The Changing Perception of Contract Catering

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Catering providers have been on a silent mission to reshape the industry and inspire workplaces across the country for many years. With ‘health and wellbeing’ no longer viewed as a buzz-term, instead an integral part of everyday life, it’s time to check in and see how this endeavour is going and how it aligns with wider facilities management undertakings. Vacherin, London’s premier contract caterer, believes the catering offering in an organisation could be the missing part of the UK’s ongoing productivity puzzle.

Contract catering has evolved to serve an exceptionally broad slice of UK Plc – generating £4.7b of turnover last year. The lion’s share comes from business and industry (B&I), namely staff dining, which contributes about half of contract catering’s total turnover – far more than any other single area of operation.

It is no secret that contract catering has grappled with its reputation, and somewhat unjustly. Alas, it appears to have found its feet in recent years, concreting its place and carving its niche by accompanying the ongoing strive for optimum workplace wellbeing. Long gone are the days of offering stale sandwiches, pre-packed Caesar salads with sachet sauces and squares of Bakewell tarts - and those offerings have been off the menu for a while. In fact, we’re questioning whether that was ever really the case, or whether it was actually all just an illusion that those who went off-site to eat fabricated about the food ‘back at the office’…

We digress!

For those who work directly in the industry, catering has been a driving force and crucial part of the facilities management (FM) offering for decades. For those on the periphery, or who haven’t caught up with what’s been achieved in our triumphant sector, this might not be as apparent. Contract catering’s reputation, in this instance, succeeds it. Therefore, it’s the overall perception, not the offering, where change is needed – and thankfully, the change has heartily commenced.

Facilities Show

As a united workforce, we have never been so aware of our diets and lifestyles, and the impact this can have on our productivity and overall wellbeing. From weekly fitness sessions and discounted gym memberships being offered, to subsidised, healthier ‘staff dining’ and wellbeing-focused initiatives, employers are reflecting this shift in focus and awareness. With the average employee spending between five and a half to six hours sat down at their desk, businesses have a duty to actively encourage their staff to change their eating habits for the better. Paying attention to the wellbeing of employees not only increases their overall happiness, but actually has a return on investment for business. After all, research has suggested that improved morale can increase engagement, not to mention reduce absenteeism – which directly translates into a strong and happy workforce.

Providing alternatives

Particularly within larger cities, individuals are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options. With the rise of fast food delivery giants, the options are absolutely endless. As a result, these expectations have carried through into the workplace. Although many like the option to roam the city streets at lunchtime and stretch their legs, sifting through the array of trendy, affordable eats; the vast majority will more than likely still choose the option (if it’s provided!) of a nutritious, freshly cooked, flavoursome meal in their own workplace. Here, is where the contract catering industry has proudly stepped up to the challenge and has more than matched the array of offers on the high-street. 

Part of the rise in choice and creativity is the demand for, and success of, street food and grab ‘n’ go style of eating. Nothing ground-breaking or new to caterers, but the trend certainly shows no signs of abating. We’re all trying to cram in as much as we can into our working days and, therefore, an increasing number of employees unsurprisingly opt for hearty meals that can be eaten between meetings. There is a very high demand for food offerings that support the productivity of the workforce. Convenience and speed of service are really critical - orders are often pre-ordered and delivered to meeting spaces or desks. At Vacherin, we also do a number of pop-ups, where our suppliers, guest chefs and partners set up a station with a particular food or drink deal for the day – which has proved to be a great way of enhancing and expanding the offer to customers without taking up much space.

At Vacherin, we also provide monthly consultancy at all of our sites as part of our overall offering, with our in-house nutritionist Gary Baverstock, who not only advises on menus, but provides advice to individuals on a variety of diets. It is certainly safe to say we’ve all come to grips with the fact that eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet can contribute to a range of benefits (even if we don’t always abide), including decreased stress and anxiety, boosts in mood and energy levels, and a lower risk of disease – all of which can result in higher levels of productivity. These particular awakenings have driven the changing nature of contract catering and the part it plays in supporting the wider facilities management team in contributing to a productive and wellbeing-focused workplace.

New standards across the board

Perhaps the key component of this transformation can be pinpointed to the increased awareness of health across the whole realm of the built environment. The WELL Building Standard, for instance, is the first evidence-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring building features that impact on health and wellbeing by looking at seven different concepts. It has played a huge part in how buildings are being designed and looked at since its inception in 2014.

One of these concepts is ‘nourishment’, whereby the aim is to ultimately promote healthy eating habits by offering the occupants of a building healthier food choices, behavioural cues and knowledge about nutrient quality. Nutrition is something architects and engineers don’t tend to be responsible for, yet it obviously has a huge impact on people’s health. WELL emphasises the fact that, where possible, mindful eating and healthier food choices should be designed in, not thought about afterwards. Adhering to these practices, designers on our new contracts meet with our catering team, to negotiate and collaborate on how we can be transparent about the food we serve to clients and tenants.

The workplace provides the perfect platform to raise awareness and transform behaviours towards nutrition and overall wellbeing. Employers have an obligation to support the health and safety of their employees, and thankfully, that’s now universally accepted. Caterers are taking the reins and owning this endeavour for a truly healthier workplace, reinforcing the work of facilities teams, who are also on the front line.

United we eat, united we work

Enabling employees to eat (and sometimes work) together in a relaxed and open environment will entice creative and productive individuals to collaborate. At Vacherin, we work closely with designers and the FM team at the mobilisation stage of any new contract, to ensure the end result is always in-keeping with the brand, company ethos and most importantly works for the people who will be using the space. Organisations are increasingly looking for artisan café spaces as a result of the acknowledgement and research around agile working. The coffee and tea offering is considered the most important element in order to encourage collaboration and informal meetings. According to Leesman, the world’s leading assessor of workplace effectiveness, 83 per cent of their database - which encompasses the views of over quarter of a million employees worldwide -  consider ‘tea coffee and other refreshment facilities’ the most important service feature in their workplace, with ‘restaurant / canteen’ coming closely behind.

The quality, and consequently opinion, of contract-catering has without doubt developed year on year, and this is largely down to chefs and catering staff. With various accolades and award schemes shedding light on what they’re capable of offering, and innovative training strategies and increase in stagiaire positions, the catering industry is set to continue affirming its position as a crucial factor in the ever-changing world of work. The industry itself knows where it’s at, and it seems people’s perceptions of it are changing in line with this. The popularity of television shows such as MasterChef the professionals – which saw one of our sous chefs make the final last year – is one such way the calibre of chefs has reached the mainstream. The rise of on-site fine dining for clients has also showcased the talent of the industry’s finest and most promising kitchen staff. Michelin star quality food is something that the right caterers are more than comfortable preparing for clients, which means we’re able to further support facilities teams with events and meetings that go beyond the ordinary, as well as driving the quest for peak mental and physical workplace wellbeing.