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Workplace Canteens: Striking Variety Worldwide

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Workplace canteens are often considered to be far from innovative, and anything but boldly growing. Examining the role of workplace canteens for consumers in various countries around the world, NPD Group’s Bob O’Brien reveals striking differences
in terms of relevance, preferences and appreciation from country to country. His market research also indicates ways to gain market share from commercial foodservice competitors

The workplace canteen might not be the first market sector that comes to mind when considering dynamic developments in the global foodservice market. The sector, however, is not lacking in innovation. The pressure of providing daily meals to
thousands of people in a given setting within a set budget leads to a different kind of innovation than is found in small, independent restaurant entrepreneurs. All around the world visits to workplace canteens, like the commercial market segment, have taken a long-term hit from the global economic crisis.

In most countries, however, this hit has not been as hard as felt by the commercial segment of the market.

While the restaurant business is vulnerable to the ups and downs of the economy or the weather or tastes, the business of feeding workers at or from the workplace is largely dependent on having more people working. Of all the pressures faced by
workplace feeders over the past 15 years – from QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) encroaching on their market to new demands for fresh, healthy and varied products – having the bottom drop out of the workforce had to have been the hardest blow.

The Worldwide Trend in Workplace Feeding

Workplace feeding accounts for more than a fifth of the foodservice visits in France and less than 5 percent in the US. The Italians, who have a perfectly serviceable way to get coffee in the morning, devote the smallest share of their visits to breakfast and morning snacks. US operators appear to have done the best job of mining the breakfast opportunity with nearly fifth of all visits being at the breakfast daypart. The Spanish and the English, who are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, both have highly developed afternoon snack dayparts. Also standing out from the crowd is Australia where lunch is a large daypart but the morning meal segment, because of morning snacks, is larger than those found in any other country.

Canteen users in the US have sandwiches, burgers and even pizza at the top of their lunch list. These items aren’t so different from what they might eat at a QSR. The Japanese top their list with rice, miso soup and noodles. Borscht is on the list in Russia. Rice and stir-fry dishes are on the list in China. Across Europe, national tastes are the order of the day. Pasta in Italy. Pork in Germany. Paella in Spain. Grilled beef and paté in France. Only in Great Britain, where admittedly, beans and sausages are near the top of their list, are ethnic foods high in popularity at canteen lunches.

Why People Don’t Chose Workplace Canteens

A striking characteristic of the European market is in the average eater check for at-work visits compared with the QSR segment. All over the world, except in Continental Europe, we find that con-sumers pay less per person for workplace visits
than they do for QSR visits. The cost of the meal leads to the question of why consumers would choose to buy from their canteen in those countries where the check is higher than in the surrounding QSR market. When, in the CREST survey, we ask people what the reason was for their choice of restaurant, in both the commercial and non-commercial segment, the most likely response is generally ‘convenience’ in some form or another. Canteens are also blessed with the response “because I work there“ as a reason for deciding to patronize that particular outlet. This is kind of a mixed blessing. It illustrates the ‘captive’ nature of their customers but it lacks the kind of compelling motivation that QSRs can build on.

That then leads to the question of what consumers are eating at QSRs that they like so much. On the commercial QSR side, there is great commonality around the world. Every country features burgers (chicken burgers in China) and fries somewhere
near the top of their QSR lunch choices. Pizza and chicken nuggets appear on most lists. Kebabs are found in Europe. Americans throw in burritos. The Japanese have their beef bowl. Russians include blini. Outside the US, the choices at the canteen reflect sit down meals common in each country. So, the variety inherent to a broad choice of QSRs doesn’t necessarily lead to a greater variety of choices. It is the implied variety.

The Winning Strategy For Successful Canteens

It is the draw of a particular menu item that brings consumers. That is where the development of canteens’ special in-house brands should focus. The appeal of commercial QSRs lies in well-understood versions of common products like kebabs
or burgers. To provide their own change of pace, canteen operators have been fighting the share battle with fresh new takes on these dishes to appeal to their customers’ need for variety that they are currently satisfying by going to commercial QSRs. We can see the effect of this effort by examining what food items have grown the most over the past four years in European canteens.

There are great opportunities for canteens to expand within their defined markets. Only a small portion of the restaurant visits of their most reachable customers actually go to their canteens. QSRs continue to attract customers with special food items, promotions and a constantly changing landscape of new concepts to choose from.
Canteens have some natural advantages to work with. Unlike commercial restaurants, they know exactly who their customers are and can very specifically target their needs.

About the Author:
Bob O’Brien is Global Senior VP for US-based NPD Group

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