The Caterer interview: Julia Edmonds and Catherine Roe of Elior UK on bouncing back after Covid

16 December 2021 by

After a couple of months settling into her new role as corporate business development director at Elior UK, Julia Edmonds speaks alongside chief executive Catherine Roe about delivering an elevated experience for B&I customers. Caroline Baldwin reports

You appear to have a very natural relationship, tell me about how you have come to work together?

CR: I didn't know Julia until she came to work at Elior as part of our acquisition of the London-based catering company Lexington in 2014 where she was managing director. Since then we've since worked very closely together and the rest is history. I always had my eye on her to join the board; she's so experienced, and the uniqueness of Julia is that she's worked in a corporate environment prior to being here, but has also run a very niche organisation as well, so she has the best of both worlds, as well as her experience in sales development.

JE: I can't believe it's been seven years, it's incredible – the whole focus of that time was to really bring the whole of the London business together under one leadership. We've been very successful, had some great contract wins over that period of time and continued to grow the team up until the pandemic.

How did you coping with the flexible return to the office when restrictions eased?

JE: We're finding people want to be in the workplace for collaboration and what people have really missed is face-to-face collaboration and spontaneity. People are coming back to work to specifically meet with people, through work collaboration or even socially. What we're finding is that clients really want to offer something much more enhanced than they did previously because they want to use food and service and the office space as a really good reason for people to come back and have an elevated experience.

People want to come and have lunch together because they don't want to make their own sandwiches at home anymore

People might not be coming back quite so many days of the week, but when they do come back they want to have a really fantastic experience and food is a great vehicle for that – people want to have lunch together because they don't want to make their own sandwiches at home any more, and they want to have a chat with the barista who knows their favourite coffee.

Streat Shack run by Elior at St James' Hospital, Leeds
Streat Shack run by Elior at St James' Hospital, Leeds

How confident do you feel in an uncertain environment where restrictions are likely to come and go this winter?

CR: When Boris instructed people to work from home back in March 2020, we had to soul search. I remember looking at at Canary Wharf wondering if it would be a ghost town forever. Fortunately we'd already acquired business in other sectors because we wanted a much more balanced portfolio anyway, but we got lots of advice from analysts and consultants to figure out how we'd manage our B&I industry going forward.

JE: When it comes to our clients, there's a real mix and always has been when companies are trying to forecast their business. Some clients are saying their staff aren't going to come back until after Christmas, but the majority are coming back [up until recent working from home guidance]. But we've been thrown into a situation where it's very difficult to plan anything. What we've learned is that we do have to be very agile, flexible and responsive to whatever happens. We need to get through the difficult Christmas period and for people to begin to feel confident again. It's a steady trajectory out of Covid.

CR: Coming out of this crisis that no one ever expected, we feel very sure-footed that we're in a good place. Suddenly you see the streets of London are full again and our clients want to do this, that and the other. It's really exciting, but it's a big challenge, coupled with the supply chain crisis to manage.

What are the big food trends you're seeing as people return to the office environment?

JE: The health and wellbeing trend is huge and the trend toward vegan eating is increasing and climate change is having a massive impact on that. In lockdown, people have either put on weight, or gone on a fitness campaign and they're really conscious about what they're eating. A lot more people have dietary requirements from a health perspective, more and more people are not eating dairy or gluten, which is also driving this trend. It's much more accessible now – supermarkets have shelves full of vegan products, so it has to be the go-to option for our clients too.

CR: It will help us attract more custom because the high street will find it difficult because of their narrow range. We want to make lunchtime interesting for customers, rather than just an answer to hunger.

JE: We're using personalisation to help our customers, by finding out what they want to eat and how can we help them make the right choices? But we're also finding that people change from day-to-day and customers tend to try and be super-healthy on a Monday to Thursday, but by the end of the week they're looking for the chocolate brownies. It's about being able to adapt our menus throughout the week, and even the day.

People are coming into offices later, so we do breakfast until later in the morning and they might be staying later, so restaurants need to stay open later. Everyone is relooking for their balance and routine of work; they are still experimenting with what works for them individually and we won't see what that looks like really until the early part of next year. But what we are seeing is an increase in footfall and spend because people are in the office for fewer days a week, so they want to treat themselves – and they want to be excited about what's on offer. And they're missing good coffee.

I remember looking at at Canary Wharf wondering if it would be a ghost town forever

CR: We have to reacquaint ourselves with our customers and what's great about Julia is that she understands them on a micro level, with the changes over the week. You can't have customer boredom, you have to be clever with how you do it. And it's not a bottomless pit of money, you have to manage it commercially too.

You mentioned personalised experiences, tell us about some of the digital innovations you've put in place to manage this?

JE: In the education sector we have a digital platform called LunchHound, an app which allows parents to see the menu with nutritional information and allergens for their children for the whole of the week, They can select menu choices and pay for it online in advance. For us it's fantastic. We know exactly how many portions we're serving, because it reduces wastage and helps us become more efficient, it's brilliant.

We're also looking at tech in the B&I sector, and a lot of clients are really keen on digital solutions. Breaz, our click and collect, scan-and-go, pre-order and collect app, provides a very personalised account, such as allergen information. You can set your profile up with your dietary requirements and it's very intuitive in terms of marketing, with push notifications. We also offer eco-loyalty points where you can be rewarded if you pick the item with the lowest carbon footprint, and we plant trees after you collect a certain number of points. Things like that are really engaging for this new generation of customers who are really conscious about the environment.

Do you think the market is healthy for acquisitions?

CR: Certainly on the IT front – there's plenty of options. I'm hearing about a few opportunities coming forward at the moment, but equally people are being wary about spending cash right now. What do you look for when acquiring another company?

CR: We always look for something that will enhance what we do so you get multiple impacts. But you also need to look for something that really has the potential to grow and won't be affected by a large brand owning it.

It's difficult because you're buying a bunch of contracts and there will be churn. When I first joined and I was a bit naïve and stupid, I thought ‘why the hell would you do an acquisition when you can win it through tenders?' So the business really has to be very solid, otherwise you fritter your money away if you spend it on a holding company and the clients all want to stay with the smaller company – that can be a disaster. You have to be so careful how you do it and that's why it's so satisfying when it does work.

But I've learnt from experience – sometimes bad experience – that you have to get into the groove with a new acquisition and give it time, the clients have to get used to it, you have to be able to bid and win. You can't rush it.

What are you most excited for in 2022?

CR: I'm just really looking forward to the business being near to normality. I'm very confident and excited about the future of this company with my great team.

JE: For me, as I come into this new role, it's about how we can really add value and bring innovation and work with some new and exciting people across the business. There's so much going on, we've started and now we want to see the fruits of that come through as the business really starts to bounce back.

This interview was conducted before the government press conference on 8 December

The Breaz app

Breaz is currently in use across all divisions of the business (live in 80 sites with another 80 planned to rollout over the next nine months) including B&I, universities, stadia, healthcare and concessions. Up to 80% of sales in those locations which still have a till point are made through the Breaz app, benefits include:

  • Time saving: no queuing and ability to pre-order.
  • Digital loyalty points and onboarding promotions.
  • Easy access to full nutrition and allergen information, including personalised allergen filtering options and storing of preferences.
  • Suggested add-ons based on purchase data.
  • Easy customisation of dishes.
  • Social ordering allows colleagues to order with you so only one member of the team needs to collect the order.

The leadership team

  • Chief executive Catherine Roe
  • Chief financial officer Leni Savva
  • Managing director – education, healthcare, London B&I Robin Givens
  • Managing director – stadia, leisure, universities, regional B&I Kenny Finlayson,
  • Marketing and corporate communications director Michal Seal
  • HR director Justin Johnson
  • Strategic purchasing and logistics director Sally Leigh
  • Corporate business development director Julia Edmonds

2021 contract wins

  • BT is working jointly with Elior and Lexington to support their Better Workplace Programme, providing catering across all its corporate offices, contact centres and specialist sites.
  • The Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which is one of the largest trusts in the UK and includes the one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe.
  • Lincoln City Football Club, Birmingham City FC and Wimbledon Football Club.
  • Redcar and Cleveland Council, which has appointed Elior to run the Kirkleatham Walled Garden.

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