As the end of the pandemic looms tantalizingly closer, employers have what some analysts are calling a “rare opportunity” to reimagine their F&B (food and beverage) strategy to meet changing workforce needs.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has brought about a major shift in the way employees eat their lunch.

“In a pre-pandemic world, on-site Food and Beverage (F&B) services increasingly drew employees, catering to a 24/7 work ethos and creating moments of organic connection and inspiration. At tech companies, employee-sponsored fresh meals had become the norm rather than a perk,” reads a new report from Newmark.  “Fast forward one year, and every lunch break takes place at the kitchen table. The value of on-site catering has evaporated and with it the companies that provided meals.”

Companies were forced to quickly adapt during the early days of the pandemic. Some moved to individually packaged items for employees, while others transformed on-campus cafes into commissary kitchens or ghost kitchens. And as Zoom fatigue set in, employers began to reconsider their F&B spend.  Now, with the end (presumably) in sight, they’ll be forced to reckon with how to efficiently and economically provide meals while driving worker engagement, Newmark says.

In the near term, companies will be forced to grapple with changes to employee density and potentially hybrid work weeks, which Newmark says will flatten the food demand curve. But the firm also heralds “the notion of alliance opportunities to partner with large-scale enterprises that promote 24/7 work time, all of which will stimulate retailers and the local economy as offices reopen,” the report says. “We are optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and that the new normal promises fresh ideas and adaptations.”

What It Will Look Like

The new environment will likely have more electrical and data drops to incorporate touchless technology, Newmark says. Remote ordering will be possible from phones and kiosks, eliminating physical bottlenecks and crowding in F&B spaces while still allowing employees to gather with one another over meals at work.

Also, guest policies will likely change as employers deal with how to best protect the health and safety of their workforce.

Newmark estimates that about 75% of meals will be cooked-to-ordermuch like a quick-service restaurantwith the remaining 25% as grab-and-go alternatives evenly distributed across offices. 

And gone are the days of the large all-hand cafeteria: the F&B spaces of a post-COVID future will feature more soft seating to allow more informal cross-functional connecting. Former conference rooms may be converted into grab-and-go lunchrooms, while larger companies may consider delivery-to-desk services for their people. Also, single-tenant campuses and buildings may employ food hall concepts and high-end quick-service restaurants to differentiate their properties to tenants and to stimulate nearby retail.

Cost Efficiencies  

These shifts may also filter down to the benefits employees receive, with some companies transitioning from complete to a partial food subsidy for employees, where an employee badge is loaded with a daily food allowance amount that Newmark says will be “use it or lose it.”

Rethinking the previously normal strategyfor some companies at leastof providing unlimited F&B to employees will allow companies to reclaim the impact that subsidy has on their bottom lines: “excess cafes on a campus that turned into ghost kitchens may remain in their new form in the future unless needed to service employee needs,” the report says. “Companies will look for cost efficiencies in labor and generalized costs. Re-entry planning signals a reduction in services, focusing on lunch as the main meal of the day with a light breakfast and no dinner services.”

In short, employees should expect changes when they return to the office, Newmark says. Conversely, “if spaces don’t look, operate and flow differently, employees may return to work with the perception that the environment is unsafe,” the report notes. “Ultimately, this could diminish the productivity and innovation gains that employers achieve through F&B programs.”