UK care home operators are taking food provision seriously as competition in the market grows and the expectations of residents increase. FEJ looks at what this all means for catering equipment purchasing.
Britain’s £10 billion-plus care home industry is tipped to grow rapidly over the coming years thanks to an ageing population and investment in new developments, particularly from the private residential sector. There are thought to be around 18,000 care homes in the UK but one study suggests that number might need to double over the next 20 years as the number of people aged 85 or over increases.
This demand will not only put pressure on room allocation, but also on the often limited catering provisions traditionally found in care home environments. An almost 24-hour demand for catering and foodservice ensures that equipment must be simple to use with just minimal training and be capable of providing a varied food and beverage menu that includes nutritious hot and cold meals throughout the day.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that catering equipment manufacturers are seeing their links to this sector deepen. Williams Refrigeration is just one brand that has noticed buyers’ appetite for professional equipment as the market has evolved.
“It is a sector that is seeing general growth with the emergence of larger groups rather than independents and family-run businesses,” says sales and marketing director Malcolm Harling. “As a result, full commercial kitchens have been developed rather than the semi-domestic ones seen in the past.”
Falcon Foodservice Equipment, a sister company of Williams under the AFE Group umbrella, has also observed a change in the way that care homes are procuring equipment. Steve Stenhouse, marketing communications manager at the brand, says: “The trends we’ve certainly noticed coming through are the desire for more energy equipment and equipment with smaller footprints but still with the same or better productivity. This is why we have seen sales of our 6 and 10 grid slimline combis, electric fryers and induction ranges soar in this sector.”
Gareth Newton, managing director of BGL Rieber, a supplier of food transport systems and hostess equipment to the care home sector, says that while there will always be a budget constraint, customers like to “buy once and get it right”.
He adds: “The market has evolved from being predominantly local authority-based into a sector where the residents themselves or their families increasingly choose the most appropriate care, nursing or sheltered homes. Quality of accommodation, care and catering is therefore much more important to a discerning clientele.”
Care homes often like to use a one-stop-shop arrangement for their procurement. In addition, we’ve started to see a growing interest in lease rental options”
Due to the vulnerability of residents within the care sector and specific food safety and hygiene requirements, any kit procured by this market must meet strict guidelines around temperature, storage and sanitisation.
Mark Hogan, marketing and sales manager at FEM, thinks the industry will see an increase in demand for products specifically designed for the individual needs of the care home sector, particularly in terms of improving food quality, service and presentation.
This will continue to grow with more focus on room-service style meals, he says. “On the whole caterers are looking for equipment that enhances meal presentation, while maintaining quality and safe serving temperatures. Caterers are looking for ways to reduce waste and increase patient satisfaction. Allergen safety is a major focus, with caterers looking at ways to raise staff awareness and implement procedures to minimise the chance of allergens reaching diners with food allergies.”
As Williams’ Harling notes, care home patients will also inevitably have a variety of different dietary requirements, often as a result of health conditions such as dysphagia and dementia. “This has led to different approaches in the preparation of food and how it is served. It has also meant that care homes need to develop the flexibility to offer meals at any time of the day,” he says, adding that this has directly led to an increase in the preparation of cook-chill meals for regeneration.
Hobart has been a significant player in the care home sector for many years. Government account manager, Roger Kellow, is in no doubt that the market is moving at a steady pace.
“The demands of the service users are mirroring the changes and evolution that is present in the wider hospitality industry and we predict they will continue to do so,” he says. “Care homes often like to use a one-stop-shop arrangement for their procurement and, of course, longevity and reliability are high on the list of priorities. In addition, we’ve started to see a growing interest in lease rental options.”
Although care home operators have had to contend with the challenge of absorbing costs in the face of limited public funding, there is a realisation throughout the sector that an effective catering model needs to be at the heart of every set-up. Subsequently, attitudes towards new equipment are changing.
“We’re increasingly seeing care homes seek equipment which is not only capable of consistently delivering a large number of covers, but is also designed with the quality and variety of dishes in mind,” says Stuart Flint, regional training and development manager at Electrolux Professional.
“Pieces of kit such as combi ovens can provide this reliability while delivering a whole host of different foods, thanks to their various programmable features and multi-functionality. For care home kitchens especially, which need to evolve throughout a day of service, combis can be extremely useful and offer versatility while economising on footprint. Likewise, nutrition is often foremost in the mind of managers purchasing new equipment, and manufacturers are consistently working to help care homes to produce tasty food which retains its goodness.”
Falcon’s Steve Stenhouse agrees that combis are becoming a staple part of care home kitchens. “Probe cooking in combis is certainly a great way of securing the correct core temperature of food cooked, ensuring products that have gone through the food danger zone. This is very important when cooking for the elderly to avoid any risk of food poisoning. Combis also give the opportunity to bulk cook or do smaller batches depending on menus or number of clients in the care establishment.”
Reliability, consistency and versatility are key buying criteria for a market sector that now has to produce large numbers of highly nutritious, fresh and varied meals, to set timeframes, multiple times a day. But equally, suppliers have to recognise that each home will have its own preferred strategy and cost model. While independents have traditionally held a shorter term view on equipment due to a focus on price, group-led enterprises are deemed more likely to contemplate the longevity and sustainability of products.
“The needs of different care home businesses around the UK vary dramatically depending on available budgets, size and demand,” acknowledges Jon Usher, head of UK sales and marketing at GDPA, the manufacturer of Burco and Lec Commercial appliances.
“With funding being cut in the public sector and those within the private sector having to stretch budgets to meet an increased demand for services, the call is growing ever stronger for manufacturers to produce affordable equipment that is not only reliable but also multifunctional and versatile. With some of the larger homes outsourcing their catering to specialist contract caterers and the smaller homes trying to make the most of limited catering facilities, it is down to the supply chain to respond by coming up with the demand for ever-more improved products.”
Vim Hariani, public sector sales manager at Foster Refrigerator, says that kitchen equipment in a care home has to be reliable and efficient given that care homes are serving three meals to each resident a day, seven days a week.
“This is also important in terms of return on investment,” he comments. “Care homes are often independently run, with NHS contracts to provide care for residents, and as such are not high-profit businesses. Owner-operators need to ensure the equipment they buy will last, and that there is enough cold storage to suit their current and future business needs.”
The same goes for warewashing, where the volume and turnover of cutlery, plates and cups calls for equipment that is up to the task of 24-hour operation. “The key influencing factor in the decision to purchase warewashing equipment for care homes is equipment reliability and rapid service response with a guarantee that the machine will be repaired on the first visit,” says Bill Downie, managing director of Meiko UK.
“Many chains in the past operated with dishwashing machines from a mix of manufacturers. Consequently, this has enabled them to compare reliability, quality and service response between the brands and, most importantly, has enabled them to get a handle on the true financial ownership cost of the machine over the longer term. When considering the purchase of a machine or a brand, it is crucial to ascertain the estimated lifetime cost of the product using information obtained from the various manufacturers being considered,” he comments.
With some of the larger homes outsourcing their catering to specialist contract caterers and the smaller homes trying to make the most of limited catering facilities, it is down to the supply chain to respond by coming up with the demand for ever-more improved products”
Hygiene security and safety is naturally an important consideration when evaluating the purchase of a dishwashing machine for a care home, too. “We offer a range of machines that operate to the Ao30 level of thermal disinfection that wash at a higher temperature of 74°C and rinse at 83°C,” says Downie. In this scenario, the throughput of these thermal disinfection machines is reduced from the normal 40/60 racks an hour of a standard machine, to a lowered 13 racks an hour.
It is not only the quality of equipment that has to be up to scratch these days, but the technical service support, too. Steve Elliott, MD of Serviceline, says: “Certain equipment is more critical than in other sectors, such as liquidisers and blenders. Most are now using commercial equipment, and operating seven days with full capacity, so they fit with other sectors where every day is critical, and need their kitchen working all the time. It’s essential that all our staff recognise these differences and respond accordingly, particularly where a smaller home may not have additional resources to use when something critical isn’t working.”
The increasing number of multiple care home operators and a trend to outsource facilities management to dedicated specialists has required suppliers of kitchen maintenance services to offer more comprehensive levels of service, continues Elliott.
“This includes, for example, providing a single contact point and person-to-person service, combining kitchen and refrigeration maintenance in one service call and, perhaps most importantly, online management reporting, which allows the operator or FM provider to easily track the equipment portfolio across the estate.”
Just as demographics have changed, so too have the catering equipment requirements of the care home sector. And with food quality, flavour and nutrition rising to the top of the agenda, kitchens are central to the whole operation.