Practical advice: the re-opening challenges now faced by caterers and what can be done.
The Covid pandemic has challenged the long-established norm for catering teams. As we prepare for and undertake remobilisation in order to re-open in line with the milestones laid out by the Prime Minister on 22 February 2020, many catering functions and operations teams are seeing this time as an opportunity to innovate.
There has already been extensive exploration into and trialling of new ideas regarding the way food is sourced and delivered. Some will already have a good infrastructure in place to make necessary organisational changes and cost savings whilst meeting the new demands and becoming Covid compliant.
Hayden Hibbert, allmanhall’s Director of Client Relations provides some sage advice. Previously a Head of Catering himself, Hayden is well placed to offer practical suggestions for caterering teams.
Whilst the challenges faced by catering teams, regarding compliance regulations and steps required in order to re-open, are generally common, the methods of meeting these challenges may varied greatly. Each organisation will be influenced and restricted by varied capacities and capabilities of staffing, infrastructure, equipment, budgets and production. Even with extensive re-opening planning, a positive Covid test may continue to result in a kitchen’s closure and a sudden urgent requirement to buy in pre-prepared and ready to eat foods, at a significant cost. Already, many have experienced a predictable increase in cleaning and PPE costs. With these considerations in mind, we look at some key areas for all caterers to consider in preparation for their reopening (or increasing capacity if they have remained partially open throughout)…
Reviewing staff working practices and meal provision
One of the most critical planning considerations is staff numbers, timings of their return to work if they have been furloughed and their ability to cope with a change in procedures. The pandemic has forced the implementation of new ways meals are prepared and served. Self-service is being replaced with fully plated meals, which being far more labour intensive, can put strain on staff already under huge pressures (however, portion control is easier to manage with plated meals, so the upside is cost savings). Packed lunches could be an alternative and, if you haven’t already, now is a good time to trial new ideas such as a sandwich solution or click and collect, where meals are ordered online in advance and collected from a designated station.
There are key questions to ask… If catering staff are absent due to sickness or isolation, are the remaining staff able to cope with the volume of meals required? Have you undergone a cost analysis of buying in prepared meals versus cooking in house and looked at batch cooking? Easy to cook dishes require less labour. Plus with many catered events not currently required, this too will help ease the burden on staffing.
Supply chain considerations
The management of the supply chain is a particularly important area requiring attention as we take steps towards re-opening and increasing service volumes and therefore stock required.
Elements of the supply chain have been under extreme pressure as a result of the pandemic and the challenges resulting from multiple lock downs.
Caterers’ communication with suppliers is therefore critical over the coming weeks and beyond. It is important to consider that some changes to delivery days and delivery frequency may be enacted. As inventories are not normally stockpiled it is also important to identify and communicate anticipated volume changes, which should include menu changes and any new product lines that may be required. Remember, inventory management systems use historic purchase data to help forecast future demand, so it is easy to see how significant changes may lead to impaired service performance if not communicated effectively. Communicate, and be ready to show some understanding to suppliers, in these challenging times, when changes may be unavoidable.
It is worth checking if suppliers are reputable with Covid compliant practices in place. You may also consider consolidating the number of suppliers. You can take simple steps like considering buying in cases, to reduce touch points. As a procurement partner, allmanhall is in regular dialogue with suppliers over availability of products and the need for changes in delivery procedures and is communicating these with clients, proactively.
With the 2-meter distancing rule in place it is necessary to review the flow in a kitchen. Ease the pressure and help with safety by staggering the time of staff arrival and departure and create shift working and a flexible rota system, to reduce chances of contact. If limited space, introduce one-way travel.
Arguably, catering environments such as boarding schools with ‘House feeding’ may find it easier to operate distanced ‘pods’, whereas central dining facilities in Education settings may implement extended service times (sometimes impacting the core curriculum timetable), to allow separated and reduced numbers of pupils through. Others have split dining of covers in the same time frame, requiring detailed planning and complex logistical choreography.
Kitchens will already be designed with good hygiene in mind. Now is a time to update cleaning schedules, concentrating on key touch points, cleaning every two hours, and cleaning seats and tables after every sitting. It could be a good idea to look at deep cleaning the whole kitchen area during any breaks in service – such as holiday periods.
What else can you do? Remove unnecessary furnishings and other items from eating and cooking areas; clean chefs uniforms more frequently; and of course, ensure adequate supplies of PPE.
Advice and communications
Liaise with administrators over any planned operational changes and communicate the changes regarding the food service offering and the method of delivery of meals, to manage expectations. There is an abundant source of information online, from the Government and organisations such as the FSA. Work collaboratively with your own catering team, encourage the sharing of ideas, and consult industry experts. allmanhall are here to provide support.
Opportunity to trial new ideas
Look at using environmentally friendly single-use packaging and ready packed cutlery. Labour saving technology in the kitchen can also reduce the pressure on staff. For example, allmanhall will give advice about stock-taking devices and other innovations available.
Create more seasonal menus, with weekly or even daily menu planning, taking advantage of lower prices for foods in season. Catering-controls platforms will help you cost menus and help to eliminate waste, as well as bringing other technological benefits. Other ideas are covered earlier on, under ‘meal provision’.
Focus on food cost savings
The catering function is one of the biggest costs for an educational establishment. Implementing a software support platform – and making the most of the efficiencies that this can bring, plus exploring additional modules available, can lead to significant cost savings.
Review the output of chefs and consider bringing back into the kitchen those that may have been moved into administration roles.
High spend categories such as meat can be reduced or substituted, and vegetarian dishes offered as an alternative. Review the need for luxury items and use own brand rather than branded goods.
One advantage of the new normal is that by operating a restricted menu, food costs and wastage have been easier to control.
In summary, there are many catering considerations to address, but the following will help:
- introducing new approaches to the food service offering
- becoming more agile with more flexible and leaner working practices
- extending understanding and empathy to suppliers
- getting orders in with plenty of notice will be imperative!
Strong communication, planning and embracing new leaner, more agile working practices will help overcome the challenges faced in our new normal. The ability to adapt proactively are all qualities which will help caterers to cope as we move into this period of reopening. We wish you all the very best of luck and reassurance that allmanhall are here for support, for you.