De Tijd headline – ‘If the classic caterers do not modernize, they will bleed to death’

Digitization and working from home are shaking up the world of company restaurants. Smart refrigerators and cashless office stores are challenging Sodexo and co.

Many companies provide their staff with nothing more than a dining room, a drinks machine, and a coffee machine for lunch. Start-ups such as Gus Foods, Foodm and Tasties are changing that.

They offer the golden mean between a canteen and an equipped company restaurant: a refrigerator filled with sandwiches, salads and steam meals. Sensors monitor what is taken, so that someone passes by in time to restock.

If the new companies succeed in their set-up, hundreds of refrigerators will appear on the work floor in the coming years. Tasties has already installed them in the buildings of the province of Antwerp and at Xior, SD Worx and Dematic.

Foodm installed a refrigerator at the Bleckmann warehouse.

Foodmaker attracted DPG Media and Nike.

The refrigerators are cheaper than company restaurants and require less attention. They are especially popular with companies that are too small for a full-fledged restaurant. An example is the head office of the clohting company JBC. The 170 employees can turn to a smart fridge from Foodmaker. “A classic restaurant was not feasible for us,” says spokeswoman Katrien Vangrunderbeeck. “An experiment with a local caterer failed because it was not profitable. We have been looking for another solution for years.”

The corporate restaurant is facing competition from another novelty: cashless office shops. The 5,000 people at the Hasselt business campus Corda have been able to visit a shop of about a hundred square meters for a few months. Manager Bart
Linsen opens the closed access gate by making a QR code appear on his phone and scanning it. We follow him by scanning our bank card. Inside, sensors and cameras closely monitor our actions. We see an offer of
steam meals, salads, sandwiches, drinks, and snacks. We take a smoothie but try to fool the system with some false maneuvers. But no luck.

The Swiss have a second, similar project in collaboration with the supermarket group Ahold Delhaize. In the Netherlands, Selecta already operates several Albert Heijn office shops. In Belgium, the Swiss opened the first office version of Delhaize Shop&Go a few months ago in the new headquarters of frozen french fries producer Agristo. The shops are only accessible to staff and have a self-scanning cash register. Selecta and Delhaize want to open a hundred office shops in the next two years.

The new companies do not hide that they want to grab market share from traditional caterers such as Sodexo and Compass Group.

“Some large companies choose us because they find their corporate restaurant too expensive,” says Foodm founder Mathias Jennes. ‘Moreover, we offer 24/7 catering so that even early and late workers can have a meal.’

Foodmaker, which opens corporate restaurants with Delhaize, also says that its restaurants cost less. “We can operate our restaurants with one or two people because we make our dishes in our central kitchen,” says CEO Lieven Vanlommel. ‘Even during corona, our office restaurants were profitable, unlike many caterers.’ Compass Group and Sodexo announced large layoffs two years ago.

Corporate restaurants generally cost companies a lot of money. For example, they have to invest in a kitchen. The new initiatives require less investment. They can even make money for the companies. Proximus rents space to Foodmaker and doesn’t have to
do anything else. The office-Delhaize of Agristo is cost-covering.

The start-ups did not arise by chance in the post-corona period, which made teleworking the new normal for office workers. The classic company restaurants attract less people, which means that some company restaurants became very loss-making. ‘We close contracts based on the volume we expect to sell’, says Johan Poelmans, the spokesman for Compass Group. ‘If the number of meals decrease, the financial picture changes drastically. And the profit margins in our sector were already low anyway.’

The traditional caterers are also affected by the high inflation. Drastic action is needed in some company restaurants. Compass Group has ‘firm talks’ with its customers and takes into account that it is losing customers. Sodexo also believes that prices should rise ‘significantly’.

But the companies are often not obliged to do anything as long as the contract that was closed before corona has not expired. When the contracts are renewed,
the caterers do not have carte blanche either, because companies can drop out and switch to new initiatives. Moreover, before corona, companies became more critical of their company restaurants. Sodexo notices that they chip in less and less for meals. Many companies ‘subsidize’ meals, so that staff can buy the dishes relatively cheaply.

‘If the traditional caterers don’t modernise, they will bleed to death’, says Steven Volckaert, who is responsible for company catering at Agristo. His company worked for years with a large kitchen, which delivered meals at noon. Employees had to order their desired lunch before 9 am. ‘No longer of this time’, says Volckaert. ‘People want to be able to choose from a diverse range just before they eat.’

Compass Group takes the bull by the horns and works together with Tasties. Together they want to place 400 refrigerators in Belgium over the next three years. Tasties supplies the refrigerators and the software, Compass fills them.

Yet it does not seem that the classic company restaurant is doomed. ‘It is not easy to meet the requirements of the companies,’ says Poelmans. ‘Each company restaurant must be tailor-made. We have many years of experience with this, but it will be no fun for the new companies to discover that they cannot simply place their
standard concepts everywhere.’

Sodexo also nuances. ‘We established that the market is partly occupied by new players. But we lose few tenders and are not facing the Foodmakers of this world in negotiations,’ says Sodexo spokeswoman Hilde Eygemans. ‘We mainly work with the larger companies. Smart fridges and unmanned shops are
a good solution for smaller companies.’

NMBS and Infrabel

In practice, it appears that certainly large companies do not let go of the classic company restaurant. A few months ago, Sodexo closed a four-year partnership with NMBS and Infrabel. The caterer will operate 13 restaurants and 3 sandwich bars for 30,000 employees.
BNP Paribas Fortis also opted for a Sodexo restaurant in its new head office. “It is a contemporary restaurant,” says BNP Paribas spokeswoman Hilde Junius. ‘Our employees can take meals on the job or home.’

Remarkable: since last week, the building also houses a Foodmaker branch. The restaurant targets bank employees, but also passers-by and other guests. ‘We rent the building to Foodmaker. The cooperation does not extend beyond that,’ says Junius.

‘A company restaurant remains important to us,’ says Junius. ‘Our head office has 4,500 workplaces. People come here to meet each other. They should be able to do that in a pleasant setting. We can’t send them out for a nice meal,
can we?’

Delhaize, Selecta and Foodmaker join forces on the work floor

The supermarket chain Delhaize, the vending machine operator Selecta and the restaurant chain Foodmaker will from now on be visiting companies together to open smart fridges, lunch shops or even full restaurants. Until recently, Foodmaker went to companies on its own, but its refrigerators are being replaced by those from Selecta and Delhaize. Both companies have been rolling out their own refrigerator network for some time now. In exchange, Foodmaker products will be placed in Selecta’s refrigerators and in the unmanned office stores that Delhaize and Selecta are opening together. The companies want to open 100 office stores and place 200 refrigerators at companies in the next two years.
Even when Foodmaker opens (company) restaurants, it can count on the support of Delhaize. Foodmaker furnishes the restaurants and provides them with dishes. But Delhaize co-finances and is responsible for the operation, which the company in turn outsources to an independent entrepreneur.

Thanks to Delhaize’s financial support, Foodmaker wants to open restaurants at a faster pace. ‘We receive many requests from companies to open restaurants. We can’t do that alone’, says CEO Lieven Vanlommel.

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