It's 7am on a rainswept morning, and Ruston Toms, joint managing director of Blue Apple Contract Catering, stands on a street corner observing delivery lorries at Boots the Chemist to see which sandwich suppliers are being used. Research gone mad? Not according to Toms, whose 18-month-old company already has nine contracts and a turnover of £350,000.
"We were pitching for a contract with a high turnover in sandwiches and a very cost -conscious customer. In order to produce the same product at a competitive price, I had to check out the competition. We got the contract and, using the same suppliers, were able to undercut the local store by enough to win over the customers."
Research takes centre stage
While a contract may not be won solely on research, contractors now consider it a vital element of the tendering process. Regardless of size, they all carry out some form of research, from the face-to-face chat with customers to national surveys such as Compass Group's Lunchtime Report.
Toms tailors his research to a particular contract. "You can't apply a formula to contract catering; we use bespoke research and see it as paramount in keeping the individuality of each contract."
He and his team always survey the competition, especially if the client is sited near a town. "One contract was situated within walking distance of a small town with 12 catering outlets in one street, so we wrote down all the prices and based our tariff on this," he reports.
Not all research gives the client what they want to hear, however. One of Toms's clients doubted that breakfast service was viable, but the survey showed that it was used by directors and secretaries when they had early meetings - so it had to stay.
Food service caterer Aramark's research has produced results ranging from supplying mayonnaise sachets to the night shift at a Bristol manufacturing plant to a total refurbishment at top London accountancy firm Arthur Andersen.
"Caterers used to say they were expert at knowing what their customers wanted, but this has changed," says Louise Mountain, Aramark's customer services director. "Customers at one unit used our comments book to ask for more snack items to be provided, when we had always thought the demand was for substantial meals."
Aramark, which has 200 contracts and a turnover of £168m, uses four forms of research: an annual site survey carried out by an independent research company; consumer focus group sessions; a daily review of customer comments; and restaurant profiling, which examines the customers' lifestyles and workplace influences.
Restaurant profiling breaks down customers into four groups: traditionalists (older, blue-collar workers with a strong preference for no-nonsense British food; grazers (the youngest group, keen on convenience food); enthusiasts (open to all kinds of food and variety); and explorers (rejecting tradition in favour of new foods, often health-conscious).
This research was a key influence in the refurbishment of Arthur Andersen's staff restaurant (Caterer, 10 February, page 44). "We found that customers were a mix of traditionalists and grazers, the majority being grazers. This led to us introducing a Best of British brand for the traditionalists and the Go concept for the grazers," explains Mountain. "Results were amazing. Sales went up by 61% and we attracted 36% new customers."
Alan Walker, managing director of the Eaton group, which has 48 contracts and a turnover of £12.4m, starts his research with a close look at potential clients.
"It's essential you know who owns the company, what the catering history is, and any information about the person you're going to see. On these facts we base our offer," he says. "A history of regular changes of caterer or links with any of the catering giants would indicate that we could be wasting our time."
Walker is equally vigilant when retaining a contract: "If the client contact changes, alarm bells ring. New clients often want to make changes and automatically put catering out to tender, so the situation needs careful handling. We look at his or her background, likes and dislikes; we even check their previous company and learn as much as possible about them."
Like his competitors, he researches the market constantly and meets his team monthly to review market movements, trends and company objectives. Customers are surveyed where possible when the contract goes out to tender, and then six months after the contract has been won.
"The results are assessed, passed back to the client, and discussions follow. It was comments on healthy eating that led us to introduce the Eaton Marche theatre, where people can choose their own ingredients and watch them being cooked.
"I consider research very important in our industry. I think it separates the successful companies from the ordinary ones."
Sovereign, with 100 contracts and a turnover of £17m, finds mystery diners a valuable form of research, and uses not only its own personnel but also its customers.
"We like to enlist customers, as they give us a 100% perception. It helps us improve our business and provides feedback for our staff," says managing director Peter Green.
Sovereign operates a quarterly research programme whereby customers are asked a question such as, "Are we friendly?" and are given a disc they can pop into one of four boxes labelled excellent, good, fair or poor. It runs for three days and each day the numbers are analysed.
"Good analysis is the key to continually developing the service. You've got to dig out facts about what people are buying, what they are spending and what percentage use the restaurant," says Green.