Company canteens: From crisis management to flex office

Mass catering with hospital flair - that used to be the image of some company canteens. In the meantime, the trend is moving towards offerings with restaurant character and culinary diversity. And, the corona pandemic has put pressure on many developments.

METRO Kantine am Campus Düsseldorf

For years it buzzed like a beehive from 11 a.m. onwards. However, recent times have brought the occasional eerie silence or sometimes even restrained activity with an underlying sense of alarm: company canteens had to completely rethink their economic and organizational processes in response to the Covid 19 pandemic and falling guest counts. ’The protection of staff and guests was our top priority. Distance regulations, a reduced number of seats and in some cases even admission controls – we took comprehensive precautionary measures, says Gerhard Frauenschuh, head of the canteen at the German engine manufacturer MAN Energy Solutions. ’The corona measures were a real challenge in the otherwise mundane areas of emergency and hygiene management. Here, the small community of canteen managers networked online, offered mutual advice and a strong support network. That was a great relief.’ He has been managing the MAN Energy Solutions canteens at the Hamburg, Berlin, Augsburg, Deggendorf, Oberhausen and Ravensburg sites for around 15 years.

Delivery service and take-away for the flex office

Canteen food in a To Go package

On average, the canteens at MAN Energy Solutions' German sites are now used to running at around 45% capacity. More in summer, less in winter. Following the wave of reduced working hours and working from home, the flex office has become a permanent feature, as it has in many companies with the exception of production facilities, of course. When MAN employees no longer come to the office with the usual regularity, there are also significantly fewer guests in the canteens. Gerhard Frauenschuh already adapted to the first lockdown by launching to-go or take-away meals. ’Fortunately, we had already established a deposit system for tableware.’

In addition to the canteen, the METRO customer operates small shops where guests can get snacks such as sandwiches or milk for their coffee. Sustainability is an important topic: for example, the canteen, which won 3rd place in the METRO Prize for Sustainable Gastronomy in 2020 for its well-thought-out concept, receives a daily message from the HR department specifying how many employees have come to work that day and only caters for that number of people in order to limit excess food production as much as possible. On Fridays, there is the food-saving buffet, another important component of the sustainability concept. Here, the overproduction of the last few days is processed. Frauenschuh: ‘The pandemic and the resulting problems have turned canteen operators into crisis managers. For example, we will increase our storage in the future to guarantee that we have all the food we need, even if there are delivery bottlenecks due to hoarding by customers.’

Reusable cups from the canteen, price € 4
Salad from the canteen in a To Go package

Canteens develop into company restaurants

In addition to the flex office, the pandemic has strengthened another trend: canteen visitors value high-quality food – it should be sustainable, regional and organic. Greater health consciousness coupled with knowledge about healthy nutrition and food production methods has significantly increased the demand for healthy food with lots of vegetables and little meat. Such light, healthy food is not only popular with office workers. Currywurst, schnitzel with chips and gyro plates have remained popular classics. But the motto has become: less is more, and good quality is a must.

While the number of vegetarian dishes was just under 50% before the pandemic, it has since risen to over 60% in some cases, says Frauenschuh. And the guests are also prepared to pay a little bit more for good food with high-quality ingredients. By offering a choice of 3 fixed dishes every day and abandoning standard-size portions (like most modern canteens), they’ve been able to accommodate their customers’ conscious eating habits. Just like in a restaurant, visitors can put together their own meals, depending on their appetite and preferences – an advantage for people with food intolerances or special diets as well.

Gerhard Frauenschuh, Head of Canteens at the German engine manufacturer MAN Energy Solutions
Gerhard Frauenschuh, head of canteens at the German engine manufacturer MAN Energy Solutions.
Gerhard Frauenschuh orders food in the MAN canteen

‘Working in the office has become a happening’

Less like a mess hall, more like a restaurant: canteens are also developing rapidly in terms of space. Instead of a huge dining hall in the classic style, you now find more and more canteens making use of multifunctional spaces that can also be used for events, as flexible meeting corners or for happy hour events.
‘In summer, we have incorporated the outdoor area much more than before and have set up new promotions such as food trucks and small stalls with live cooking. This enables us to invite our guests not only to spend their lunch break with us but also to stay for coffee and a snack, or to hold a meeting here,’ says Frank Damann, head of the METRO canteen in Düsseldorf for the past 3 years. ‘Coming to the office has become a bit of a happening. Meeting up in person in a pleasant atmosphere has become something very special after the long months of working from home.’ In addition to the company canteen, he is also responsible for catering for METRO events as well as for other companies and private events. Cooking courses and events are also part of the service. Recently, a selection of crêpes and waffles have been added to the menu at the METRO Campus canteen. ‘We always try to surprise our guests with something new. As a food wholesaler, we also have the advantage of being at the source: product innovations in the industry land on our plates early.’

Digitalisation in the fast lane


The pandemic has also driven other innovations: Modern digital tools support canteens in all processes, from efficient merchandise management and purchasing to networked equipment in the kitchen. For example, MAN is working on an ordering app including a payment function to connect with guests. It can even help prevent food waste: in the afternoon, the app will advertise discounted food offers to employees in order to eliminate leftovers at the end of the day. In the kitchen, digital assistants can help to alleviate the shortage of skilled workers: networked devices in the canteen kitchen facilitate some steps in the cooking process.

METRO is partly reliant on a delivery service and uses DISH from Hospitality Digital. ‘The solutions are actually tailored to restaurants and cafés, but within 2 weeks the tool was also running at our company. Now METRO employees can view our food offer regardless of their location. And the ordering process works smoothly,‘ says Frank Damann.

What does the canteen of the future look like?

Companies already have ideas on the shelf about how to operate their canteens profitably, even at lower capacity levels. ‘Even before Corona, anyone could come to the METRO canteen to eat, just like in a restaurant,’ says Damann. ‘After the pandemic-related restrictions, that should be possible again.’ The pandemic has led to the emergence of take-away, which introduces a level of flexibility from which both employees and their families can benefit. There are many sensible approaches and the pandemic has set some things in motion that previously only existed as plans. The industry has come together in a major way during the crisis and created a genuine industry network. MAN canteen manager Frauenschuh further notes: ’At first it was all about Corona and how to deal with it, but now more and more other issues are arising and the focus is on future developments.’

© Jan Voth

Further articles