NHS chief executive Simon Stevens outlined his plans last autumn for a major drive to improve and support the health and wellbeing of 1.3 million health service staff. As well as serving healthier food, he is encouraging greater physical activity, reducing stress, and providing health checks covering mental health and musculoskeletal problems – the two biggest causes of sickness absence across the NHS. The reason, he argues, is simply: “NHS staff have some of the most critical and demanding jobs in the country. When it comes to supporting the health of our own workforce, frankly the NHS needs to put its own house in order.“At a time when arguably the biggest operational challenge facing hospitals is converting overspends on temporary agency staff into attractive flexible permanent posts, creating healthy and supportive workplaces is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-do.”
To back it up he has allocated £5m and encouraged NHS England, Public Health England and other agencies to challenge and support catering contractors and PFI providers to raise the standards of food and nutrition.Interestingly, this approach has not adopted a grimly hair-shirt stand on the issue, and we’ve been spared the sight of staff catering reduced to little more than a giant salad bar that extends to the horizon.In fact, the evidence so far shows the changes have been far more realistic.
International sandwich chain Subway recently opened an outlet in University Hospital, Southampton through its link up with the hospital’s contracted catering services provider Compass UK & Ireland.It offers freshly-prepared Subs, flatbreads and salads and is the ninth such outlet opened through Compass-managed catering operations in hospitals and universities in the UK.Steve Cenci, managing director of Healthcare at Compass, says: “Our feedback has shown that people welcome the familiarity of brands in a healthcare setting.And having a partner that is signed up to the UK’s Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal and is delivering on the eight nutrition related pledges, ensures we are able to bring healthy choices to our customers.” This last point is important, because there has been a certain degree of cynicism in the industry about the Public Health Responsibility Deal. The criticism being that it is little more than window-dressing and no one is taking it seriously.
Well, here’s a major contract catering player who’s prepared to say it’s been a significant factor in choosing a business partner. But while that may be what a catering provider says is wanted, what about employees themselves?
BaxterStorey commissioned some research from M&C Allegra that came out late last year and identified three key trends in workplace catering. The first are the food ‘pleasure seekers’ who are constantly looking for different and innovative options and are behind the increased demand for new style ‘fast food’ and various street food concepts. Secondly, the use of new technologies such as social media and food-based apps has jumped. And despite the ageing demographic in the UK, younger adventurous consumers aged 18-24 are driving the increased use of apps to access promotions, make bookings, order food and pay for it. Caterers in the workplace ignore this trend and this age group at their peril – they are tomorrow’s mainstream customer in the staff dining area if you can attract them. Thirdly, the report says appreciation of coffee will continue to increase and be a key growth area in the workplace. The coffee shop/café sector was growing by 8.5% by the end of 2015, with further growth expected this year and at least until 2018.
With no apparent let-up in the growing popularity of coffee it seems axiomatic that both in-house and contract catering operations in the workplace need a quality coffee offer. If they don’t, then they can expect to see their customers visit the High Street for their ‘fix’ on the way to work – and during the day as well. When it comes to food trends, then casual dining will continue to rule the roost among consumers and this means that bread and a filling aren’t going out of fashion any time soon – whether that is burgers, hot dogs or any variation of the sandwich.
Elior provides a classic example of how contract caterers in the staff feeding market can get it right with its ‘build your own’ deli bar concept, GO’SASA Deli.Launched to rival the high street leaders, the new concept lets customers build their own sub, wrap or salad. Not only is it proving its worth in terms of sales, but it impressed judges enough that it won the Workplace Sandwich Award at the recent British Sandwich Industry Awards. Elior’s offer development manager, Matt Joblin, says: “After learning that 43% of customers thought customisation was important, we knew that we wanted to create a tailored offer that would fit across all sectors.“But we also knew we had to do more than just create great tasting, customisable subs and wraps. The whole experience had to be right.So as well as a whole range of delicious breads, fillings and sauces, Elior also supplied each site with GO’SASA branded caps, aprons and bags, bespoke deli paper and loyalty cards – to help complete the high street experience.”
Taken together, the lessons from the workplace point to a clear appetite among staff for healthier options, but they also want variety and innovation, they respond to funky marketing and they want to use the convenience of apps to choose, order and buy their food. Crucially, they want to be in charge of the process and to see their food choices reflected in the personalised meal they eat. It demands that caterers are engaged with their customers, knowledgeable about food and lifestyle trends and innovative enough to use this knowledge to create interesting new concepts.
It’s challenging and not always easy to get right, but the rewards are there for those that do and it’s got to be more professionally interesting for caterers than the old-fashioned days of take-it-or-leave-it pie, chips and peas in the staff canteen.
David Foad, Editor of Cost Sector Catering