Among strategies and recent initiatives employed by the Top 50, several trends are clearly present. They include…
Sustainability. Unsurprisingly, contractors are folllowing the broader cultural imperative toward more local sourcing, the use of organics and the reuse of waste through recycling and composting initiatives. This is especially apparent for companies operating in the college segment where these issues are most resonant but can also be seen in other segments. One prominent example is Sodexo’s Stop Wasting Food campaign in partnership with Lean Path but in truth, just about every company in the Top 50 has (or claims to have) a sustainability program of one kind or another.
Nutrition/wellness. Nutrition education is a huge issue in K-12 schools, where First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity has prompted a spate of moves toward not only healthier meals (now required by statute) but an emphasis on developing healthy lifetime habits. Contractors have responded by developing nutrition education curricula and special event programs to satisfy the demand among client districts for such services. Meanwhile, menu programs designed to meet increasingly stringent federal mandates for reimbursable meals have been developed by companies operating in the K-12 segment, such as Nutrition Group with its Choose Two initiative.
In other segments like B&I and healthcare, contractors are developing wellness programs that mesh with larger institutional objectives designed to promote healthier lifestyles among the employees. For instance, Prince Food Systems offers a point-based system tied to nutritional information about its offerings that allows customers to choose healthier meals that accord with the institution’s wellness goals. These programs can also focus on specific dietary regimens. Vegetarian and even vegan menus are already standard chapters in most contractors’ menu programs, but gluten-free menus are still in the growth stage, a recent example being Metz’s Gluten-Free Zone concept for college clients.
Mobile computing. The rush to get on Facebook and connect with customers through Twitter is on. A number of contractors have introduced mobile computing apps that allow customers to see menus, gather nutritional data and even place and pay for orders through mobile devices. A corrollary of this trend is the deployment of mobile ordering kiosks in or adjacent to serveries to facilitate the transaction process.
Value. Hard times call for biting the bullet on check averages by offering value-priced items/combos to drive participation. This is happening not just in the school and workplace but in the entertainment arena as well, an example being the Victory Menu (“fan friendly favorites at fan friendly prices”) initiative from Centerplate designed for sports stadiums. Meanwhile, programs to encourage impulse sales, such as Compass Group’s Cookie initiative, are deployed to at least partially offset the damage to margins and the bottom line wreaked by the value pricing.
Expanding the Client Base. The traditional B&I mantra states that, absent subsidies, there is a radically diminishing rate of profitable return that is tied to site population size. But in these difficut times, contractors are looking at ways to expand that range of profitability through technology. Several contractors with substantial vending programs have deployed unmanned mini-kiosks that offer broader foodservice than the traditional bank of vending machines. Designed for small-population sites with limited foodservice footprint availability, they are one promising avenue for building B&I business. Another approach is the “pop-up" café concept developed by CulinArt for multi-building accounts that foregoes a fixed foodservice real estate allocation in favor of a flexible, mobile approach that can better serve a dispersed customer base.
Interactivity. Chefs by and large are showoffs and contractors are using their extrovert talents to engage customers, who are already used to the Food Network/celebrity chef paradigm. Culinary demos and cooking exhibitions are a standard way now to draw an audience to the cafeteria who will, hoefully, stay and eat. This has been going on for a while now in segments like B&I and college with their guest chef programs and exhibition stations, but now even K-12 is getting in on the, er, act.
The Roving Chef program from Southwest Foodservice Excellence, Revolutionizing Pomptonian’s Menus from Pomptonian Food Service and Traveling Display Stations from Quest Food Management are just three examples of K-12 specialist contractors taking their culinarians to meet customers and put on a show (while teaching some health and nutrition lessons). Even hospital contractor Luby’s has gotten in on the trend with a program, Chef’s Table, that brings lets young patients at childrens hospitals into the kitchen to interact with Luby’s chefs to top pizzas, bake cookies and engage in other fun kitchen antics.
Food Trucks. Oh yes, perhaps THE hottest concept in foodservice has certainly come to the attention of contractors, several of which have deployed these trendy meals on wheels outlets in appropriate venues, especially college campuses. Parkhurst, for example, recently launched mobile catering vehicles at two college accounts while CulinArt used food truck style cuisine (especially international street foods) as the central concept in a new menu program for the fixed servery.