When credit crunched to a halt in 2008 and banking beasts began to topple, one of the first ways in which contract caterers began to suffer was a fall in hospitality. Big buffet meetings of deep-filled sandwiches and quiches were reduced to hot beverages and biscuits.
As the economy worsened and companies were forced to streamline their workforces, the second wave of business challenges hit. Fewer people in the building meant fewer customers in the canteen and those that were still in employment began poking extra notches in their ever-tightening belts.
But how does the cost-conscious consumer behave under these circumstances? Wendy Bartlett, chief executive of independent caterer Bartlett Mitchell, says that without doubt food purchasing trends have changed through the recession, but not necessarily in expected ways.
One would assume that those used to lunchtime trips down the high street might consider the in-house option as a more cost-effective solution and that sales would be driven by an increase in demand.
But Caroline Fry, managing director of CH&Co's business and industry brand http://www.vacherin.com/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Charlton House](http://www.charltonhouse.co.uk/), says she has witnessed two types of shift in behavioural patterns. She explains: "People that used to go to the high street did start coming into the catering facilities, but the people that usually use it began bringing in their own lunch. So in some ways it levelled out."
Rather than an upsurge in bargain-hungry customers filling the staff dining rooms and helping operators to buck the recessionary trend, volume levels appear to have remained largely static.
"I really thought the recession would be good for staff restaurants," Chris Stern of [Stern Consultancy](http://www.sternconsultants.co.uk/) says. "But what really skews the statistics is that most organisations cut their staff and made fewer customers available for in-house facilities. Maybe as a percentage of site population staff canteens have become busier but an increase in business has been hidden by the fact that there are fewer staff in the building."
The main priority of the customer witnessed by most - if not all - food service businesses, is value. Caterers are striving to demonstrate a perception of value for money to their customers in order to drive sales, but while the aim is the same the methods employed vary wildly.
[Compass Group's](http://www.compass-group.co.uk/) Jon Siswick, head of marketing for the firm's B&I division, says that price is a key factor when consumers are making food and drink purchases and as a result the "Why pay more?" concept of a hot meal range priced between £2 and £2.50 was created.
However some operators have found that their customers are looking for a different kind of value for money with more flexibility and choice to suit their purse. "Our response has been to ‘deconstruct' our menus and let customers decide for themselves on every element of their meal," says Conrad Dean, operations director at [Vacherin.
"Typically they choose a protein such as chicken and then add to it. The customer will often spend as much as they would have previously, but are more comfortable seeing the price of the individual components."
A mixed approach has been adopted by Charlton House. Fry says that where a dish such as a roast dinner is offered with all the trimmings included, there has been an increase in up-take of hot main courses.
"Conversely, we find that costing out all separate elements of a meal works well too. If someone is having a curry, they can choose to have rice or naan bread or poppadums - we literally carve it to suit all pockets," she says.
Bartlett Mitchell's swift response to a drop in spend per head (SPH) early on in the recession was also to offer bundled meal deals. While this line of attack has the positive effect of keeping SPH up, it can have a negative effect on overall profit margins.
But consumer preoccupation with value hasn't meant the same as cheap. Luxury items remain buoyant. Typically a recession leads people to seek comfort foods; more familiarity and less experimental cooking. This time though, comfort is sought in minor indulgences.
"One of the areas we've concentrated on is the ability to offer those ‘you deserve it moments' - a truffle chocolate with coffee, small pot desserts, the special of the day at a higher selling price - but it's a real treat," says Bartlett.
Caterers aren't alone in identifying this market trend. Retailers such as Marks & Spencer are offering small-sized treats with big profit margins, such as their own small pot desserts.
Even packed lunches aren't completely detrimental to the in-house caterer. Although every recession has a period where people look at the bring-your-own option, caterers have found that it will often be supplemented with soup from the canteen or a fairy cake in the afternoon.
"People will still have their daily cappuccino. They'll save £2.50 on a meal by bringing in their lunch but still spend that on a cappuccino because it's psychological; in some ways that defines them," adds Bartlett.
Mini culinary extravagances have become increasingly popular methods of staff motivation. A post-work round of drinks is no longer in the budgets of most petty cash tins and so middle management is taking matters into their own hands.
Fry says: "Our home baking has never been so popular and we find that department heads are digging into their own pockets to buy a tray of cakes or retro biscuits to treat their teams and show their appreciation.
"I suppose you could call it comfort eating at the end of the hard, long working week."
HEALTHY EATING OPTIONS
Despite a typical trend towards comfort eating, the recession has done little to dampen the spirits of the health-conscious consumer.
While four out of 10 Compass customers admit they tend to eat more healthily at the start of the week, demand for healthy options such as its popular Balanced Choice range of dishes remains consistently high.
"Even though people have less to spend, they are making a conscious effort to eat healthily," says Charlton House managing director Caroline Fry. "We've rolled out a series of vegetarian main courses in our restaurants and the uptake has been very good.
"It's great to see traditional meat eaters tucking into something like butternut squash with courgettes and goat's cheese."
Vacherin's deconstructed meal deals has driven more of its customers to opt for the salad option. The caterer revamped all of its salad bars, which in the main feature raw, undressed items, seasonal specials, weekly superfoods plus nuts, seeds, leaves and dressings on the side.
"Our new style of presenting salad and the impact of the deconstructed menu has led 25% more customers to include salad in their lunch choices," says operations director Conrad Dean.
HOW TO RETAIN CUSTOMERS THROUGH THE DOWNTURN
Keep refreshing your offer Without the facility to change your customers, it's vital to always change and innovate with the product.
â- Drive add-on sales Offer small treats with big margins to maximise profits.
â- Bank on big brands Consumers have faith in familiarity and look to reward themselves with the genuine article, such as high street coffee brands Starbucks and Costa Coffee.
â- Be prepared
As the age of austerity passes, get ready to catch the consumer that's more ready to spend before the high street does.
â- Move quickly and creatively
Respond to increasing client demands for reduced or nil subsidy contracts by finding alternative cost-cutting measures and implementing them with haste.