For today's City slickers, three-hour lunches washed down with buckets of Champagne are a thing of the past. Busy executives are under pressure from employers, customers and shareholders to cut costs and extravagances, putting food service management companies in the running for business that previously went to high street restaurants and wine bars.
Yet the demands of executive dining are far removed from the typical staff feeding operation. Tableware, style of service and ingredients costs are different. And it is very much a bespoke service, with executives demanding how, what and when they want to be fed.
The traditional "slap-up lunch" is no longer required as the emphasis is now on speed and healthy eating, says Patric Harbour, operations director of Granada's Charters concept. "Senior management are very health-conscious. They usually want just two courses, often using fish or white meat for the main course, and we're rarely asked for alcohol."
And while the midday meal is still the core business, catering for directors and executives can last from breakfast to dinner - sometimes running into the night.
"In some of the law firms and investment banks we provide a 24-hour service. The partners can need our service at any time if there's a big deal going down," says Mike Sunley, director at High Table, whose clients include international law firm Cameron McKenna and management consultants PA Consulting.
The working day in the City is getting longer all the time, agrees Phil Roker, client account executive at Sodexho's Directors Table, whose clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers.
"There is an increasing demand for breakfast meetings, dinners and canapé parties, and we service about 5,000 evening covers per month," he says.
The length of time taken for a meal is changing, too. Roker says that in one of the City banks "everything has to happen within 45 minutes".
While there are niche players specialising in this market, it hasn't stopped the big contractors from offering similar services.
Charters, for example, came out of Sutcliffe Catering in 1989 and now has a client list that includes the London Chamber of Commerce, the BBC and LWT.
"It's not heavily branded," says Harbour. "We have the support of a huge organisation, but we are a niche player and we offer a bespoke service. We can learn from our colleagues in other parts of the business about best practice."
A Charters meal is usually served at the table, often from a butler's kitchen serving the private dining room. Clients may prefer not to be waited on for reasons of confidentiality and so help themselves from a buffet table.
Whether it's self-service or assisted service in a private dining room, executive dining has to be more than a spread of assorted sandwiches - though the distinction is often in the presentation rather than the content, as Sunley confirms.
"You've got to be creative with working lunches for executives. We offer open sandwiches using Asian flavours, and we do things with presentation. You can serve appetisers sushi-style, on an individual tile, for example."
In one City design company, the motto is "anything goes" and so contract caterer Directors Table embraces this by employing a pastry chef to create dishes with visual impact.
One factor helping the contractors in their competition with the high street is that client companies are proud of the office buildings in which they invest so much and which reflect their prestige. Entertaining customers on those premises gives them a chance to show off - and helps them to contain hospitality costs.
At the City offices of Dutch bank ABN Amro, for example, Baxter & Platts operates a 40-seat guest restaurant, which expands to 70 seats in the summer when the terrace is used.
Employees of the bank can book tables to entertain their guests and, while it's less formal than a private dining room, it enables the company to entertain contacts without leaving the atmosphere of the bank.
It operates much like a high-street restaurant, with orders taken at the table from a menu. The difference is that no bill is presented at the end. Instead, the cost of the meal is charged to the appropriate department.
Baxter & Platts' sales & marketing director Clare Parkinson says: "We want to say to our clients, this is the best restaurant in town, but only you and your guests can have access to it."
Supporting this, Baxter & Platts runs a restaurant club which helps its chefs to eat out regularly at the restaurants whose food their clients expect them to emulate. The chefs subscribe a monthly sum and Baxter & Platts picks up the balance of the cost.
City firms that are too small to have their own catering facilities are nevertheless an opportunity, and Roux Fine Dining meets this through a catering concession on the 24th floor of Tower 42 in the City of London - formerly the NatWest Tower.
Called Restaurant 24, it is for the sole use of the businesses based within the building and consists of an 85-seat brasserie and a suite of eight private dining rooms which can accommodate anything from two people to 24 people at tables, and bigger numbers for cocktails. The set menu offers three-course lunch or dinner at £26 a head. Simon Titchener, Compass Services' director for London, who looks after Roux Fine Dining, Leith's and Eurest in the capital, supervises nearly 70 operations in the City and West End, largely corporate hospitality and executive catering.
"Roux Fine Dining was set up by the Roux brothers as an offshoot from La Gavroche for companies that wanted to have La Gavroche in their offices," says Titchener.
For all caterers, the issue of cost-control is just as crucial in executive dining as for mass-market staff feeding.
"We have a little more leeway, but not a lot. Perceived value is the key. If our costs are 30-40% more than our colleagues' in Sutcliffe, that's fine, so long as the value is there, too," says Harbour.
Controlling those costs can be a little more tricky, though, as Parkinson points out. "The budget for operating a restaurant will be based partly on core costs and partly on the number of covers served," she says. "If you exceed the number of covers, it won't be a problem, but if you don't serve the forecast number of covers, there may be a shortfall on the core costs, which the client will have to meet."
This motivates both client and caterer to encourage executives to use the service but the onus, says Parkinson, is ultimately on the caterer: "We'll only ever serve one bad lunch and that's it - if it's for the chairman, we'll be in big trouble."
Contract caterers are reluctant to disclose what they spend on food for fear that competitors will use the information to undercut them. Here are some averages for comparison:
Business and industry staff feeding contract: £1.50 to £2 per person for a two-course meal
Working lunch for executives: £4.50 to £6 per person
Full buffet: £5 to £10 per person
Table service lunch or dinner: £6 to £12 per person
Wine would be extra, but is not often asked for. Contracts are almost invariable cost plus management fee.
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 30 March - 5 April 2000