For those of you who haven’t heard of Food Service Circle, it was set up this year in response to the impact of Covid on the contract catering world, in order to help front line teams. It counts amongst its members pretty much all contract caterers operating in the UK and has the following mission: “Our aim is to build a new community which is free to join for all those displaced in the food service market due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating affect it has had on our industry.”

Set up by Wendy Bartlett and Noel Mahony (both key members of the Food Service Forum), the initiative offers practical support including CV writing, interview skills, mental health advice and crucially a first port of call for any new jobs. A vital resource in an industry that has had to cut on average 20% of its headcount, losing valuable talent and years of service and experience due to the impact of Covid this year.

Wendy Bartlett, Founder, Bartlett Mitchell; Mark Davies, Managing Director, ISS UK Foodservice and David Mulcahy, Culinary Ambassador, Sodexo UK & Ireland joined Lorraine (bright and early) for a panel discussion hosted by Jane Renton of H2O Publishing, to give their take on how contract catering can build a sustainable future.

The overriding message was clear. Contract catering is ever changing, and this year may have been unprecedented and hard, but it is resilient and agile and will adapt and thrive in time. Mark may be right in his assertion that this year has been equivalent to 15 years’ experience. Indeed, with staff across varied sectors from healthcare and defence to B&I and events, the challenges are wide ranging, as some have had to battle on to support healthcare workers, whilst others faced empty offices and closed leisure sites and, along with it, furlough and redundancy.

One thing remains however, and that is these individuals’ pride in and commitment to the sector and belief in the fact that it can offer people a great career. Indeed, some would argue it is better equipped to offer reasonable working hours and good working conditions than the more high-profile restaurant and hotel career paths.

The fact remains however that once things go back to ‘normal’ they are unlikely to look the same, especially in B&I. Where the introduction of more flexible working may see a large proportion of office workers choosing to only come in 2 or 3 days per week. This will of course offer up operational challenges which the panel are all busy planning for. It may herald the rise of more central or dark kitchens supplying multiple sites as in Sodexo’s Fooditude. Or it may see innovative solutions around vending and more flexible contracts. Who knows? What Wendy is convinced of however is it will still all be about ‘great food & great service’.

Of course, customer behaviour will also have been impacted by the pandemic, whether that will mean an increased demand for healthy options and sustainable sourcing, or simply food they haven’t had to cook themselves, we’ll have to see. The good news is that the sector has and always will be very adaptable and prides itself on forever reinventing itself with creative new solutions. Working in partnership with their supply chain, contract caterers are confident they will come out fighting and through agility and resilience will build a sustainable future for their industry.

The next big challenge on top of Covid is of course a possible no deal Brexit and all that that may bring. The fight to have a Minister for Hospitality is one that they back and with it due to be debated in January we will have to wait to see if the sector will finally get a seat at the table. It is fair to say the head winds are gale force but if the panel is anything to go by, they will put their shoulder to the wind and fight on for a sector they truly love.

Thanks to Lorraine and the team at Arena on another great virtual event. Here’s to 2021 and hopefully a move away from Zoom and back to the real world.