Plastic cafeteria trays and sneeze-guarded salad bars are fast approaching extinction in corporate dining spaces. Thanks to the pandemic, the future of dining at the office could be a mashup of big changes already disrupting commercial restaurants.
Think lunch ordered on a mobile app and brought straight to your desk from the company kitchen. Or ground-floor food halls each with their own order-online kitchens making food for delivery to multiple buildings on the same block. Or high-tech, touchless, grab-and-go options that put healthy meals — not just Doritos and Snickers bars — in a vending machine.
“Is the office cafeteria completely going away? No, it probably isn’t,” said Phil Colicchio, executive managing director with brokerage Cushman & Wakefield who tracks the hospitality and food-service industries. “But is there a way for these operations to be carried out in a more transparent way with a focus on health and safety? Yes.”
Just as the pandemic has disrupted commercial dining dynamics by degrees not seen in decades, similar changes are in the planning stages for the restaurants, cafeterias and other venues that serve food in office buildings and other corporate venues, according to brokers and commercial building design professionals. They add that, while some changes such as floor stickers that encourage social distancing and the use of outdoor tables, are already underway, more shifts are coming with the return of workers.
In place of traditional corporate cafeterias, office workers in coming months face being greeted by a shuffling of trends that preceded the pandemic. Those trends are getting supercharged by the desire to keep contact with surfaces to a minimum and people spaced far apart while putting a premium on food-service convenience.
On-site restaurants and retail stores at office buildings were among the first to shut down last March as the pandemic spurred companies to close operations and send workers home. Work-from-home practices caused foot traffic to disappear at most large office buildings nationwide, and that traffic remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels in many business districts.
When building operators and their corporate tenants decide that enough critical mass has returned to offices to reopen dining facilities, the look of those eateries could be drastically different from early 2020. Some configuration changes are already taking place.
“What you’re seeing in many cases is office operators using more of their outdoor spaces for dining and also collaborating when it’s available," said Taylor Bertrand, associate vice president at office design consulting firm Cultura in San Diego. "For inside spaces, our clients will often remove a portion of their current seating from dining areas to keep people spaced apart.”
Industry trade groups such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association, which focuses on health and safety in corporate settings, have recommended numerous reconfigurations.
Those include reducing on-site restaurant capacity during peak work times or limiting service hours; switching to pickup-only service during certain high-demand periods; and removing hot and cold food bars in favor of items sold or served to customers individually from behind attended counters.
“The changing of food trends from these disruptions is going to be on steroids,” said Garrick Brown, managing director of western region research for brokerage Newmark.
“When and how it happens will all come down to human psychology,” he added. “It’s about when management and workers will actually be comfortable about coming back to the office.”
Physical barriers between dining tables are generally not being used among Cultura’s corporate clients. Instead, many of the corporate operators they work with are directing foot traffic within dining spaces using signs or floor markers, and in some cases taking workers’ temperatures before they enter dining spaces.
As with commercial restaurants, corporate dining spaces are expected to need to remove food, utensils, drinkware and condiments out of communal spaces and replace them with individually packaged items. The hygiene association also recommends spacing out all queues and allowing seating at every other table, or expanding the dining area to include more space.
Changes recommended by industry groups could also mean placing physical barriers between seating. In addition to making sure back-of-house staff is properly equipped with masks and gloves, corporate venue operators may need to devote more front-of-house workers to keeping dining areas clean and limiting the number of people who can sit together at one table.
Like their commercial counterparts, they may need to invest in touchless payment systems and other changes to accommodate the pre-ordering of food through online and mobile-app services for pickup and delivery.
"Grab and go” is expected to replace full service in many office food settings. But some corporate headquarters operators could decide to go the upscale route, deploying labor-intensive services similar to those found at high-end company banquets and brunches.
Colicchio said that could include food stations with workers carving meat or mixing in the customer’s chosen sandwich, omelet or crepe ingredients.
“Maybe you no longer have a salad bar in the middle of the room, but maybe you have something safely behind glass, and there’s an employee there who’s mixing and tossing that salad for you,” Colicchio said.
Food Halls and Ghost Kitchens
The evolution of multi-vendor food halls, with more than 250 now operating nationally and another 250 in the works, could play an important role in how food is served up in corporate settings, particularly in dense urban business districts.
Colicchio said food halls remain a viable concept even during the pandemic, but the 10 or so venues that did shut down during the pandemic were primarily those in urban districts that depended on foot traffic from office workers.
Urban areas hold promise for more food halls as workers return to office settings, but Colicchio said those operators many need to adapt to the speed and convenience now expected of thousands of consumers who became newly accustomed to app-enabled ordering for pickup and delivery during the pandemic.
Newmark’s Brown noted that a food hall set up, for instance, on the ground floor of an office building could significantly boost its financial prospects by adopting the newest technology trends. Vendors who devote space to so-called ghost kitchens, preparing food designed for app-enabled delivery and takeout, could serve not only office tenants in their own building but others in neighboring businesses.
A ghost kitchen could also help a food hall thrive well beyond the 9-to-5 hours of a traditional office building and help vendors become less dependent on the host building’s foot traffic. The food halls themselves could become attractions that help enliven some office neighborhoods, including those that tend to shut down after 5 p.m.
As workers return to offices, Brown envisions existing food delivery companies, such as Uber Eats and Grubhub, ramping up corporate-focused delivery and catering services that had begun to take off before the pandemic. Corporate tabs could bring higher returns per trip for the delivery providers, but such services for large companies are generally on hold as people work from home and avoid large gatherings.
Brown also envisions food deliveries being added to a menu of amenities at coworking facilities, which themselves could see renewed usage in suburban areas as workers itch to get out of the house but still avoid long commutes to urban hubs.
Food as a Perk
Many of these corporate food shifts could be several months away and may depend on the pace of back-to-office work policies and the distribution of coronavirus vaccinations. Some of these changes may involve investments of time and money that multi-tenant building owners and corporate headquarters decision-makers find could be better spent in other areas amid pandemic recovery efforts.
However, Cushman’s Colicchio noted that many large companies, including the Silicon Valley tech giants who hopped up their deluxe dining options in the pre-pandemic years, in part to keep workers on campus throughout the day, still see on-site food service as a key amenity in the ongoing battle to recruit and retain workers as the economy improves.
“On-site dining is still considered an important perk that can help with morale and job retention,” Colicchio said. “These younger millennial workers especially want a variety of quality and healthy and locally sourced foods, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Retail consultant Josh Broehl noted that office building owners are carefully studying what has worked and what hasn’t in the commercial dining world, where operators have keenly honed their technologies toward food pickup and deliveries and, in the process, probably forever raised customer expectations for speed and convenience.
Building owners may take their cues from hotels, universities and hospitals already dealing with safety and sanitation issues while also trying to offer high levels of service without breaking the bank on labor costs.
The future for office buildings likely includes an escalation of dining decentralization trends that already began to surface before the pandemic: more outdoor dining setups; more “grab and go” mini markets but with touchless features; more in-house food ordering and delivery to individual offices; and more high-tech vending machines now capable of offering a variety of hot and cold foods, including healthy items.
Healthy items were favored before the pandemic, especially by younger workers who eat at the office. Companies that shift toward relying more on automatic methods such as vending machines or grab-and-go options instead of more fresh food-focused options such as salad buffets may focus on adding healthier items to the vending and convenience outlets. They could be more likely to attract those workers and carry a greater share of the sales if sit-down dining options are limited.
Broehl said offices could also deploy temporary food versions of the pop-up retail venues that cropped up pre-pandemic. And independent food trucks will continue to be an effective way for property owners to provide a variety of locally sourced meals to multiple parts of an office campus, although truck operators will need to upgrade their configurations and technologies to prevent long waits and ease pickup and deliveries.
“Right now everybody is looking to see how and where exactly the corporate dining room is going to fit in a few months from now,” said Broehl, senior vice president with branding and customer experience consulting firm Big Red Rooster, which is owned by brokerage JLL.
“The building operators are thinking, is it going to be 10% of my business or maybe 20%?” Broehl said. “Everybody is still trying to figure out what that new normal is going to be.”