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How the humble office canteen is witnessing a gastronomic makeover

How the humble office canteen is witnessing a gastronomic makeover

Gurugram based techie Shreya Bhatia’s social media posts about perfecting the art of dimsum-making and preparing five different sauces that will best go with them or pasta making sessions are a huge hit with her friends. Market analyst Saurav Tawde, based out of the Bandra-Kurla Complex office of his company in Mumbai, posts about fresh cut fruits for breakfasts, freshly baked croissants paired with evening coffee and equally drool-worthy desserts, while friends of automobile engineer Jasjeet Singla of Pimpli Chinchwad, near Pune, have conferred the title of foodie on him due to the amazing omelette and dosa making videos he posts during breakfast on a daily basis. 

Many of their friends may wonder how these professionals find time between hectic daily work schedule and long traffic-riddled commutes to work to try cooking classes and taste these treats on weekdays. The answer is that rather incredibly, these are scenes from their offices. 

They work in offices that are part of a growing number of workplaces that are viewing food and related offerings seriously. As many employees tend to have at least two meals at work, it becomes an important determinant of their quality of life. So companies are upping the game, hiring food teams and making significant investments in either offering high-quality food for free or at a discount. Employees on the most part are delighted to have choices beyond the traditional office canteen staples — staid rajma chawal and soggy masala dosa. The trend that started with multinational tech majors such as Google, first spread to other MNCs operating in India and then on to Indian companies that want to attract top talent. 

“Indian corporate houses are looking at evolving global workspaces and noticing how their food culture at work is changing,” says Amit Burman, vice-chairman of FMCG major Dabur. “Indian multinationals, too, realise that employees spend most of their time at work and have most of their meals at work. Food is extremely important to them.” 
The humble office canteen is witnessing a gastronomic makeover. From investing in onsite kitchens, sprucing up facilities, hiring professional caterers to spending anywhere between Rs 160 and Rs 650 per employee per day on food, companies are literally laying out quite the spread. It’s an expensive affair, but companies are grinning and bearing it, realising that it is an important means to motivate the millennial workforce. 

This has opened up lucrative contract opportunities for catering companies. French global contract catering giant Elior wanted a foothold in the Asian market and looking at Indian corporate workforce numbers, didn’t think twice before using the country as a base. Sanjay Kumar, CEO of Elior India Catering, says invariably the places voted across the globe as best to work are usually the ones that have a very active food programme. A vibrant food space at workplace is a result of more and more and more corporates starting to look at food as a value proposition and not just an expense. 

“Culinary specialists from different regions sit with us to decide the menu and check our safety certifications. Food is looked at as a value proposition. From regularly inspecting our facilities to even asking to take them to our vendors we source ingredients from, organisations look at food very seriously and want full accountability of hygiene and safety from the caterer,” says Kumar. Google, LinkedIn, Accenture, Great West Global, Cerner, Cisco and AirBnB, some of the organisations rated highly as places to work, also have a dedicated food team. 

Lauren Scott, Food Services Manager, APAC, at Google, says the aim of the company is to be able to bring people together with delicious and crave-able food, thus supporting employees to be at their best. Inviting food spaces, the company believes, are integral to this. “The food team’s mission is to inspire and enable the Google community to make informed, personal food choices and enjoy food experiences that support them to be at their best,” she explains. The range of food offering ranges from local to global cuisine picks, fresh fruit and salad stations and allow for personalising their meals with with ample choice of toppings and condiments. 

Demand from caterers at these organisations range from live bruschetta stations, molecular mixology, live salad bars, mocktail bars, live Mongolian food stations, themed food festivals and regular master classes by home chefs, as well as cook offs where employees can participate. 
 

Compass Group is a leading provider of food services with a presence across 50 countries, servicing more than 300 clients in India and dishing out over 3 lakh meals a day. Last year, conducted a survey Eating at Work understanding the workplace consumer behaviour. This study, with a sample size of 2,075 employees across key cities (Delhi, NCR, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Kolkata) and over 100 organisations, was to understand workplace preferences and needs.

The study showed food as the preferred non-monetary perk, ahead of flexible working hours, onsite fitness and employee wellness programs which are usually perceived as vital non-monetary benefits. Some 73% respondents chose café meals as their favoured perk. The study also showed Indians prefer dining in highly social environments with 85% of participants saying they preferred having their lunch with their colleagues. 87% of respondents strongly felt that café is the place to network as café is the place to network as café conversations build a stronger team. 

Dev Amritesh, director of Compass Group India, says the job of a catering firm is no longer to stitch together a lunch package. Companies like his, study parameters like average break timings, peak productivity level timings, energy needs post lunch hours, and so on, and come up with a meal plan keeping fresh local ingredients and health impact in mind. “Workplace has three distinct needs — functional, emotional and social. While functional needs are nutrition, convenience and lightness of food, the emotional needs are well-being, alertness, individualism and productivity. Social needs, on the other hand, capture the fact that the millennials are increasingly conscious about their food choices. Food offering is one initiative that serves the broad needs of so many employees,” says Amritesh.

Compass has two concepts — Choix and Two Good. While Choix is about providing DIY bowl options for employees to come up with innovative salad and bowl meals using super grains and fresh ingredients, Two Good is a combination of two different dishes. 

Energy needs differ depending on the line of work. The needs of an engineer working on a factory floor is different from that of a software engineer working at a desk. Regular feedback and research is what helps to make tailor-made solutions for different industries and employees and cater almost 1.6–1.8 lakh meals a day, Elior’s Kumar says. “In an industrial setting, the food cannot be a disruption. It needs to be in harmony. Bad food should not lead to a strike. In a factory setting, there is usually a consumption of 1.1 to 3 kg of food owing to higher energy needs, whereas a techie consumes 450-850 g,” explains Kumar.

Daily Bread 
Dabur’s Burman also promotes Lite Bite Foods (LBF), which has also now entered the corporate catering space. Rohit Aggarwal, director of LBF, says contact catering for companies was a chance discovery for him. They had set a bakery to cater to their outlets at the airport and a group of people came looking for 1,000 muffins. They delivered fresh muffins and realised this was actually an untapped segment with massive potential. Soon he started meeting the “food officers” at top international firms to discuss business ideas. 

From initially being asked to arrange special food festivals or pizza pop-ups, LBF has now expanded its business. “We started by setting up a Subway station at Infosys office. That was followed by being given an entire food area by building that housed multiple corporate offices. 

Since we already have popular restaurants, the feedback companies got was that employees felt like eating at their favourite restaurant in office every day. Today, within two years of entering the segment, we cater to over 20 top international firms and expect to touch revenues of Rs 100 crore in the next three years,” he elaborates. 

Executives at Elior and Compass say they are seeing a steady stream of Indian multinationals who are also embracing the trend. Confidentiality agreements did not allow them from revealing the names of their clients. 
Elior’s Kumar says it is heartening that Indian firms too have started seeing food as not an additional cost burden but an investment. Their spends pale in comparison with the multinationals, though. 

An Indian firm typically spends Rs 60-90 per meal per employee, whereas average spend of a foreign firm is between Rs 175 to Rs 600 per person per meal, explains Kumar. That is where he sees the growth potential. 

“The contract catering market in India is around $6 billion. If you think that is huge, then you need to understand that the market in China is $105 billion and the US is $150 billion. We are just getting started,” says Kumar. 


The article was published on Economic Times on September 23,2018