OPINION: Perceptions are everything for caterers in a post-pandemic world

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As venues reopen and public events begin happening again, contract catering businesses will need to enhance already strict hygiene protocols in order to meet the expectations of customers whose perceptions have changed dramatically in the past year, writes David Crowe at Levy UK and Ireland…

The events hospitality sector has a lot to focus on in the response to Covid-19 — from protecting jobs to profitability, culinary innovation to customer experience.

Given the specifics of a pandemic, though, it’s safe to say that hygiene and health and safety considerations are necessarily quite high on the priority list.

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Food businesses and events venues have always been required to maintain exceptional standards, and we are proud that Levy has been awarded a fifth consecutive RoSPA Gold Medal Award for excellence in health and safety.

Even so, in light of the unprecedented situation we currently find ourselves in, a careful review of existing protocols and an evaluation of where enhancements can and should be made is both sensible and necessary as we eye an operational return.

Stepping up to the challenge

The coronavirus crisis has increased focus on both personal hygiene and the broader health and safety standards of business venues — in particular, those that are open to members of the public.

For foodservice businesses, the order of the day has been the enhancement of existing hygiene protocols that were already at a very high standard pre-pandemic.

Strict handwashing, regular sterilisation of work surfaces and periodical deep cleaning were naturally commonplace in the industry, but venues have been focused on how they can elevate things to even more stringent specifications.

That has meant working with suppliers to develop cleaning and sanitising agents, as well as reassessing workspaces to identify high frequency touch points — such as door handles, taps, switches and fridges — and increasing the frequency of cleans in those areas.

Another enhancement is the introduction of fogging and misting equipment, which can be particularly useful for sanitising soft surfaces and furnishings in areas like restaurants or conference event spaces.

Fortunately, the risk of transfer through food of the virus that causes Covid-19 is currently deemed to be low.

Nevertheless, all venues are ensuring that both food preparation and service personnel are equipped with sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), often going beyond disposable gloves and face masks to include visors and other protective coverings for those preparing food for public consumption.

In line with social distancing requirements, all kitchen and service spaces are now being carefully zoned to avoid unnecessary crossover of people, and this often extends to equipment itself — chefs, for example, will have everything they need within reach to limit the need to pass items to each other, further mitigating the risk of any sort of cross-contamination.

Seeing is believing

As venues reopen to the public, measures such as these must not only be implemented, but also be visible to people entering those spaces.

Customers will have high expectations around venue safety and hygiene, and venues must reinforce the safety message by encouraging personnel to be very visible and vocal about it.

That means the sight of servers in bright and colourful PPE and the sound of people emphasising the importance of personal hygiene, alongside increased frequency of cleaning in public areas, increased availability of hand sanitiser and digital signage underlining safety messages and notices.

Venues should be introducing these measures with a long-term view, as expectations around heightened hygiene will continue — in future, when things like chef’s table service can return, it will be important for those chefs to be making a conscious point of announcing that they are leaving the table to wash their hands before serving customers so that people are more aware of the hygiene factor and more comfortable as a result.

Customer perception is vital, and there are certain things that guests will expect to see, particularly in premium hospitality areas — alongside quality food and excellent service, enhanced hygiene will now be front of mind.

Venues will need to ensure hygiene of cutlery and glassware and should not leave items exposed to ambient environments before a customer arrives.

Again, customers will want to see the hygiene protocols that are being introduced — that will likely mean additional wrappings and coverings will be necessary.

Venues will, of course, need to be wary of premium expectations and should look at more durable longer-term solutions, like pouches that can be sterilised and re-used, as these are also eco-friendly.

Communication and change

Accompanying the cleaning and sterilisation of venue spaces, perhaps the critical thing is ensuring excellent and regular communication with the guests that are entering a venue space as well as the team members that are working within it.

It’s vital that they are informed of the steps you have taken as a venue operator to ensure their safety and also what is expected of them in terms of social distancing, personal hygiene and beyond.

It’s also important to bring people along on the journey towards operational return, giving them the opportunity to feed into risk assessments and help shape health and safety policies that they are comfortable with.

This helps people understand the part they play, makes them feel secure and gives them confidence to put theory into practice when inside venue spaces, further increasing the faith of guests that they are in safe hands.

We saw the impact of this during our involvement with the government’s pilot programme of events — providing all employees who served fans with a full briefing and a personal information pack prior to the events ensured they ran smoothly and guests came away feeling safe and happy, which they did.

Food businesses and venues are, and always will be, in the business of delivering exceptional experiences. Beyond the pandemic, operators must realise that ensuring exceptional hygiene, health and safety will become another integral part of that experience.

Already we are seeing a mentality shift amongst customers who are coming to expect enhanced hygiene protocols.

They will notice if things suddenly go missing — and if they don’t spot hand sanitiser as soon as they enter a venue, they may begin to question everything else.

Events venues and hospitality professionals have a huge opportunity to lead the way in the health and hygiene space right across the broader hospitality sector — it’s imperative that we do so if we want to return to where we were as a sector pre-pandemic.

David Crowe is head of safety at Levy UK & Ireland, a leading caterer specialising in the sports and leisure sectors.

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