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The shrinking lunch hour

26 July 2004

Britain's workers are eating differently. Last week's report on lunchtime habits from contract caterer Eurest, part of the Compass Group, confirmed this.

Although the report was titled Good Opportunities for Caterers, only one in three workers who have access to a staff restaurant use it regularly and 25% of women skip lunch altogether. Those who do take breaks take shorter ones, want healthier food and on average spend just £2 on lunch.

There may well be plenty of opportunities (not least to increase the number of workers using a staff restaurant regularly), but there are also plenty of challenges for caterers trying to hold on to their share of the customer's pound.

Significantly, customers are spending more on snacks, up to £3 a head, which offers contract caterers a greater chance to increase sales.

Since 14 years ago, when Eurest first conducted its lunchtime survey, the catering landscape has changed dramatically. The high street has had a massive impact, leading change and providing stiff competition. The choice and variety of food available in Pret A Manger, EAT, Benjys, Boots and Marks & Spencer have accelerated the speed of change and forced contractors to react quickly to what customers want.

This, according to Eurest's survey, is healthier food. Now, one in three workers are concerned about fat and calorie intake - even though their lunch choice is based first on taste, followed by health, price and quality.

A Compass spokeswoman said the trend towards healthy eating in business and industry contracts is gathering pace: "People are definitely making healthier choices."

But in-house restaurants can't just offer healthy food, said Chris Stern, of Stern Consultancy. "It does depend on where you are in the country, but without a doubt there has been a switch to fresher food. Nonetheless, people often say they want just healthy meals - but you still have to offer chips."

Restaurateur Prue Leith also recognises that consumers' buying habits don't necessarily match their desires. "Workers express a desire for healthy menus, even if the take-up doesn't quite match," she said. "My guess is that the shift to healthier lunches will be driven as much by the employer, who recognizes the cost benefits of a healthier workforce, as by the rest of us, who continue to find sugar and fat pretty well irresistible."

Stern agreed that fresh, high-quality food is one way that caterers can push up workers' spend. "We have found that when the contract caterer's client [the employer] and the caterer go for a high-quality, fresh offering, you get a better uptake by the customer. Without a doubt people are prepared to pay more for quality."

Jonathan Doughty, managing director of Coverpoint Consultancy, agreed: "The offering has had to move from meat and two veg and jam roly poly to healthy paninis, Danish pastries and espresso coffee.

"What you used to have was a canteen that was open from noon to 2pm; now it is far closer to a high-street offering."

But it is not only the food that is changing, it is also the design, which is altering to meet corporate and staff requirements. Now, staff have breakout areas, coffee bars, delis, convenience stores and vending. This, said Doughty, is helping to sustain and maintain business.

It is also good for the employers, and, as Doughty pointed out, having the right work environment and choice of facilities - and that includes the food - is seen as an important benefit to help capture and retain the best staff.

It's a cyclical thing, said Doughty. When an industry is booming, often there aren't enough potential employees, so attracting and retaining staff becomes important, and having the right benefits and environment is a big part of that.

Despite the challenges and an extremely competitive environment, consultants believe contract caterers have a healthy future in the workplace.

"It's a tough environment, and caterers are having to perform better and raise their game and quality," said Stern. "This has been necessary for caterers to charge the price that meets their clients' financial requirements and to satisfy their customers. To be honest, the best operators have risen to the challenges really, really well."

The French comparison - In France, the average lunch break is longer, at 35 minutes.

  • Two-thirds of French workers take lunch, compared with 57% in the UK.
  • Nearly half of all French workers eat a three-course meal every day.
  • Sandwiches are eaten at lunchtime by only 5% of workers in France.
  • Only one in eight workers in France eat in a staff restaurant, while 25% eat in a commercial restaurant.
    Source: Survey of 1,000 French workers compiled by market intelligence company Ifop
    Key findings - how things have changed since 1990 - One in five workers (20%) work through their lunch, compared with just 7% in 1990.
  • Average lunchtime spend is £2.02, compared with £1.20 in 1990.
  • Tea is the nation's favourite lunchtime drink, with 43% choosing tea and 35% coffee.
  • Mineral water is the third-favourite drink, with 21% choosing it compared with just 8% in 1990.
  • Organic and GM-free food influence only 5% of workers' choice of lunch.
  • Taste is the most important factor influencing people's choice of lunchtime meal.
  • Sandwiches are the nation's favourite - 54% take them, though this is down from 65% in 2002. Fruit and salads come next.

The Eurest report polled 2,000 adults nationwide. Good Opportunities for Caterers costs £25 and available by e-mail frominfo@compassgroup.co.uk

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