Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Food Service Operators Face Diminishing Customer Base

Food service contractors and employed operators of corporate food services may face further diminishment of their customer bases in 2013.

As rapidly-advancing technology has disrupted other industries, it is now food service management's turn.  Corporate food service operators have to rethink their business models to stay relevant in this new environment.

In addition to the slow economic recovery, companies now have new ways to outsource even highly skilled work to freelance workers all over the world, reducing the need for -- and cost of -- on-site employees.  Of course, fewer employees on-site means fewer food service customers.

"A third generation sourcing system . . . the 'human cloud,' is centered on an online middleman  that engages a pool of virtual workers that can be tapped on demand to provide a wide range of services to any interested buyer," according to Evgeny Kaganer, an assistant professor at the University of Navarra in Barcelona, Spain, writing in MIT Sloan Management Review.

The commercial real estate market also provides a gloomy clue to the pace of corporate hiring.  "U.S. businesses took on new office space at a sluggish pace in the fourth quarter [of 2012] as employers remained cautious about adding jobs," The Wall Street Jouranl reported.

The impact of the sharp and still evolving change in the way businesses operate has an impact on both the food service operator and the company it serves.  Formerly profitable food services may become unprofitable for the operator, and the company may find it has a choice of either subsidizing its employee food services or reducing their scope.

Solutions will vary from company to company, but all will involve the way the food service operator looks at, and manages the business.  Companies will have to cooperate with their food service operators as they both adapt to the new reality.

Some potential solutions:

Companies with multiple buildings on a large campus might close food service outlets in all but the highest-population buildings (about 1,000 employees).  The other buildings could be serviced by the type of food truck that has become popular on college campuses.

At small sites (500 employees) a mini-cafe, supported by an off-site commissary could be practical.

Companies that find their food service has light breakfast business could close the employee cafe in the morning and replace it with a kiosk near the main employee entrance, serving coffee, cold beverages, muffins and the like. The kiosk could remain open through mid-morning to serve employees who want a morning snack.  The cafe would be open only for lunch and maybe afternoon snack business.

Vending operators and some of the major contractors have begun installing "micromarkets," a c-store type, compact facility with no attendant.  The customer selects foods and beverages from refrigerated display cases and shelves and pays for the purchases at a self-checkout kiosk -- the sort of "reverse ATM" now common at Home Depot and some supermarkets.  This option only works in a closed environment with a small population, about 250 employees.

Changes in the way employee food services are provided are inevitable.  Operators will have tto use technology to counteract the changes technology is forcing on their traditional ways of doing business.