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Get the most out of your food display

19 March 2008

Contract caterers at business and industry sites face stiff competition from the high street. Stuart Ferguson looks at the role of attractive food display in keeping customers in-house

The likes of Pret A Manger, Eat, Starbucks and Caffè Nero have dominated UK high streets, making it increasingly difficult for contract caterers to keep their clients' workforce from popping down the road for a crayfish, lime and coriander sandwich washed down with a chai latte instead of partaking of the staff restaurant fare.

But it's not just the food offering that needs to be addressed. Close your eyes and think of a staff canteen. Personally, I'm getting an image not dissimilar to something from Victoria Wood's TV show Dinnerladies.

Visually appealing

Now, think high-street brand. Modern, dynamic, sexy, chic and cool are all words that spring to mind, and you can bet this was the brief given to the contractor that did the installation. The entire room, including serveries and counters, vending machines and refrigerated displays, all needs to be visually appealing to the customer. Obviously, there's a financial outlay involved initially, but this can pay dividends in the long term.

Tricon Foodservice has worked with many contract caterers in the business and industry (B&I) sector. Chief executive Tony Horton believes that the deli-bar concept is meeting many of today's challenges. "The traditional big cafeteria was designed to meet a broad range of customer requirements - hot meals, salads, sandwiches," he says, "but 70% of the users aren't after a hot meal they're more likely to go for a sandwich and a coffee, or a salad and soup."

Since hot meal provision is labour-intensive and requires a lot of space and equipment, it means that most of the food service resources are delivering choices that only a relatively small proportion of the workforce wants. "Achieving zero subsidy and keeping competitive is almost impossible in this situation," explains Horton. "Switching to a deli-bar offering fresh sandwiches and salads, a limited choice of three hot meals, and a coffee bar delivers huge savings and encourages more take-up by the customer."

The deli-bar concept answers not only a business's needs but also those of its customers. "One particular client was offering a traditional cafeteria with 12 hot meal choices and was paying £500,000 per year in subsidy," says Horton. "We were brought in to look at ways to reduce the subsidy. After consultation with the client, workforce and contract caterer, we recommended a switch to the deli-bar. The change cost an initial £400,000, but they now operate at nil subsidy and have much greater take-up from the staff."

Valera's Navy Bar
Valera's Navy Bar
Valera's Navy Bar Counter
So, is the deli-bar the future of B&I food service? "Not quite," says Horton, adding: "It is today's solution, but it's probably not tomorrow's."

At the London Borough of Barnet, the Atrium Café is at the heart of the council's new strategy to modernise its working methods and take a more flexible approach to the way its staff do business.

Formerly used by Middlesex University, the council building houses an airy and attractive open-plan area with meeting rooms and offices attached. The catering facilities are a vital part of the strategy, since staff are encouraged to use the café area to work and hold meetings as well as for networking and relaxing.

"There's a choice of meeting areas, from conventional private rooms to coffee shop-style soft chairs and sofas," explains Teresa Goodall, Barnet's head of catering. "We needed the facilities to both attract staff and encourage the flexible approach to work, so there are plenty of work stations as well, plus Wi-Fi and network access."

The food service facilities were completely redeveloped and are based around a striking new counter supplied by Moffat Catering Equipment. The counter top is black granite, while the fascia incorporates the borough's official colour, teal.

There are two counter areas, one for grab'n'go foods such as snacks and sandwiches, the other for hot and cold meals. According to Goodall, two of the most popular sections are the fresh fruit bar and the salad bar. There's also a variety of hot and cold display areas built into the counters, including a soup servery, and two cash points. The counter's gently bowed front is both attractive and practical, since it allows customers to see more of the food offering.

"Since we opened in October, takings have increased every week," says Goodall. "More people are using the facilities, including staff from other civic buildings."

Your counter or servery doesn't have to be static to maximise sales quite the opposite - the Compass Group is seeing the return of the office food trolley, but this time it's covered in grass and filled with 100% pure fruit smoothies from drinks supplier Innocent. This will enable the caterer to deliver tasty drinks direct to customers' desks, saving time for customers and offering healthy snacks that can be consumed at any time of the day.

Compass marketing director John Pain says: "We know that our customers are working longer hours and taking shorter breaks. They are, therefore, looking for further snacking options to keep them filled up in between meals as well as wanting to remain healthy at the same time. Innocent smoothies fit this demand perfectly."

Compass has teamed up with the drinks company to trial the grassy trolleys in up to 50 client sites across the UK, and if the trial proves successful, it will look to extend the concept across its business.

Pain adds that Compass has spent a lot of time researching who they're up against, by tracking where people go for lunch. This has helped identify a snacking and grazing culture that is rapidly growing. In reaction to this, he says, companies need to provide continuous catering facilities to feed demand.

This will often fall outside the conventional 9-5 time frame, with many financial companies busy until late at night when international markets are still operating and, more importantly, when many high street brands aren't.

To this end, self service and vending machines become essential. Offering round-the-clock amenities with minimum staff involvement - you need only one person to ensure that the machine is topped up with product - vending machines can be adapted to serve hot or cold drinks, sandwiches, crisps and confectionery, salads and, with the addition of an accompanying microwave, hot foods and snacks.

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