For many, contract catering means cooking up huge batches of the same thing for all diners. But companies like Elior are looking to the future and calling in brands such as Vita Mojo to provide each customer with a personalised touch to their lunch. Vincent Wood reports
The hyper-personalised health-food concept, with three sites in the City of London, is part tech-firm, part fast-casual chain, offering complete choice to customers over a range of healthy ingredients via an in-store app. The company already had £1m of investment from Elior under its belt when it crowdfunded its launch in 2017, and since then the partnership has helped both to grow, allowing the comparably vast foodservice operator to take advantage of the nimble start-up's technological prowess and ability to rapidly adapt.
It has also meant that Elior can bring the Vita Mojo brand in-house to its contracts, offering an individual, focused approach to large-scale food offerings. It's a partnership that's working - by the end of 2017, the offering had doubled site sales in the Elior contracts where it was available and it has become a key part of its pitching process.
Building a meal
Each participating Elior site has its own Vita Mojo-style clone website as well as pre-loaded tablets near the point of sale. The web offering is a slick operation where a list of bases, proteins, sides and sauces are offered to the consumer. Diners pick as few or as many as they like and can then tweak the order with sliding buttons that can increase or decrease the amount of each element in the dish. As they move the sliders, users are shown exactly how many grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates they will end up with, along with the number of fruit and veg portions and overall calories. Allergens are also clearly outlined, a growing concern for consumers and operators alike.
Once the order is placed, it arrives in the Elior kitchen, where a chef gets to work. The system is set up more like an Á la carte offering than a traditional foodservice kitchen, taking up a workbench with mise en place spread across the counter (most dishes are prepped and frozen on a weekly basis before being served across the five-day period). What arrives for the customer is a balanced meal with full nutritional information.
Due to the smaller scale and flexibility of the offering compared to servery fare, Elior can use ingredients that react to shifting trends and circumstances. The demands of diners can readily change because of the time of year or the weather, and having a smaller, personalised side operation means chefs can quickly diversify their offering to increase sales and minimise waste.
While Vita Mojo and Elior work with the same technology, both have vastly different uses for it. Vita Mojo's head of brand development Charley Gloerfelt told The Caterer that, in stores, the technology is best used alongside a dietician or a personal trainer who can design a menu. Pre-designed dishes are frequently picked up by customers, who pick through the offering on the in-store tablets and tweak the sliders as they see fit. In Elior's case, the firm has removed pre-designed dishes altogether as clients enjoy selecting their own ingredients. "We rely on set meals very heavily - they don't," says Gloerfelt. "The thing is, they are a captive, trained audience, so they know exactly what they're doing."
Sliders are also more frequently used by Elior's customers than those in-store, and much of the benefit comes from the pre-order, with diners picking out options from their desks. Rachel McEntee, offer development manager for Elior, says: "We're being challenged all the time by our clients. People have shorter and shorter lunch breaks, so how can we help provide them a good offer in 30 minutes? If they can pre-order or they can order quickly and they haven't got to stand in the queue and pay, for us, that's a massive tick."
A genius partnership
While the system is personalised, Vita Mojo is capable of going much further with genetic matching - one of the most intriguing elements of the offering. In conjunction with testing firm DNAFit, customers can be recommended foods based on their 'needs and sensitivities', as identified by a DNA test. If something in their genetic makeup means they find it harder to process protein or they process fat too easily, an icon will pop up alongside relevant products to advise them.
It is a huge leap forward for personalisation, but one both firms quite intentionally do not put centre stage. For Vita Mojo, it is treated as an add-on - something the willing can seek out and the indifferent will ignore. For Elior, it is not included at all, in part because of the slightly dystopian feel of a customer handing their DNA over to a firm linked with their employer. McEntee says: "We toyed with putting it on the website when we launched, but we ended up just directing people back to the store. We just felt that we wanted to focus on the food offer."
The counter-argument to innovation in the sector is often that technology could replace the human element of ordering food, such as expertise or the warmth of conversation. However, Elior chefs told The Caterer that, because customers had more control and were able to put their own stamp on their food, they were more inclined to chat about their choices with the chef and build better relationships with staff.
The future of the technology is to take the conversation users have with the website even further, recommending a route through the vast number of options available. Gloerfelt says: "We've got more than nine billion possible food combinations, but I eat the same thing every day - I do it, every single person in the office does it. And then I might feel inspired and then I'll eat something else every single day. So what we're working on as a company is recommendations - 'we've noticed you were a vegan, have you tried this?' People are busy, they don't want to be confronted with any more taxing decisions."Get The Caterer every week on your smartphone, tablet, or even in good old-fashioned hard copy (or all three!).