How 2021 Trends Are Redefining Workplace Catering – by Liz Forte, Health & Wellness Director

It was my pleasure to recently chair the Food & Drink Trends & Innovations Conference, a fantastic opportunity to hear from the senior leaders and innovators of the food and beverage industry. After a tumultuous 2020, coming together offered the chance to share our key learnings and strategies for the coming months.

The challenges we have all had to face have also been an invitation to step beyond our traditional processes and boundaries. Here, I’ll take look at how pandemic response, innovation and food trends are set to redefine workplace catering.

New working patterns, new consumer behaviours

Much has been said about ‘the new normal’. Some commentators have talked about the ‘death of the office’, and even the future of our cities has been called in to doubt, with predictions of a mass exodus to the countryside.

At the time of writing, workers are still being told to stay at home if possible. After such a long period away from the office, almost a year for many people, it’s understandable that there are anxieties around the return to the workplace. Workplace caterers and employers have an opportunity to work together to address these anxieties with sensitivity, providing spaces and experiences that will help people once again feel the collaborative spirit of working under the same roof.

We often speak about gently nudging people towards healthier food choices, rather than enforcing abrupt change. No doubt this same approach will be beneficial when it is time to invite people back into workplaces.

A large section of the population’s needs has changed dramatically. It’s also important to consider the unchanging needs of many workers - after all, many workplaces have remained open throughout the lockdown. At Compass Group Business & Industry, we have been working across different sectors, continuing to provide vital services such as food production, distribution and communications.

And for these workers, who don’t find themselves suddenly working at the kitchen table, the changes have been more subtle, and often, more difficult to embed. They’ve had to adapt on the job, making changes day by day, within a pre-existing system. These workers also need food, spaces and experiences that support their needs.

Can we embrace rapid innovation?

Let’s look back. The speed of change that followed the lockdown was remarkable. Consumer behaviours seemed to be transformed overnight, and businesses have had to adapt at pace, just to keep up.

This unpredictability is one of the reasons that agility, flexibility and speed have been so crucial. But while they were quick to come about, I believe some of these changes are set to remain, long into the future, because they’ve actually revealed some hidden strengths.

Initiatives that might have taken 18 months to set up in the past have been turned around in just a few days, thanks to rapid decision making and expedited processes. This period has proved that change can happen quickly when it needs to.

And some of the changes we’ve seen - these rapid adaptions at scale - have been necessary for business just to survive. It’s not just the start-ups that’ve had to be agile: it’s everyone from village shops to multinationals, all kinds of businesses have had to adapt and innovate, to meet changing demands.

Clients have been telling me that they’ve delivered five-year plans in six weeks, with less drawn-out decision making and fewer stakeholders. So, is this a new model to get things done, with fewer thinkers, and more doers?

Eight food trends to watch

Not all these trends are new, however for each, recent events have reshaped how they fit into and complement different lifestyles.

1. Functional food:
These foods offer extra benefits on top of their nutritional values, like being high in prebiotic fibre. The gut health trend had seen strong growth pre-pandemic, now we are seeing an increase in foods, supplements and herbs with anti-viral properties. Beware of anything that isn’t based in real science, like “immune boosters”.

2. Comfort food:
Have you found yourself craving indulgent comfort or treat foods throughout the pandemic? You are not alone! Stress and uncertainty drive snack sales, as well as the sale of alcohol. We cannot ignore people’s need to indulge, so we should offer sensible balance, for instance by offering those hearty dishes we crave, from fish and chips to mac ‘n’ cheese, at the end of the week as a treat or boost.

3. Mini treats:
This is different to my last point in that it has an economic angle. We are less likely to make big purchases while there is uncertainty in the economy, so we treat ourselves instead. And mini? Well, that’s even better. 

4. Food for mood:
We are less inclined to go for extreme diets and expensive weight loss programmes this year as a focus on mental health, positivity and micronutrient dense foods has contributed to the downfall of diet culture. Macronutrient balance will also be a priority for more people who want to personalise exercise.

5. Reducing food waste:
As many people struggle with a smaller household budget, empty shelves and uncertain supply, there has been an increased focus on “use what you have” store cupboard recipes and a drive to avoid food waste. Root to stem cooking is on the rise.

This is happening in households across the nation and also in our kitchens, as we tackle food waste and also make use of fantastic seasonal British produce.

6. Local:
The search for local products, a trend that was already strong before the crisis, will be strengthened by the search for great food self-sufficiency. At Eurest, we use 80 per cent British produce, which means working with respect for the seasons and being creative with the amazing fresh produce we have. Our Culinary Director is fond of saying “you’ll never see a strawberry on our menus in winter”, and we think that really resonates with people.

7. Plant-based, and “veganising” favourite and traditional meals:
As well as meat alternatives, lots of familiar foods just happen to be vegan, so utilising and signposting them as vegan heroes is becoming more popular. Dairy alternative ingredients like cheeses, chocolate and fermented yoghurts are getting better. Proteins are also improving, pea protein’s reputation is catching up with soy and other foods on the rise include mung beans and duckwheat.

There is an increased awareness around the variety of amino acids in a dish being important for nutrient absorption, as well as the volume of protein. The dishes in our Plantilicious (plant-based) range have a minimum requirement of 20g of protein which often comes from a variety of sources, for instance we’ll combine soy fillets with legumes.

8. Sugar reduction:
This is certainly not a new trend, however it is very much continuing as manufacturers focus on reformulation. This will likely continue for many years. New sweeteners are being developed and used in bakery lines to reduce both sugar and calories. Clean and transparent is a must, in part due to increased consumer awareness of labelling.

The most important trend of 2021

Undoubtedly, the biggest trend to watch is connecting with your customers through creating and facilitating experiences. I no longer see us as being tied to onsite restaurants. Instead, it’s about providing food and services - some of which may be accessed through an app, rather than a physical space.

I will leave you with this apt quote from the futurist James Wallman: “You have to not only think about what's changing, but what isn't changing: and that's human nature. We're still the same creatures who crave status, want to be safe and secure, want to be happy, seek autonomy, have friends.”