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Food for Thought

19 February 2010

Many organisations have recognised the need to develop a robust CSR, and their catering provision is an ideal area for inclusion. Andrew Etherington explains how FMs can reflect these values and policies in their foodservice strategy

THESE DAYS, IT IS THE NORM that businesses accept that their commercial activities have varying direct and indirect impacts on the society and environment in which they operate. Furthermore, as more and more companies look towards environmental sustainability targets & BREEAM ratings, foodservice operations and facilities are increasingly under the spotlight.
It is, therefore, important for an organisation to develop a clear policy on catering rovision, so that the service is focused and continues to reflect the needs of both the client organisation and the various users. Remember that these needs can change for a variety of reasons – often reflecting changes within the organisation. The policy should be reviewed at regular intervals, to ensure that the requirements of the business and the workforce are being met by the service offering.
Keeping staff fed and watered is not just an employee ‘perk’. There are sound business reasons for providing staff with the food and drink offering that they want, at the right price, at the times that they want it and in an area where they feel at ease.
Improved morale and staff retention, enhanced organisation image and the opportunity to make creative use of space are just some of the likely benefits. In common with many other responsibilities, facilities managers have to ensure that the catering services meet the everchanging needs of the organisation: if you lose sight of what your staff want, the service will soon become undesirable and financially unsustainable.
And let’s not forget the compliance issues: your organisation has a statutory duty to provide “suitable, sufficient, and readily accessible” rest areas. If you outsource your catering service, you still have a number of legal responsibilities that cannot be delegated, including waste management, disability access and fire precautions.
Commercial kitchens are significant users of energy and producers of heat gain, which in turn requires mechanical cooling. The overall level of energy consumption is certainly a big issue these days and there is much that all businesses should and can do to limit their use of electricity and gas. This will, of course, have the added benefit of lowering energy bills which are currently crippling businesses.
So how do you tackle these myriad issues and achieve a demonstrable balance between the need to provide an acceptable employee servicewhilst ensuring that your company is acting in a responsible and eco-friendly manner?
The first step is to develop a foodservice strategy for your organisation. This should address variables such as the company policy on financial subsidy levels, range and style of services required, extent and type of the potential customer base and the available space and building location. Your responses will all have an impact on the size and complexity of catering facilities, the style and quality of services offered and the overall costs involved. Allied to this will be the need to align your catering service to any existing or potential CSR policies and issues. This will impact on areas as diverse as ethical investment, environmental policy, energy consumption, corporate governance, human rights and workplace issues such as training and equal opportunities.
Whether you outsource your catering to a specialist contractor or manage it through an inhouse team, the processes involved are pretty much the same. As with any product, the success of a catering service will ultimately depend on offering customers the range of products that they want, and at the right price. This is especially so in the workplace, where an employer should ensure that the style and level of catering is not based on broadly held assumptions, but is relevant to employees’ needs. The provision of catering usually involves the organisation in some expenditure and it would be unwise to invest in this without ensuring that the service would be used and appreciated. In order to establish these needs, the potential market can be tested in a number of ways. This can be either a one-off survey intended to aid the development of a catering strategy or an ongoing measure of the acceptability of an established service. The technique chosen will depend upon the culture of the organisation and the preferred method of interaction between management and the workforce.
As a general rule, the potential style of service and menu range will depend upon the size of the facilities available. Where space is limited, for example, it may not be physically possible to prepare a wide variety of hot and cold meals or provide a sufficiently large dining area. In these circumstances, a deli-bar would be a better alternative. Many larger organisations will not need to limit themselves to one single type of catering outlet. Where demand exists, it may be sensible to introduce a number of different food offers – each one appealing to different customer needs and spreading the load at peak meal times. No matter what option is chosen, facilities managers should ensure that their workplace catering facilities are well-planned, clean and bright.
This then brings us on to the practical design of kitchens and dining areas. Whether refurbishing an existing facility or developing a catering facility for a new build, the needs of the targeted market must drive the design. To achieve this, the proposed concept has to be established at the planning stage before the design process can begin. The main physical factor that restricts the development of a concept is the allocation of space for the catering operation as a whole.
There are likely to be other restrictions as well: the type of building; company policies with regard to the use of fresh or prepared foods; environmental issues; or the need for the facility to be flexible due to the planned life cycle of the business. But whatever the restrictions, the catering operation must first and foremost be customer driven. Many potential restrictions can be overcome by employing the skills of a designer who specialises in the development of catering operations and has knowledge of current legislation.
Assuming that you have now got your strategy in place with facilities to match, how are you going to ensure that your caterers are actually going to deliver what you need? In today’s market, they recognise that it is vital to remain attentive and responsive to the demands placed upon them, and that their future success depends upon how well they aligned themselves to the CSR policies of their clients.
Most caterers have the experience and facility to separate and recycle products such as
packaging, glass and tins. They are also well used to managing and reducing energy usage. Many kitchens have been separately metered for utilities such as water, gas and electricity, and even if they haven’t, financial inducements can be offered for operating within pre-set limits. If vehicles are used in the course of their duties, especially in large towns, contractors can be required to use alternative fuel sources such as electricity or LPG (liquid petroleum gas).
For the hospitality trades, ethical sourcing of ingredients is another big CSR issue to be aware of. Many caterers now actively committed to the use of responsibly sourced food products and ingredients, following seasonal trends and sourcing from the local area or UK whenever possible, to reduce food miles. For many this means supporting local farmers by ordering produce from them, only using local suppliers, or ensuring food and ingredients come from sustainable sources. This stance also reflects well on those client organisations who strive to be a good citizen, recognising their responsibility to work in partnership with local communities.
The more far-sighted and ethically driven caterers also become involved in local communities by providing careers for local talent and by giving something back through supporting local education, assisting with social organisations and participating in charitable events.
Ethical treatment of staff is another key tenet of a successful CSR programme and one where the catering trade can benefit. While the industry as a whole is often reliant on temporary or low-paid workers, if staff are well looked after then they can turn into a company’s biggest asset rather than just a drain on management time. Of course, a happy, stable and well-treated catering workforce will also be more inclined to deliver higher standards of quality and service.
Taken in isolation, any of the policies outlined above can reap benefits for the client and caterer alike. But as an integrated set of policies they become an effective means of structuring a sound and ethical business strategy going forward. What’s more, with the rise of the eco-consumer, whose purchasing decisions are governed by more ethical factors than price alone, it is an opportunity that businesses of all sizes and across all industries should not fail to take advantage of.
● Andrew Etherington is an independent FCSI consultant from aea (Andrew Etherington Associates)

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