With employees preferring ordering in and contactless delivery systems for their mid-day meal, especially post-pandemic, the office canteen will have to adapt or disappear.  

On-site kitchens are becoming a thing of the past for all but the biggest offices, with food delivery apps offering slicker solutions that can offer more choice with less waste. With the total global food delivery market expected to reach $192 bn in 2025, the corporate arms of Just Eat, UberEats and Deliveroo, plus a whole roster of startups like Feedr, Smunch and CaterCow, are cleaning up by helping office managers save money by catering only to the daily headcount – a figure that can vary wildly in a hybrid working model. Post-pandemic demand for contactless interaction is driving change too, with robot chefs and staff-less kiosks joining the mix.

Cover and above: Londons Douglas House, TOG (The Office Group), has a café-workspace with a smart bistro feel to lure employees from eating al-desko.

Delivered food drives flexible all-day dining space

Its no surprise that individually wrapped office meals ordered via an app are enjoying popularity in the pandemic – as we return to work the idea of queuing up at an open buffet, or sharing cutlery with colleagues, doesnt seem so appealing. Just Eat is enjoying gains in the corporate space, having acquired London-based B2B food delivery platform City Pantry for £16m in 2019, which now feeds 30,000 people at over 600 companies in the UK each week. Research by Sodexo found half of employees less likely to visit the staff restaurant after the pandemic, and 26 per cent wanting the option to have food delivered. The longstanding French corporate caterer changed tack in 2020, by acquiring off-site caterer Fooditude. The company operates from a 20,000-sq-ft production kitchen to deliver food to clients in London and Dublin either as meals to the door, or through a pop-up canteen. 

With fixed and bulky catering equipment out of the way, cafeterias can be opened to new functions. Londons Douglas House, TOG (The Office Group), has a café-workspace with a smart bistro feel to lure employees from eating al-desko (not great for collaboration or wellbeing), contrasted by several smaller coffee stations to gather at. Cristina Covello, head of strategic growth at Fooditude, says: People are working flexibly and designers need to consider how to match that flexibility in how they design their spaces. The cafeteria may double as a space for collaboration or events so static furniture and point of sale need to be swapped for moveable or transformable pieces that can have double uses or be stored when not needed. None of our catering equipment is permanent so we can pop-up almost anywhere and when service is over, we pack it all away like we were never there.’ 

Aitme is a Berlin-based startup that places a robot chef in your office. Photo: Courtesy of Aitme

Hands off: contactless catering

Automated solutions are becoming popular in place of staffed cafés and snack bars too. Micro-markets, where staff help themselves to boxed food and packaged snacks by swiping pre-loaded cards to pay, were already a popular low-overhead alternative to cafés before the pandemic and make sense now to prevent queues and keep staff socially distanced. Supermarket chain Albert Heijn has plans to open unstaffed mini-stores in at least 100 offices in the Netherlands, offering convenience to workers who want to eat at work and pick up staples for home. Vending machines suddenly seem like a good idea again too. Sustainable start-up Vinny has already seen the post-COVID opportunity. Currently installed at two of Huckletrees co-working spaces, its machines are fitted with anti-bacterial screens, filled with plant-based snacks from independent brands, and have automated flaps to minimize the need for touching. 

Want freshly prepared office food without a human in sight? Enter Aitme, a Berlin-based startup that places a robot chef in your office. From within an 86-sq-ft kiosk, a set of robotic arms whips up ten different meals from 40 hot and cold ingredients that are delivered once a day. The machine is self-cleaning and can make 120 meals an hour including protein bowls and pasta dishes. In China, robot servers are already at work in hospitals, hotels and restaurants, playing a role in eliminating human-to-human contact during the pandemic. Nikkei Asia reported a surge in demand in service robots from Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics, from 3,000 units in 2019 to 10,000 in 2020. Costing $8,220 each, they can serve 300 to 450 meals a day.

Sodexo operates from a 20,000-sq-ft production kitchen to deliver food to clients in London and Dublin either as meals to the door, or through a pop-up canteen.

Can the canteen catch up?

For large workplaces, a canteen can still make sense. Its rare that the suppliers on food delivery apps like Just Eat can consistently deliver quality meals in large quantities. There's also the question of control over food production when it's coming from different sources. With divided responsibility among multiple tenants, dark kitchens are still catching up to the food safety regulations and standard working conditions required by traditional caterers. 

Once at the office, large orders must be kept warm or cold until staff are ready to eat – in a space with no dedicated kitchen storage, thats hard to do. Theres also piles of single-use packaging for a manager to deal with; even compostable and recyclable containers need rinsing and separating. 

For companies that do commit to a canteen, theres the opportunity to provide a holistic vision where on-brand food and design combine in an inspirational space that boosts morale and improves talent retention. In 2019 Sodexo worked with the brand consultants behind Third Space and Wahaca on Modern Recipe, an all-day dining concept for Astra Zeneca, across five sites in the UK and Sweden. An updated menu and fresh canteen design saw workplace dining rates increase 45 per cent at the Cambridge site. Silicon Valley has long used food as a draw for its employees; the Financial Times reports Facebook is engaging with local producers to stock its canteens to stay ahead of the curve. Tech is helping to keep these large canteens operational in the pandemic too: staff can use apps to order ahead, pay and queue virtually. Using Bluetooth, Indian food tech company Hungerbox even has a way to buzz your phone when you get too close to a colleague.

Whatevers on the menu, Fooditudes Covello says we are recognizing that making time and space to eat together is vital for our wellbeing. We asked tech professionals what a lunch break means to them. 66 per cent said it’s about sharing a meal with colleagues and 45 per cent spend 30 minutes to an hour on their break. I found this really encouraging because I think taking a real break and eating with people makes for a better and more productive working day. I hope we see a trend toward less eating on the go.’