Pears with barcode

In this guest blog, catering industry specialist Wesley Manson talks about the potential for increased use of technology and innovation in contract catering.

In many ways, contract catering is still quite a traditional industry. Trends in food change, and the way customers engage with food evolves, which can drive innovation in the kitchen. However, it’s rare that we, as managers of catering contracts, have any reason to change how we operate them.

I’ve written recently on the potential for increased use of technology in the kitchen. This resulted from my experience of working with a company called Checkit, who provided fridge temperature monitoring, food probing and process compliance systems all linked into a single data storage and analysis platform. I’ve continued to work with the team at Checkit, providing them with a client’s perspective on their system to help them improve it.

I’ve continued to be impressed by their technology, one thing that has particularly struck me is that there is potential to use the data that such a system provides in novel and innovative ways.

Based on discussions with industry colleagues, the use of data in contract catering has tended to stick to sales and footfall data. We could look at our sales data to see what was selling or not, and we could look at footfall to appropriately manage opening hours and labour. But this was always basic and backwards-looking. One of the big questions for the industry is can we instead start to use data in a predictive and forward-facing manner?

It’s only now that we are starting to have the access to technology that allows us to answer these questions. We do still have to go through a period of developing hypotheses, testing these hypotheses and making measurable predictions, but now is the time to start thinking about what data we can collect, how we can use it, and what questions can we answer. Those who position themselves to use this data effectively can potentially seize a competitive advantage.

Based on my experience with the Checkit system, here are some of my initial hypotheses, and questions which I hope to test in the future:

  • I’ve worked in a number of contracts that involve multiple sites, and in every case, performance differed from site to site. Some of this was easily explained by things like location, footfall or differences in the offering, but this never completed the picture. I’m interested to explore if there is a correlation, or even a causative relationship, between the level of health & safety compliance for a given site, and the overall commercial performance. Can lower levels of compliance with such processes predict lower overall standards and thus lower performance?
  • Having managed large teams of staff, I place a huge value on training, but it is often hard to assess the quality of outcome. I would expect that using process performance data, it would be possible to evaluate different training programs or methods of delivery, by looking at changes in compliance levels.
  • Similarly, I’ve worked on mobilisation of new sites and have seen first hand how tricky it can be to get existing staff, who are accustomed to working in a certain manner, transferred over to new policies and procedures. I would, again, expect that we could use process performance data to evaluate the quality of the mobilisation and process embedding program. Analysing this data would also highlight valuable lessons learned to take to future mobilisation efforts.
  • Can we develop robust data ‘leading indicators’ which may point at future fridge breakages, allowing for proactive intervention and maintenance, saving future time and expense, as well as reducing needless food waste?