Offices may use ‘perks’ of food and coffee to tempt home-workers back

Contract caterers to grapple with changed landscape for staff canteens after pandemic

Delivery of fresh food directly to employees’ desks or homes, the opening of coffee hubs to attract staff into the office to experience the “buzz”, and pre-booked time slots for the staff canteen are all on the menu for workplace catering in the post-pandemic world, according to one of the sector’s largest operators in Ireland.

Contract caterer Compass Group Ireland, which has about 14 per cent of the market here, says it is "reshaping its operation" and its offering in Ireland, as the pandemic and office closures wreak havoc in the workplace catering sector. Compass is projecting that its revenues in Ireland for 2021 could decline this year by almost two-thirds from its 2019 level of €112 million.

As offices closed for the pandemic, its sales slipped last year to €68 million and will fall further to €42 million this year, it predicts. Meanwhile, its staff numbers have declined from about 2,300 in 2019 to less than 1,600.

Compass’s response to the changed market includes investing in digital apps to allow its clients’ staff order a workplace meal remotely, and build “cloud kitchens” that prepare individual meals away from the workplace for delivery to individual workers later.


‘Social hub’

Deirdre O’Neill, one of the most senior Compass executives in Ireland, who has just been appointed future food offer director, is helping to manage the overhaul. She says that while the pandemic has changed the workplace catering market, “the death of the office has been hugely exaggerated”.

“Food is a perk. It will be used as a way to lure people back to the office environment. People want to collaborate. The workplace needs to be about creating social hubs,” she said, adding that workplace eateries can fulfil that social function.

Ms O'Neill said Compass, whose roster of corporate catering clients includes Vodafone, Intel and the National Treasury Management Agency, is currently in talks with several of its clients about redesigning their staff canteen or workplace catering offer.

Some clients, she predicted, would switch from having set meal times for their staff canteens to having them serve all day, promoting the canteen as a social hub to attract lonely remote workers back into the office.

“Coffee is king – it will be an important part of the return-to-work strategy. Buzzing coffee bars will be an attraction for staff.”

Cloud kitchen

Compass has invested €500,000 in the Copper Pan Kitchen, a “cloud kitchen” for its clients that is located remotely and not based in any one workplace, serving many. Compass is also launching Feedr, an app to facilitate staff ordering workplace meals remotely, in the Dublin market.

Copper Pan Kitchen is used to prepare individualised fresh meals for its clients’ staff, which can then be delivered to the workplace. Ms O’Neill said that many workers in essential offices that are still open under lockdown are choosing to eat at their desks. For some clients, Compass will deliver meals to staff desks throughout the building, she says, rather than opening the canteen for workers to congregate.

Compass has also launched the Time2Eat digital booking service, which essentially allows employees to make a reservation at the staff canteen rather than showing up and having to queue.

Ms O’Neill said that Compass has also delivered about 8,000 meals during the pandemic to staff working from home.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times