Food Service Innovation Leads the New Trend of Group Meal Development

In the development of the group meal industry, the product standardisation, service efficiency and operations datamation will become the three core competencies of domestic group meal enterprises in the future.

1. A new trend within the group meal industry

At present, the pace of marketisation of the group meal industry in China is accelerating, and it has gradually become a new trend in the development of this industry. With the evolution of mainstream consumer groups, the continuous shifts in consumer demand, the huge impact of social catering and the take-out industry, and the popularity of big data and mobile payments, the group meal industry is facing unprecedented changes and challenges. The high cost of procurement and labour, low profit margins and low levels of informatisation are the common concerns of group meal enterprises at present. Therefore, a highly standardised and efficient operation mode will become the standard part of the group meal industry in the future.

The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a significant impact on all group meal companies, which have suspended their operations either actively or passively. The number and frequency of meals have significantly decreased, and the supply of raw materials has also been greatly restricted. In the context of widespread consumer concerns about cross-infection and limited staffing, I believe that the combination of pre-processed food with the concept of the smart kitchen may become an important means of ensuring meal provision and a new trend in future group meal development.

 

2. Increasing demand for pre-processed food and meal service advantages

First, due to the mass-quantity, long-period group meal service mode and the properties of B2B service group of group meal, compared with society catering, it has less SKU number and is better planned. Food procurement incorporates large-scale integration, with characteristics of predictable demand, high standardisation and easier replication, all of which provide favourable conditions for the use of pre-processed foods and group meal innovation.

The term ‘pre-processed food’ (also known as ‘semi-finished products’) refers to intermediate products that have undergone certain production processes and passed inspection but have not been manufactured into finished products. ‘Pre-processed food materials’ refers to an A/B package of semi-finished products, usually in vacuum-sealed packaging. Package A is for the ingredients, and Package B is for the condiments, which allows the packages to be combined flexibly. Package A (the raw material package) has been differentiated and cut according to meat and vegetable materials. The operating point can only use the raw materials of Package A, which can be combined by DIY heating and flavouring, or use A/B, finishing the dish by directly heating the mixture of the A and B packages simultaneously.

The advantages of such semi-finished dishes in the daily serving of group meal enterprises represented by Sodexo are mainly reflected in the following:

  • Reduction of rough processing links and improvement of operating efficiency. Dishes effectively improve consumer satisfaction through Sodexo food expert team’s testing and inspection of cooking methods.
  • Effective improvement of food quality control, standardisation of productivity and guarantee of food safety and consistent food taste.
  • Accurate material preparation, reduction of material waste and optimisation of the allocation of human resources.
  • Conservation of water and electricity, minimisation of kitchen waste and reduction of environmental pollution.
  • Improvement of work safety, reduction of the probability of accidents in cutting work and implementation of Sodexo’s zero mindset.
  • Improvement of the operational replication capability of sites to cope with the changes in different business environments.

3. New technology enabling group meal enterprises

At present, the Sodexo food service platform has developed more than 280 A/B semi-finished menus and has screened and recommended 25 commonly used and cost-effective products for in-depth development. Each product is capable of yielding three to five discrete dishes for operation, which is especially suitable for the shortage of chef resources.

In addition, with the rising price of natural gas and other energy resources, the cost of using natural gas for food processing is increasing daily. Many objective factors, such as national policies to promote energy conservation and emission reduction practices, will foster Sodexo’s gradual transformation to a commercial smart kitchen. The kitchen processing area of the restaurant can use the processing mode of the humanised intelligent oven with pre-processed food matching Chinese and Western cooking habits to realise the five goals of every kitchen: intelligence, energy conservation, environmental protection, safety and high standards. Sodexo’s ongoing Evolution project is one of the best practices of this mode. According to feedback from the pilot sites, this mode can yield four to five dishes per day, accounting for about 50% of the total on-site meals at the operation sites. Sodexo sees this combination as an innovative initiative to optimise food production, management and service processes for the following reasons:

  • Smart devices enhance menu functionality, thus providing standardised and predictable productivity.
  • A single device can be suitable for multiple cooking recipes, reducing the capital expenditure investment in a traditional kitchen and saving space and investment costs.
  • A less smoky, low-temperature, pressure-free cooking process provides better working conditions for kitchen staff.

In a short period, without any pressure to complete a large amount of high-quality food, experienced chefs and support staff alike can achieve the ideal cooking effect: one that is fast, convenient and safe. Every employee in every kitchen can achieve the same high standards to ensure consistent quality of food

In addition, in the dining service area of the restaurant, the SEEFOOD Smart Cashier, self-service weighing and settlement table, the self-service pickup counter, the WeChat ordering small program and other features are added accordingly. Our clients and customers could expect high-quality food services from Sodexo while enjoying a new digital experience.

In the kitchen area, we are gradually increasing the automatic intelligent equipment, such as combi ovens, auto cooking robots, universal steaming ovens, noodle-cutting robots, fruit-cutting robots, enterprise dishwashing machines, and kitchen waste disposal machines, which can reduce labour cost, improve production efficiency, and save on production and operation costs. Sodexo China’s new catering mode of cooperation with Meican can increase sales through online ordering and offline intelligent self-service; by selling semi-finished products and cooked food through the Meican platform, consumers can pick up the pre-ordered products after the meal to increase the additional income of the operating point during non-business hours.

 

4. Group meal enterprise core competence

Sodexo constantly tries to provide innovative food service solutions from the dining service area to the kitchen, to show the professionalism of its food services to customers and to provide safe and high-quality services. In the Chinese market, Sodexo wins the trust of the majority of clients and customers and bolsters the brand image of the group meal enterprise.

With the support of national strategy for artificial intelligence, big data and other emerging industries, and because of the continuous shifts in consumer demand, I believe that in the development of the group meal industry, the product standardisation, service efficiency and operations datamation will become the three core competencies of domestic group meal enterprises in the future. By incorporating pre-processed food, smart kitchens, O2O (online-to-offline) mode and other aspects, a national strategy will empower group meal enterprises and improve the life quality of clients and customers.

 

Text: Paulo Chen, Head of Food Service Platform in Sodexo Greater China.

About the author

Mr. Chen, who joined Sodexo in April 2019, is now the person in charge of the catering service platform and was the leader of the national expert group of cooking (Western food) project of the 45th World Skills Competition. He was formerly the general manager of National Catering Management of Hema, the general Manager of Metro China catering and service, and a chef at the Park Hyatt Westin Hotel. He received professional Western food training at the Napa Valley Culinary Institute of the United States and was a student of national master Wang Weisheng. Mr. Chen has rich culinary and management experience in the food and beverage industry.