“Digitalization is always a solution.” – In dialogue with Burkart Schmid

He knows community catering inside out. As former editor-in-chief and publisher of gvpraxis for many years, Burkart Schmid is considered an absolute expert in the industry. In this interview, he gives his forecast for the role of digitalization in communal catering in the coming years and reveals interesting insights into the trends in company catering.

Let’s start with a little thought experiment: Imagine you walk into a modern company restaurant in 5 years’ time. What do you encounter there?

I assume that the company we are in now has discovered its company restaurant as an important factor in showing appreciation for its employees and communicating values. So when I go to a company restaurant like this, I want to experience an atmosphere right from the start that makes me think “I want to stay here”.

But is it all that new?

This is important to mention because for decades company restaurants were primarily one thing: hall-like and uncomfortable. This was due to the fact that no great value was placed on the atmosphere and the focus was purely on functionality. In future, it will be more about a feel-good atmosphere, where you can perhaps experience not only gastronomy, but also a co-working feeling. Instead of a large hall, which was optimized for so-called free-flow systems, there will be various room zones and corners where people can spend time throughout the day. This makes the concept suitable for all-day use. It allows you to try out new things that you wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago.

In another interview, you spoke about “emotional enjoyment”. There you also said that the increasingly fast pace of everyday life in particular stands in the way of “enjoyment”.

Do you see digitalization as a problem or a solution?

"Digitalization is always clearly a solution."

Why? Because it certainly promotes personal characteristics and interests and can take preferences into account. Digitalization offers a wide range of possibilities to meet the individual wishes of the guest. That is a comfortable situation. That is a comfortable situation.

Do you see particular potential in certain areas?

I can imagine, for example, that the use of apps for ordering and information will play an increasingly important role. Guests could be alerted to their favorite dishes.
However, this is also linked to the question of whether the entire payment system can be discontinued. The answer is probably yes. I also have great digital options for displaying menus, coordinating orders or providing information about seat occupancy. You can only talk about a “solution” here. I think this is absolutely forward-looking and I think it will certainly make our everyday lives easier.

Our experience has shown that there are mainly two extremes when dealing with digital innovations:

some are enthusiastic from the very first second and others are very difficult to convince of the added value and are fundamentally skeptical.
How do you think the skeptics can be won over?

If you look at the entire history of company catering, the industry has always been quite conservative. It worked on behalf of third parties. The fact that we are now moving forward and talking about new solutions has been caused by Covid. This is an acceleration that many people find overwhelming at first. That’s why it’s important to talk about the benefits of digitalization. And if someone has reservations, these need to be taken seriously. There are also often security concerns when it comes to cash registers. Anyone who has often had nice conversations at staffed checkouts – I was often reminded of my glass of water or a dessert – is probably not the biggest fan of a staffless checkout at first. But when I know what the background and advantages are, I understand the innovation much better.

And what if someone can’t cope with the new features in practice?

Im Bereich der There is a special feature of company catering: guests practically always go to the same place 150 times a year. This means there is a lot of repetition and a long tradition that people get used to. When changes are noticed, whole worlds sometimes collapse. Such defensive attitudes should be taken seriously. Changes must be implemented cautiously and with patience.

On the one hand, guests’ need for individual food preparation is increasing – on the other hand, the need to digitize more and more processes and thus make them more efficient. Do you think these trends could perhaps even benefit from each other? Difficult question.

Difficult question.

"According to a new survey by gvpraxis, front cooking has become much less important because the frequency at the counter is often no longer sufficient."

This type of preparation requires appropriate capacity utilization. This is the only way to ensure that the food is always freshly prepared. Front cooking is no longer the solution, particularly due to the increasing distribution of meals throughout the day and also due to lower guest numbers thanks to working from home. You also need to think about staff deployment. What is important is a healthy diet with the highest level of enjoyment for everyone, which can be selected and configured.

How can operators still bring freshness and individuality to their offerings?

We need to continue to rethink what we offer. This multi-option, where I have 5 dishes with several sides, may no longer be in tune with the times.

"I believe that many people just want something tasty. As simple as possible! With maximum passion and fun. All it takes is one plate dish where I get what I like and I'm happy that I don't have to make a thousand decisions."

Today, online counters are better than one-stop counters that offer guests everything. That’s also part of individualization, that I don’t increase the overall complexity of the offer, but rather reduce it. Digitalization can have a decisive influence here because it simplifies the flow of information and guests can get information in advance. There is no greater benefit for the system and the guest.

But isn’t this acting against the interests of the guest?

Many things that we have considered normal for years are now disappearing. The old idea was “We have something for every guest.” The new idea, on the other hand, is “Offer the guest something that is delicious, regional and sustainable.” Then everyone is happy. You don’t have to cover everything. This also makes more than sense from a sustainability perspective – keyword “food waste”. And basically, the more data available, the better. So, digitalized processes and automation, including AI, are becoming increasingly important.

You mentioned at the beginning that every company restaurant can and must be very different depending on the company. Are there any particular “prime examples” here?

For Hipp in Pfaffenhofen, for example, it was clear very early on: “We want organic.” So they also go organic. This is about credibility, both internally and externally. A striking number of family businesses attach importance to good and affordable food. Boehringer, Fischer, Henkel and Engelbert Strauss come to mind.

Another point in which company catering is to a certain extent dependent on the respective company is the working hours of the workforce. These have also become increasingly flexible since Covid. How do you see the effects here?

Making working hours more flexible ultimately also means making meal times more flexible.

"The more free I am at work, the more it occurs to me to perhaps only grab a snack at 3 pm. The formats also have to adapt to this. The most obvious leap is the development towards automated, unstaffed 24/7 mini markets."

The area of tension in which we now find ourselves lies in the individualization of eating habits and the flexibilization of the working world. We can’t resolve this with a lunch break from 12 noon to 2 pm. It will be exciting to see what ideas are developed. Digitalization is totally important here.

What concepts do you think are promising here?

We are in a phase of increasing dissolution of boundaries, whether in the workplace or in gastronomy, everything is becoming more fluid. I might come into the office and have to check which workstation I’m sitting at today. Then I go to the restaurant and stay there for the next meeting. I experience a smooth transition, which also encourages new concepts such as work coffees with presentation corners, “thinkers’ lines” or creative corners. In between, there are snacks or creative cakes, fitness muesli or wellness food to take away. That’s what makes the new future so exciting. Because many new options that we don’t even know about yet are becoming interesting. And, of course, digital solutions are always a key to marketing success.

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