The chief executive of the firm that provides catering services to Amazon in the UK said the company had “learnt a huge amount” just from working with the online giant during the pandemic.
Noel Mahony, who runs hospitality provider BaxterStorey, outlined what it is like to manage catering facilities for the company, which operates vast fulfilment centres across the UK.
With home delivery and online shopping booming during the crisis, BaxterStorey has had a key role to play feeding the 27,000 staff that work around the clock at Amazon’s sites.
Speaking at last week’s Ceda Virtual Conference, Mr Mahony said: “They are an incredible company, really. I am sure people may have their own opinion, but they have been incredible in terms of their transformation, their ability to pivot really quickly and their digitalisation and the way they work with that. They have been a mainstay right through lockdown.
“We look after two elements of Amazon – we look after multiple distribution centres and, just to give you an idea, a distribution centre within Amazon would make Wembley Stadium look very small and insignificant.
“So these are vast areas that have got large workforces who are working around the clock but who also want to access – and this is really important for Amazon – fresh, nutritious, seasonal meals that will enable them to maintain a healthy lifestyle and indeed to work through the day. That is what we do on their behalf – we look after all these locations throughout the UK and we also look after the two Amazon HQs in London.”
Mr Mahony said that considerable thought is given to the culinary offers available to Amazon workers.
“You could have potentially 800 or 900 people stopping within the space of 45 minutes looking for lunch and choice lunch – this isn’t back to the old canteen, this is really, really healthy product. So we work with Amazon in that regards. We have done things and they have been great to work with. They are very happy for us to test digitalisation as well and if it works then obviously we have the opportunity to [implement that]…”
Pressed on whether developing technology was something that BaxterStorey was doing – especially in light of the news that Amazon has opened its first till-less grocery store in London – Mr Mahony said it was a core focus for the business and agreed that as more consumers become comfortable using apps and technology, it would manifest itself in foodservice transactions.
“What we find now, and I think what we will find in workplaces as we go forward, is people have got very used to doing that. In a way they also feel it is safer in some ways to do that – so maybe that interaction with frontline staff etcetera will be less so. Over a period of time, the ability to do things like click and collect, click and deliver will be and are as important in workplace dining now as they will be into the future.”
Moving onto the subject of city centre workplace dining trends in general, Mr Mahony revealed that prior to Covid, BaxterStorey’s businesses were collectively responsible for serving about half a million people every lunchtime within a couple of square miles of Central London alone.
He said he is concerned about what the landscape will look like once restrictions are over and people are encouraged to return to their workplaces.
“The office business generally in London is incredibly important, not just to us but the whole economy – to wine bars, restaurants, dry cleaners, local shops, to Pret on the high street, or Leon, and all of those things. I think London has got some unique traits. It is historically where a significant amount of business was, PLCs etcetera, but I think secondly it has a localised issue, which is TfL and transport for London – how do you get to and from work? Will it be safe? How will people feel about it?
“Personally I feel that that has been a bit of a political football between the Mayor of London and the UK government. And I think it continues to be – I know it is a real frustration for UKHospitality and it certainly is for our business because I haven’t seen a cohesive plan as yet as to how they intend to get London back operating. And so I think that is absolutely key.”
Outside of London, Mr Mahony said a lot of BaxterStorey’s business remained open.
“We talked about Amazon earlier, but there are lots of other businesses, lots of other distribution businesses, people like BAE and others, that have remained open, they continue to have strong businesses. When you come into London and some of the other city centres, that’s where it falls apart and what we are now seeing right now is a number of conversations.”
Mr Mahony admitted that he doesn’t think things will ever go back to the way they were before, but predicts the emergence of a more hybrid working model, where people perhaps work in the office for three days a week.
“We have got some clients who for those people who travel in from outside are talking about maybe staying overnight in pods. They will transform and reimagine their workplaces, where they will have pods on certain floors. Those people will work potentially longer days on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and then have Monday and Friday off so they only travel twice. They travel in on a Tuesday and back on a Thursday.”
Will that lead to BaxterStorey having to move into new dayparts?
“Absolutely, so now it is about how can we provide those services which are less focused around the traditional dayparts of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and more around other dayparts right throughout – an all-day service – where if you decide to travel in for work at 11am because you are going to work until 9pm, the expectation is for you is that you will want the ability to eat in the workplace during that time. And I am not talking about going to a vending machine, although vending will play an important part in that as well. It is going to transform and change without doubt.”