Foodservice: A taste of what's to come

Although COVID-19 has inflicted much damage on the foodservice sector, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Maria Bracken explores what the future holds for our industry and why soft drinks play a vital role in creating those special experiences.

Nearly four in five business leaders feel positive about market prospects for the next 12 months despite some upcoming challenges including staff recruitment and high debt levels. This is according to ‘Hospitality: Covid and Beyond’, a new report from CGA and UKHospitality.

Three in five leaders also now anticipate opening new sites in 2021 - more than double the number in the third quarter of 2020. So, it’s positive news.

There is also the view that there could be potential polarisation in the market as the industry adapts to the ‘new normal’. CGA’s Business Leaders’ Survey and consumer research found that just over half of leaders expect increased demand for high end offerings will have a positive impact on their business - but nearly as many (49%) think the same about value offerings.  

So, some consumers may be seeking value while others are looking to trade up their experiences. But what does this mean for foodservice outlets? The pandemic is driving changes to customer behaviour and if operators are going to succeed commercially, they may have to look at adapting to both audiences. Therefore, understanding and responding to consumers’ changing behaviours is absolutely essential in the industry’s recovery. The key focus here is knowing your audiences and tailoring your offer accordingly.  

It’s all change. The world in which the industry now finds itself is very different to pre-Covid days. But now as we look ahead, it’s more about how we adjust, recover and thrive once again. Here are some pointers on what the second half of 2021 may hold, particularly looking at what factors are likely to play an important role in foodservice moving forward and how we can utilise them. 

Factors shaping our industry

Technology

Technology is at the core of hospitality. Foodservice operators should be totally tuned in to how digital will live on for their brands. Particularly over the last year, businesses have grown much more confident with digital solutions. A recent CGA survey found that a staggering 95% of leaders thought technology would be important in their operations after lockdown. This is set to continue.

Going forward, we should expect a greater focus on order and pay technology, contactless payments and even robot technology as operators explore different ways to improve customer confidence again. The use of robots could be used for cleaning purposes to help make the environment more COVID-secure, or even order taking, delivery service and in production kitchens making pizzas and flipping burgers. Virtual reality technology has also been successful, giving customers a real sense of what they are booking. This will certainly continue and could give you a real edge on your rivals. Make sure the platform you use is simple to use and easily accessible.

Allow technology to make your life easier. Use it to manage staff costs, for example or even labour scheduling. Be prepared to invest in the best technology-based services. Particularly within workplace catering, smart tills and smart vending machines should be introduced. Whatever system you go with, make sure it doesn’t impact customer satisfaction.

Online

Online was a clear winner as a result of the pandemic. Online options exploded to include things like cook at home meal kits which really took off. As people are making up for lost time and eating out more now that restrictions have been lifted, the demand for the likes of DIY kits, for instance, have dipped. However, some operators continue to carve a market out of it, commercially. Remote working, for some, is here to stay, and there is also a greater emphasis now on convenience and health alongside internet usage, so ensure that you continue to tap into this market.  

In order to succeed, make sure you stay relevant with your offering post pandemic, targeting all audiences, whether that be those looking for value or wanting to trade up their experiences. Make your meal solution relevant to more people. Broaden your reach. One opportunity, for example, would be to target the health and weight loss market. Whatever the offering may be, make sure you offer variety and consistency, each time. Forward plan and invest in each and every one of your kits. And with many consumers likely to be planning their hospitality visits much more carefully now, also be smart with your use of online booking tools. This will benefit your business in the long run. 

Health & wellbeing

Following the pandemic, health and wellbeing will only continue to grow in importance in the foodservice market, and rightly so. According to recent research conducted by workplace caterers Bartlett Mitchell, workplace wellbeing will be more important to organisations than product and service innovation, which is encouraging news. The research found that 80% of people are still formulating how their company will implement remote working practices, with a further 75% concerned about the challenge to company culture from hybrid working. There is nothing more important right now than investing in your people so make sure you are doing it, and well. Reach out to your team and keep talking. That’s the key. It’s people who are going to make the biggest difference in our new economy as we move forward. Having said that, make sure that this doesn’t replace great food and service. All of these should be a priority.

Soft Drinks

As the health trend continues to shake things up for the soft drinks industry, it’s imperative that foodservice operators are offering products that can satisfy this demand. With 88% of consumers now taking steps to improve their health, soft drinks have a vital role to play going forward in providing healthier hydration options. 

There are several emerging opportunities arising in the soft drinks category. Both functional wellness drinks and plant-based drinks solutions, like Purdey’s are certainly ones to watch and will continue to grow in popularity. At a time when single serve drinks were struggling from fewer buyers and reduced frequency, wellness drinks have offered a trade up opportunity for the soft drinks channel.  

Now more than ever, it’s all about how you can add real value for your customer. Why not look at pairing plant-based meals and drinks in meal deals to provide a total package for your customer. At the same time, though, think about your merchandising, as this, along with educating your customers, is the key to growth in this category. Good communication is essential. Talk to your consumer about what’s in your products. 

And stay relevant if you want to target more than one audience. When it comes to performance-based drinks, think about including relevant ranges such as caffeine-free and stimulants, in meal and snack deals to increase sales. If you are looking to target the more premium consumer, utilise your more luxurious brands to cater towards those elevated soft drink occasions. Tailor your offering to suit all audiences. 

Also, why not consider different drinks roles at different times of the day? For example, you could include a natural energy drink on your menus in the morning and then switch to a low caffeine solution in the afternoon. Whatever you decide, always put consumers at the heart of your innovation. Brands should really focus on the long-term impact on their products from the way they choose to offer value. 

Sustainability

Sustainability values are definitely something that has been accelerated by COVID-19 and will continue to rise in the future. Aside from increased awareness of sustainability credentials, consumers are also becoming more aware of the impact of the food we eat has on our health, which will only continue. A new poll conducted by the UK & Ireland Mushroom Producers has revealed that 63% of Brits stated they would shop seasonally in a bid to reduce their carbon footprint. This is an impressive figure, so make sure you are on top of your game when it comes to CSR credentials. Offer an enticing, yet sustainable choice for your consumer. As well as your offering, think about whether you can run your business more sustainably. It’s changes like these that can get you the results long term. 

Top tips for operators

Looking ahead, whether the market has the potential to become polarised or not, operators need to be prepared and have the right principles in place to target all audiences. Here’s some key pointers for outlets to consider:

  • Stay true to your brand and ethos
  • Understand your audiences
  • Innovate, innovate, innovate
  • Keep your finger on the pulse when it comes to food and drink trends
  • Trust is essential so make sure you are actively engaging with consumers and communicate the steps you are taking - and always follow through with them. Listen, understand and respond to your consumers
  • Almost go back to basics and reimagine the customer experience and what they might be looking for
  • People are seeking great experiences so whatever the outlet, or offering, make each and every customer feel special