Will we see permanent changes to the way catering operates?
Circa 18 months since the start of the pandemic, catering establishments are now well versed in the intricacies of ‘Covid compliance’. Kitchens have adapted to an ever-changing environment that was outside of their control and devised systems that could cope with the guidelines laid down by the Government. Following the relaxing of all rules in England, catering teams have undertaken risk assessments to ascertain whether all or some of the changes made over the previous year are required or whether they could adapt and implement some of the ‘enforced’ changes to enable a better and more efficient operation.
Catering teams are still hesitant to make too many alterations, but many have relished the ‘new normal’ and many changes will now become permanent. These include the way the canteen or foodservice facility is laid out, how food is served (self-serve or served) the number of items on the menu and myriad of other changes that albeit were previously enforced, have now proved to be highly beneficial. For example, structuring lunch service in schools, care homes and offices, to enable reduced volumes in canteens has been substantiated as a very successful practice, however this does have an impact on staffing hours in order to cope with the longer lunch service.
Another benefit has been the introduction of split services, utilising servery counters to mirror a like-for-like service across the canteen, the offering has been reduced. In some instances, this has meant the lunch period allocated has been maintained, but at the same time held additional costs despite no increases regarding labour hours or shifts.
One key consideration caterers have had to deal with was addressing the risk of a complete kitchen shutdown due to one or more staff testing positive. This is has been a very real concern and limitation; a number of kitchen teams we have spoken to have stated they will be maintaining a ‘bubble’ status, whilst still trying to ensure an element of flexibility. Keeping teams working in bubbles has so far meant that some catering teams have been able to maintain a service even during the “ping-demic” of summer 2021.
By their nature, kitchens are designed with good hygiene in mind and the pandemic forced an even more rigorous cleaning regime. Areas to keep a focus on are key touch points, cleaning regularly and deep cleaning the whole kitchen area at least once a week. A number of clients have spoken of the changes they have made to their shift and staffing requirements to facilitate this, and the extra training that has been required, too.
The indication at the time of writing is that many are looking to revert to pre-pandemic operational processes for their foodservice, including the use of crockery and cutlery in place of disposables.
In addition to all this, supply chain challenges and disruption continued into the summer period and has been further exacerbated by the shortage of HGV & LGV delivery drivers and issues surrounding availability of product. Catering operations must ensure they have adequate stock going into the autumn and are going to need be prepared to change menus, last minute.
Service level agreements with suppliers are now subject to increased scrutiny and operators are going to fair best by being understanding of the situation, aware that they may not receive deliveries within their agree window. From allmanhall’s insight into how both clients and suppliers are adapting and planning ahead, it seems that the majority of catering teams are managing this well, communicating, showing flexibility and placing orders day 1 for day 3 as a minimum.
What opportunities does the future hold?
The majority of catering operators allmanhall have spoken to have indicated they will revert back to pre-pandemic levels and processes for some operational activities, notably the way the menu is designed. During the pandemic, menus were reduced to cope with the extra demand on staffing levels and time taken to pre-package food for delivery across campuses, for example.
That said, having discussed this with a number of catering teams, they have largely indicated that although there will be more choice back on the menus, they will tailor it in such a way that the production methods are no more labour intensive than they have been over the last 18-month period.
Many operators have taken this opportunity to review their existing procedures and practises and implemented changes that they may have been already previously considering, as improvements.