Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit societies globally, there has been much focus on what it means for restaurants and the wider commercial foodservice sector. But the implications will be as dramatic for the catering firms that supply the business and industry sector.
As the much-anticipated vaccine roll-out begins across the world, companies and operators can finally look forward to a return to work, but what might B&I foodservice look like after Covid-19?
Large parts of the world were forced to work from home for much of 2020, so first to consider is how many people any office is actually likely to be catering for. Work patterns have changed enormously during the pandemic with the vast majority of continuing to work remotely.
The enforced retreat from the office setting will have caused many company owners to consider whether they need an office at all and if they find that they do then they may reconsider the size. What is the point of renting a large office building if you only use a fraction of it?
After Covid-19 most companies’ top priority will be to cut costs where they can – Deloitte in Germany found that 71% of managers said finding savings was their number one strategic measure in the next 12 months. “Building population levels or lack of them, will be the biggest issue during 2021,” says Adam Griffin, director with Coverpoint Foodservice Consulting in the UK. “Before this new [English] variant, many of my clients were anticipating ramping up a return to the office in Q1 and Q2 of this year, but without doubt the latest lockdown and spike in infections will delay things further.”
A changed picture
In the UK the number of people working exclusively from home was estimated at 24%, according to the Office for National Statistics – last summer this hit a high of 38%. A Gallup poll from September 2020 found that 33% of workers in the US were always working remotely while 25% combined remote working with being in the office.
Looking ahead, in Germany government is discussing to make working from home a legal right, which is likely to leave workplaces looking permanently different – before Covid 40% of workers in Germany already expressed a desire to work remotely.
For many larger organizations this is a time to rethink and rebuild, according to Nahum Goldberg FCSI, principal of California-based foodservice consultancy NGAssociates, which works on projects across the world and has a particular emphasis on workplace dining. “They are reimagining what the workplace looks like and thinking about helpful environments for the employees, vendors, staff and operators,” he says. “This means changing the way service is provided, integrating elements that help with the feeling of safety and involves glass guards, separation, different operating procedures, spots on the floor to mark distance and added technology.” For many workplaces it means moving away from self-service and introducing pre-ordering and pick-up stations. “Obviously self-service is not an option at the moment but it may come back; it has not been ruled out completely,” says Goldberg. He says other concepts are taking the place of self service. “They include kiosk market hall ordering where you pre-order and pick up or get in line and order at one window and pick up at another window, so really eliminating the contact,” he explains. “Pre-ordering is definitely coming into workplace in a stronger fashion; it provides the opportunity for better control – and this goes for the financials too – and it offers that separation, the hands free and reduced interaction side of a pick-up station.”
A catalyst for change
So, it is reasonable to assert that our work patterns were always likely to eventually change, Covid has served to accelerate the process much like it has rapidly encouraged cashless payments.
Griffin says the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for structural change. “Many of the changes were likely to happen anyway, the pandemic just served as a catalyst – smaller, more cost-efficient foodservice spaces and offerings have become the norm in new-build office developments. The pandemic has served to speed up change in existing buildings,” he says. With decisions yet to be made on the type of food outlet that will work best for workplaces, flexibility is the watchword. Though, Goldberg points out that he has always designed foodservice projects to be flexible. “It has been a key part of our design approach in workplace dining forever,” he says. “You have to have flexible – to move from full-service to self-service and we build in design with plug and play equipment. Right now, we do that with elements such as glass guards and pre-order stations.”
Intrinsically linked to the dining facilities is ware washing and Goldberg says this is another decision many organizations are faced with – whether or not to use space for a dish room. With very low occupancy levels – most office buildings only see people who are looking after critical elements in the organization, including security and hardware servers – most use disposables. Which, in turn of course has an impact on waste. “People are kicking themselves now because most of the groups we work with, whether it is workplace dining or healthcare, any organization is thinking about sustainability and waste and that all went out the window at the outset of Covid,” he says.
“It is at a smaller scale because everybody was at home but the question is how do you come back and deal with that?”
Change is inevitable, but, according to Griffin, this climate presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for companies to reconsider their workplace foodservice offerings, either through working with contractors to right-size offerings as well as making changes in tariff, opening hours and menu ranges without incurring the wrath of building populations, who are more likely to be concerned about the health of their families and employment than the price of toast.
“I am working on several projects where the focus is on delivering foodservice for the future. There is widespread acceptance that working from home will become a permanent feature of our working lives, supplemented by office-based work,” he says predicting that offices will become spaces for collaboration rather than just desk-based workspaces while workplace foodservice will feature smaller staff restaurants, more flexible offers, an increase in pre-order and collection/delivery. “Populations in buildings are not expected to return to pre-Covid levels ever, depending on the business. Foodservice in workplaces will increasingly need to flex to meet the new normal – fluctuating daily populations, changing working days, increasing food from home, delivery… all of these will impact on the traditional staff canteen with fixed staffing complement. Agility within foodservice contracts will be key,” concludes Griffin.
“More of us will be working from home more often, with offices more of a meeting place than a workplace. The foodservice offers within will need to adapt to this structural change.”