Since the start of the pandemic, caterers in the UK have experienced an unprecedented period of disruption, forcing catering managers to completely rethink the way they plan and execute their menus. Hidden behind the sensational headlines, however, is the fact that the pandemic itself is not the biggest disruption factor facing smaller UK catering companies in 2022. The greatest looming challenge will be accommodating digitalized food supply chains and integrating them with onsite food production. 

The Catering Industry is at a Crossroads

Over the past few years, the catering industry has seen a significant amount of disruption in response to emerging technology, consumer trends, and increasing regulatory demands. For instance, the growing presence of B2B delivered-in operators means that office workers can access now a wide range of high-street food options rather than rely on a single caterer to provide daily meals.

As the food services industry is saturated with numerous operators all competing for the same or overlapping markets, expenses for running a catering enterprise have only increased. Costs associated with employing and training staff, buying, and maintaining appliances, purchasing ingredients, and maintaining a physical space have all gone up over the past few years. The recent protocol of hygiene and health requirements are just the proverbial icing on the cake.

The recent introduction of new health requirements and legislation, such as Natasha’s Law, which will require food operators to provide complete ingredients labelling on all pre-packed for direct sale foods, puts a heavy burden on small catering enterprises. For instance, while accurate labelling is obligatory, interruptions in the food supply chain have become commonplace. This can lead to unplanned ingredient substitutions. Caterers need solutions that will help them remain compliant while allowing flexibility in ingredient purchasing and monitoring suppliers for quality control. Moreover, much of this must happen in real-time.

The recent introduction of new health requirements and legislation, such as Natasha’s Law, which will require food operators to provide complete ingredients labelling on all pre-packed for direct sale foods, puts a heavy burden on small catering enterprises.

Choosing the Right Path

There are several things’ caterers can do in the new year to maintain food safety and variety while preserving profit margins. One strategy is to research in advance options for product substitutions and alternatives. However, this in itself generates a potential risk in regard to allergens. Some catering operators have limited their menu offerings to reduce service interruptions and keep allergen labelling compliance doable. But in many markets, the key to remaining competitive may actually involve retaining or even adding to food variety.

In order to fulfil labelling requirements, maintain a varied or seasonal menu, and inspire confidence that customer safety is their priority, the implementation of various digital systems is generally the solution.

For instance, digital food supply chain systems offer real-time, transparent ingredient tracking and the ability to communicate with suppliers across the supply chain. When this technology is combined with locally sourced products and partnerships, the involvement of outside third parties for select food production, as well as just-in-time inventory management, it can transform even a small catering operator into a well-oiled operation.

Additionally, over the next few years, a growing number of food services enterprises are expected to transition to a digitalized kitchen. In such a digital kitchen, caterers can build a smart, interactive library of standard ingredients, allergen information, recipes with substitution options, presentation ideas and menus. This in-house digital platform would also communicate with the digital supply chain to check ingredient availability. This could no doubt help catering operators plan their menus.

In short, the challenges facing smaller UK catering enterprises today and over the coming year are not easy hurdles to overcome. There are, however, feasible solutions out there that shouldn’t be overlooked. Converging technologies are already improving food supply chain sustainability, flexibility, efficiency and safety, and all signs indicate continued improvements ahead.

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