FIXED-price menus offering a limited choice have increasingly gained favour in restaurants as a reaction to the tough economic climate. Now contract caterer Catering & Allied is seizing on this trend and introducing its version of a restricted, set-price menu at a new contract it begins in the City of London next month.
While fixed-price menus have been operated in various forms by other contract caterers for some time, it is the restricted nature of the new Catering & Allied menus which makes them different.
In the run-up to the contract at solicitors' firm Wilde Sapte, Catering & Allied has been offering limited versions of the planned menu to five or six existing clients in London.
It developed the menus having seen a similar concept operated in various contract catering outlets in Sweden. Every contract the company now tenders for is being offered a short, fixed-price menu, with increased quality and cost cutting benefits cited as reasons for choosing such an option. A recent quote for an 800-cover staff restaurant provided the potential client with an £80,000 saving on the short, fixed-price menu, compared with the traditional menu.
At its prestigious contract at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, where 600 lunches are served daily, a single price is being charged for some main course dishes and accompanying vegetables. For example, a dish of crispy grey mullet with rice noodles, ginger, red peppers and mange tout, is charged at £2.48. As well as cutting down considerably on wastage - the European Bank contract has cut down in this area by 50%, saving nearly £100 a day - it also provides customers with a completely balanced meal.
Catering & Allied's head chef at the European Bank, Sandy Anderson, welcomes the changes and hopes to change completely to a fixed-price, restricted menu system. "It is so much easier to control costings, portions and wastage," he says. "When we offered a wide choice of vegetables, we could have up to 14 dishes of vegetables out on display at one time. There was always a problem keeping it fresh and consequently a great deal of it had to be binned. I thought we might have seen some reservations from customers with the new system, but at the end of the day they are happy to know exactly what they are paying for and not be surprised by hidden extras."
Anderson is particularly keen to see the system applied to the salad bar. Cold dishes such as marinated grilled vegetables in olive oil, smoked chicken, or ham and gruyäre, will probably be plated up into individual bowls. "This prevents the mess that quickly occurs when you have a lot of large bowls of salad which customers help themselves to. It also gives us more control in the amount served to each customer."
The limited introduction of the system has already helped to reduce labour costs. The vegetable and sauce sections in the kitchen have beencombined, and just one, instead oftwo, chefs de partie are employed.The total brigade is now seven forthe main staff restaurant and fivefor the directors' dining room and six private rooms.
While some clients may be sceptical about offering such limited meal choices, Wilde Sapte is eager to try it. The company is not experienced in working with a contract caterer, and that perhaps has made it more open to the idea. At present, Wilde Sapte provides in-house catering for directors and gives luncheon vouchers to other staff. The style of food that Catering & Allied will provide for the 400-500 Wilde Sapte staff will reflect present cooking trends, with the emphasis on simple dishes and fresh ingredients, according to the company's consultant, John Harris, who has been responsible for putting together the concept and devising the menus.
"Our customers want something new and sophisticated and this system provides that," he says. "Employees have become increasingly busy in their jobs and don't want to waste more than a few minutes of their lunch break trying to make a choice from a large menu and then queuing up while the cashier adds up all the individual items. This system speeds both the service of the food and payment at the till."
Harris is adamant that the menus will provide staff with a greater and more balanced choice of menus. He believes the enormous number of menu choices he can provide will maintain the interest of customers and staff alike.
The menu at Wilde Sapte will change daily to offer two soups, two hot main dishes, two salads, one sandwich special and one hot dessert. There is some flexibility: the ingredients used in the salads and sandwich can be used in various combinations to provide a sandwich filling suggested by a customer.
While Harris believes that theWilde Sapte menu is ideal from an operational viewpoint he says that changes can be made to suit clients, maybe an additional hot puddingor the introduction of a couple of cold sweets.
Staff at Wilde Sapte can expect to pay £1.80 for any two courses, a price that will be fixed for one year and which is subsidised by the client. While an extra soup or dessert will probably cost 30p or 40p more, it is yet to be decided what to charge a customer who wants only one course. "We want to encourage everyone to have two courses," says Harris.
The system also provides savings on equipment, with a need for fewer serving counters. This has been useful for Wilde Sapte, where Catering & Allied will be involved from the start of the catering operation. In units choosing to change over from a traditional system of service, there could be a lot of redundant equipment.
With many of Catering & Allied's existing clients showing an interest in the new menus, Harris hopes that they will be adopted by many of the company's existing 100 staff contracts, as well as by new clients.o