery has become even more important," he says. "We have found customers are happy to pay more if they can clearly measure the value of the product they are buying against the high street option and the experience they enjoy while doing so."
Getting the design right is crucial and there are plenty of factors to take into consideration, as Andy Chappell, operations director for ISS Eaton, explains. "As subsidies and operating costs continue to reduce, the design, number of counters, the need for flexibility and, ultimately, the number of staff required to operate the contract are key.
"At a typical site designed today, the counters, or ‘service platforms', must be interchangeable and mobile, along with the ability to provide customers with a different experience each time they dine. They must also be able to provide for both assisted service and self service, as service requirements change over the life of the equipment.
Queuing is always a major issue, points out Mellor, with time pressure on staff to get served and get back to their desks and so the straight-line counter with a till at the end is a rarity. He says: "Food service counters are now split according to the offer so the customer can find their way straight to the food they want and move on quickly, often to dedicated till points to speed up the process. Cashless systems are also increasingly popular to keep the flow moving."
At Artizian, commercial director Chris Piper recognises that his customers are looking for an easy journey with a fast and efficient service. "To facilitate this, the servery layout should allow ease of choice and the option of a ‘fast track' service point for those customers who are looking to literally ‘grab and go'," he says. "Additionally, it should be flexible enough to display new food concepts and service offers as the customer need arises."
While there is no "one-size-fits-all" and facilities are of bespoke design to suit a client's particular needs, there are common themes in the modern staff restaurant including grab and go points for sandwiches, baguettes and salads, a deli counter for made-to-order sandwiches, a self-serve salad bar and various stations offering staple favourites such as pizza, jacket potatoes and soups.
The advantages of this type of set-up are two-fold, Piper explains. "For the operator, this brings labour efficiency through design layout: for example, one member of staff being able to cover two service points in a quiet period and a number of ‘self help' offers which do not need manning during service periods. For the user, there is increased choice, plus the option of having something made fresh - salad or sandwich - just as you like it, in front of your eyes."
Fettes cites other advantages. "If each section of the servery is given equal recognition and merchandised appropriately, it means a customer coming in for a sandwich may be attracted to another area of the servery and trade up his menu choice," he says. "More islands spark customer interest, make it easier to introduce different themes or concepts, reduces menu fatigue, enables parts of the operation to be shut down when quiet and ensures there's not just one main queue at the end of the line."
A popular feature now present on many hot counters is the chef's theatre station, where hot dishes are cooked in full view of the customer, and its value is clear to James Greetham, business director for Directors Table, Sodexo. "Staff restaurants are now expected to be more interactive, giving the customer a connection with the source of the meal," he says. "We live in an age where customers have greater knowledge about their food and want to be more exposed to the process of preparation.
"We must maintain an honesty in what we deliver, something that is highlighted by the increasing theatre-style layout of staff restaurants. This really opens up the kitchen and makes customers feel like they are playing a part in what is being prepared. Theatre-style restaurants also enable us to showcase the high calibre of craft skill within our company, allowing chefs to demonstrate their flair in a more public arena."
In terms of design, all these developments have given rise to shaped counters and, in turn, to far more interesting designs and finishes, says Mellor. "It is not unusual to see natural or reconstituted granite surfaces on counter tops with backlit panels in a variety of finishes from opaque glass to high-quality wood veneers - lighting the counter and the food well can play a huge part in the overall feel of the space.
But once your servery is installed, you can't rest on your laurels, according to Fettes. "There must be a regular review of the service to ensure you continue to delight your customers - buying habits change, food costs can increase and marketing may need to be reviewed. Customer surveys must be undertaken and client meetings held, but the most valuable tool we have is our people who interact with our customers every day and learn from them how to continue delivering an excellent service."
ISS Eaton's counter at South Quay Plaza, Canary Wharf
When Walkers Snack Foods in Leicester approached Space Catering Equipment to undertake a complete overhaul of its workplace catering facilities, the diverse needs of two sets of employees working under the same roof had to be taken into consideration.
The 24-hour Continental production cycle with up to 160 factory workers on each shift meant that the catering operation had to be able to provide meals on a large scale within a very short space of time. While the factory staff make up 80% of the Leicester plant's workforce, the other 20% are some 80 office-based employees who tend to have very different catering requirements.
"We needed a facility that would be able to offer something for everyone," explains Dawn Redford, facilities manager at Walkers Snack Foods. "Our factory workers want hearty, quality home-cooked meals to keep them going throughout their shift, while our office workers tend to use the restaurant area for breakfasts, lighter lunches and informal meetings over coffee."
The restaurant can now seat 206 - 148 dining seats used mainly by the factory workers, plus 58 softer seats in the form of more relaxing tub sofas grouped around coffee tables, which are proving popular for coffee breaks and informal meetings.
The large bespoke servery counter features a series of chilled and hot food displays along its 11.5m length. It is arranged in a shape resembling a question mark, the idea being customers can move back and forth between the different sections rather than moving down it in a line.
The 1.2m cold deli section comprises a refrigerated well for holding containers of sandwich fillings for making up fresh sandwiches to order, while the refrigerated well making up the 1.5m salad bar is fitted with black plastic salad containers filled with freshly made salads for diners to help themselves. A refrigerated well with three adjustable shelves fitted above is filled with sandwiches, drinks and desserts to go.
The hot display features a bain-marie with the capacity to hold five gastronorm containers and there's a separate heated Ceran drop-in counter housing the vegetarian offering of which there can be up to 100 covers in one service.
The prep area for sandwiches and deli wraps and the cookline for the hot food are visible beyond the cold deli and hot display respectively, adding an element of theatre and emphasising the fact that the food is freshly prepared.
The counter also incorporates a chef's theatre area with an induction wok where diners can watch while their food is freshly cooked to order. The design uses black granite tops over blue laminate panelled fronts and is complemented with contemporary chairs in a beech finish and tables with tops that match the counters.
HINTS AND TIPS
Gary Allen, sales director at E&R Moffat, stresses that while the art of a good counter is to make the food look as attractive as possible, the main task is to keep it fresh and the ideal design is one that makes it easy for food to be replenished regularly. The appeal of fresh food is highlighted by the increase in theatre-style cooking but it's important to build in flexibility, allowing the chef to cook pasta one day, wok-based stir-fries the next, and so on.
Beautifully designed, state-of-the-art restaurants are no longer the preserve of the fine-dining arena, according to Mark Poultney, managing director of Hatco, who says the trend for glass, steel, slate and glossy granite has spilled over into contract catering, too. There are advantages that go well beyond those of spectacular interior design - these fashionable materials are actually highly practical, easy to clean and, when used in the construction of counters and serveries, show off the wares beautifully.
On refrigerated units, ensure that temperatures meet all food legislation requirements and that they have automatic defrost and water evaporation functions, advises Nick McDonald, marketing and export director for Lincat. Good units should have a digital temperature display to enable you to check the cabinet temperatures. Heated units should have good heat distribution and may have a humidifying feature to prevent foods drying out.
While the visual impact is important, it's not just about looks, says Shad Williams, equipment specialist at Alliance Online. There are many considerations that should be built into the design such as the transfer between kitchen and servery, the effectiveness of under-counter storage of hot and cold food, and getting the balance right between hot and cold food on display.
With the shape, John Harvey, development chef at Valera, suggests that you do not limit your thinking to a straight run. Corners, both internal and external, can make a useful "L" shape to maximise your selling space and a variety of glass styles are available to match - vertical flat, angled flat or curved. For more style, introduce angles or curves into the run as this makes the whole display more interesting, particularly if reflected in the decoration.