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Catering for ‘I’ in B&I

14 February 2011

The recent innovation and updating of office foodservice has not translated into factories and warehouse. As Tim Small explains, this needs to change both in respect of the food on offer and the ambience of workplace facilties

THE YEARS BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS saw the introduction by progressive employers of workplace canteens, providing meals for workers alongside other welfare facilities, and marking the birth of contract catering. Given this heritage of innovation, why then has foodservice in much of the manufacturing and distribution sectors seemed to have stood still?
Workplace foodservice has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Far from being the ‘nice to have’ of previous years, on-site catering is now viewed by many companies as a benefit, alongside healthcare or gym membership, and is used as a valuable tool in attracting and retaining the best employees.
However, the manufacturing and distribution sectors have been slow to change – or at least until now. The evolution in tastes and attitudes to food has largely not been reflected in the manufacturing and distribution sectors and the innovation and modernity of office foodservice has not translated to factories and warehouses. As a result, canteens in these environments are often under-used, poorly perceived and therefore under-valued and represent a low return for the costs incurred.Eating areas do little to be welcoming or aesthetically attractive, nor are they acting as centre-point that brings together the workplace community.
The perception that employees do not care about what they eat is very wide of the mark. Value is a given but quality is also a must as are convenience, choice and speed of service.
There is an implicit link between eating and productivity, and recruitment, retention and
employee satisfaction are all also influenced by on-site foodservice provision. Employers that take pride in their foodservice offer care for their employees and visiting client perceptions. A targeted refresh of the foodservice facilities can send a powerful message to employees and clients.
In environments where break times may be only 30 minutes and the restaurant is distant from the ‘shop floor’, time and space is a challenge. Equally many industrial operations work round the clock on shifts which must be accommodated by the foodservice provision.
The principal benefit of having on-site foodservice is that the workforce does not have to
leave the premises at lunch to eat, whether going home, venturing to the distant high street, the roadside burger van or grabbing a sandwich from a mobile wagon. The time it takes to get to the restaurant and eat lunch is often one of the reasons for which restaurants are under-used.
However, there are ways of freeing up time while simultaneously reducing costs. Pre-ordering, selfservice, technology and layout all have their part to play. Pre-ordering is beneficial to both employee and foodservice provider. For the provider, there is improved production planning and reduced impact of the ‘lunchtime rush’, while for the employee there is quicker service and potentially a discount for pre-ordering. The process could be a simple phone call with a collated order from the team or using an an online ordering system for everything from sandwiches to a hot meal in a box, that could be a delivered service to satellite rest rooms.
Self-service convenience and ‘Grab and go’ is not just restricted to cold food and snacks, as a hot cabinet can provide hot food such as pasties and bacon baps that would traditionally be served from the counter giving a quicker, space saving and more efficient system.
Applying new technology with speed in mind, could include quick-grill Panini grills which take only some 40 seconds instead of minutes, or using valve technology to allow fresh food, from vegetables and rice right up to main meals, to be steam cooked in minutes. Such equipment requires only a small investment compared to much of the large, heavy-duty equipment typically found in out-dated kitchens.
A further alternative, particularly when a full foodservice offer is not viable - during late or
early shifts or where a site is too spread out to have a central catering location - is hot food vending. This can be intelligently done with precooked food, nutritional information on the packaging and a simple barcode swipe to programme the microwave. It takes selfservice to the next level, increasing convenience and speed and enabling employees to tuck into hot food at any time of the day.
All this has an impact of the space required for the restaurant. Modern facilities require less space, which can either be used as valuable floor space or can be space or can be converted into a more welcoming eating environment which encourages employees to congregate and eat together. A workplace restaurant should be the heart of the workplace community, a place away from work within work. Eating together is a highly sociable activity and brings people together.
It takes relatively little investment to change the atmosphere completely. Just add zoned seating such as long benches for teams to socialise, small high tables for friends sharing a gossip, booths for private conversations and comfortable couches for relaxing, plasma screens showing live television or rolling news and a couple of computers for checking personal emails. This encourages community and refreshes the mind, increasing the afternoon’s productivity. You can often tell an organisation’s culture or take its heartbeat simply by spending time in the restaurant.
The journey is blending best practice from the high street with the traditional values of workplace catering. For example the coffee boom on the high street has led to branded coffee offerings becoming popular in offices and manufacturing and distribution workplaces are no different.
Due to the nature of the work in manufacturing and distribution, hearty, traditional and filling meals are understandably popular. However, this should not equate to poor quality. Nor can the needs of office employees on-site be ignored, who may want to eat at their desks whereas those for whom their ‘desk’ is a machine or a forklift need to step out of this environment to eat.
Both foodservice provider and employer recognise their responsibility to supply choice and not only provide healthier options but help customers to make informed choices about what they eat through displaying nutritional information. If there were one love affair that it would be nice to see fade, it is the one with fried food. Aside from the health aspect, there is additional the cost of equipment, such as extraction fans, of cleaning the equipment and the space it takes. All this ‘heavy equipment’ is also a barrier to setting up facilities in the first place.
The classic full English breakfasts will remain popular for a long time to come but it can be cooked more healthily and easily live alongside healthier alternatives such as low-calorie filled breakfast muffins, porridge, fruit pots and yogurt. The emphasis for this neglected sector needs to be on a consistent quality offer drawing on innovation and reflecting changing eating habits, right value, well presented in an inviting environment.
Tim Small has spearheaded the development More, the Eurest Services' new catering offer designed for progressive employers in the manufacturing and distribution sectors. Contact: Georgina Francis 01822 813051.

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