The big interview: Circular thinking

 A moral duty to help those at risk of losing their jobs has led to an unprecedented cooperation among contract caterers, Wendy Bartlett and Allister Richards tell Jane Renton...

Is there any individual or organisation out there that is yet to feel the savage force of Covid-19, physically, economically or emotionally? If so, I have yet to meet them. Most businesses scale a gravity-defying wall of worry daily and contract caterers have certainly been in the vanguard of Covid-19’s monstrous embrace. The sector’s 300,000-plus workers are braced for further losses – one in every five jobs are conservatively estimated to go.

The devastation is unprecedented, even in an industry used to weathering unseasonal storms not of its own making. There was foot-and-mouth disease, severe flu epidemics, the dotcom bust of 2001, and the horsemeat scandal, all followed by the big financial crash of 2008. All those crises pale into relative insignificance, however, compared to the current reality.

It has been an exceptionally rough six months, albeit made less so by the chancellor’s furlough package of 23rd March. “I think many of us were well on our way to considering what we would need to do in the absence of any government intervention,” recalls Allister Richards, chief operating officer of CH&Co, one of the contract catering sector’s largest independents, who recalls the “overwhelming emotional relief” experienced by many watching the announcement on TV.

Those arrangements, which covered between 80% and 90% of the smaller catering companies, as well as much of the larger industry players to a lesser degree, were a lifeline through a lockdown that some initially thought, somewhat naively, would last only for a couple of weeks. As the scheme now winds down, those deep uncertainties are still there. Despite the less than positive outlook, the contract catering sector has been far from idle. This is an industry, after all, that is frequently called upon to “swivel on a sixpence” at short notice, as Wendy Bartlett, co-founder of Bartlett Mitchell, puts it. It is also one that has been persuaded to put its competitive tendering instincts to one side, while it cooperates to defend its workers and industry.

Bartlett and Noel Mahony, joint chief executive of BaxterStorey, were the driving force behind Food Service Circle (FSC), an online platform launched in August to specifically allow those in foodservice who have lost, or who are at threat of losing, their jobs during the current pandemic to remain in touch with the industry. The collaborative venture was born of growing disquiet from many fellow industry leaders on UKHospitality’s Foodservice Forum about the likely job insecurity facing so many of their workers who, as Richards says, “we work with and care about”.

The website offers sector employees, who have either lost or feel in danger of losing jobs, or of working reduced hours, an online network to keep in touch with each other. It also provides free training, advice, webinars, insights from industry leaders and, importantly, notifications of any job opportunities arising, even in other sectors of hospitality or in other industries.

The initial IT support was provided by BaxterStorey, with design input by Bartlett Mitchell, as well as free training services provided by others. Weekly hosting of the social media aspects of the site is hosted in turn by various corporate members. The site, which normally would have taken months to plan and prepare, was put together in a matter of a few weeks. As Bartlett says, in the current environment, speed was of the essence. “It was clear to us that there would be a big fallout of jobs,” she says. “We asked ourselves what more we could do as a group… and we needed to do it quickly.”

The FSC may have been assembled at speed, but as Bartlett makes clear, it is not “a quick fix” but rather a long-term focus on the industry’s future, particularly its ability to attract and retain top talent. “We see it as a sector-specific tool. In this cyclical industry of ours, we may eventually get back to the stage of not having enough skilled people to meet our requirements.”

To date some of the biggest names in catering have backed the project at senior leadership level. They include companies such as Compass, Sodexo, Elior, CH&Co, Aramark and Blue Apple. But FSC has also been able to elicit support from a much broader base of caterers than ever before. Many smaller companies, inspired by the new spirit of industry cooperation and the online resources available, have also joined. This in turn has led to new members of the Foodservice Forum, strengthening its position as it lobbies government and business generally about the importance of this sector. The Forum has recently engaged with the out of home data provider CGA to provide specific foodservice sector analysis to underscore contract catering’s economic contribution.

The primary motivation for the FSC remains the overwhelming need to help those at risk of losing their job, or working on reduced hours, as uncertainty, of which there is a great deal, continues to stalk the industry. But there have also been additional benefits.

Despite the undeniably tough outlook, the FSC has already had some success in attracting job vacancies to its website. These have come not only from some caterers remarkably still looking to hire, but from hotel groups too, including Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel, who are advertising a number of new positions.

But if organisations such as the FSC are to keep the jobs pipelines flowing, the current passion for homeworking will somehow have to be curtailed. This will not be easy, as recent research suggests that nine out of every 10 workers want to remain working from home after the pandemic.

While both Bartlett and Richards acknowledge that there are some bosses out there who have benefited from reduced expenditure on expensive city offices, there is also growing concern among other chief executives that working from home is not good for productivity. Companies can survive, but not necessarily grow.

White collar workers, keen to move out from the cities to more remote rural locations, could also endanger their livelihoods, once chief executives cotton on to the fact they can replace them with cheaper, educated labour working remotely from other countries. “While some companies – especially those who have enjoyed reasonably good first quarterly results – are quite relaxed about flexible homeworking, others are beginning to feel productivity is suffering,” says Richards. “They are saying, ‘I’m starting to lose something’.”

“There is still a future for contract catering,” asserts Bartlett. “There is still a need for people to come together. You cannot develop cultures from home and catering is a pivotal part of creating that.”

While many offices have still to reopen properly in many UK cities, those that have are anxious to keep employees in the building during lunch hours, primarily for safety reasons. The take-up of hot meals has risen dramatically as a result, from a norm of 50% pre-lockdown to something around 80% in some of her company’s sites, according to Bartlett.

While hygiene measures remain in force, there is also an increased emphasis generally on making the office environment as attractive as possible to encourage more employees to return to work. Providing good catering forms a central plank of that exercise.

As Richards says, the workplace has been changing for several years. Agile working is already a reality, though it has now undoubtedly been turbocharged by coronavirus. “There might be a smaller working population working five days a week, as well as those who might only come into the office twice a week, and their hospitality needs will be different,” he says.

What foodservice companies deliver in the workplace might change, but it does not have to lead to a decrease in business volumes in the longer term, Richards maintains. “It does not necessarily mean our overall volumes will decline,” he says. “As long as we keep the lines of communication open and keep positivity up, I do not see organisations losing faith in us and what we can do for them.”

This is a highly competitive industry, but it is one that has nevertheless traditionally enjoyed cordial social relations with each other. Now, through organisations such as the FSC, it is cooperating to an unprecedented degree amid concerns about the fate of its workers and the threat of further lockdowns. With some 3.5m jobs at stake in hospitality, if ever there was an occasion to cast old rivalries aside, it is most definitely now.

The companies involved in FSC include…

ABM Catering
Bartlett Mitchell
Blue Apple
Celtic Catering
Compass Group
Genuine Dining Co
Harrison Catering Services
Houston and Hawkes
Susa Comms