Roundtable: Catering en masse

Trends and visions for the large-scale catering sector

Trends and visions for the large-scale catering sector.
Trends and visions for the large-scale catering sector.

Industry Experts

Robert Mizrahi
senior business development manager, Food Point & Linencraft, Emirates Flight Catering

Colin Campbell
Corporate Chef, Abela & Co.

Harald Oberender
Director of kitchens - event and hospitality services, Dubai World Trade Centre

Mohammad Khalid Saeed
Food Health Inspection Officer, food inspection section, Food Control Department, Dubai Municipality

Peter Kanneth George
Sales & Marketing Director, Diversey Gulf

Samer Sabbagh
Food and Beverage Manager, Emirates Flight Catering

Sudhanshu Sehgal
Chief Human Resources Officer, Accuro Middle East

Jamie Ferguson
Regional Manager Middle East North Africa, Meat & Livestock Australia

Mohammed Naveed Ahmed
Sales Manager, IFFCO

Craig Finney
Head of Sales Foodservice – UAE, IFFCO

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Experts in the business of large-scale catering discuss the current industry trends and visions for the future, and how technology helps the sector

Events’ catering is a whole other ball-game for the industry. Creating and serving food for hundreds, or even thousands, of people, and sometimes not in your kitchen can be a hectic life for some. Caterer Middle East gathers together experts in the industry and quizzes them about what they do and how, and finds out what are the major concerns in the sector.

Can we get an idea of the scale of work you do?
Robert Mizrahi, senior business development manager Food Point & Linencraft, Emirates Flight Catering: In terms of size, we are currently producing in the region of a 150,000 meal equivalents per day.

Colin Campbell, corporate chef, Abela & Co: We have three major production kitchens, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and recently opened one commissioning in Fujairah. Our total meal production is about 120,000 per day.

Harald Oberender, director of kitchens — event and hospitality services, Dubai World Trade Centre: We handle large events or catering, which includes royal weddings anywhere in the UAE. In exhibitions, you’re talking about two million covers per year. Currently we have 158 on the chef team, and roughly another 100 with stewarding. Altogether in hospitality, our team has over 800 members.

Samer Sabbagh, food and beverage manager, Emirates Flight Catering: At the moment we are doing about 160,000-170,000 meals a day. Plus we do the catering for the lounges — the first class and business class lounges for Emirates and other airlines as well. We also recently launched Food Craft to carry out corporate events; we used to do Dubai Air Show, Jazz Festival, and tennis tournaments.

Sudhanshu Sehgal, chief human resources Officer, Accuro Middle East: We have about 25 hospitals we cater to, including the largest government hospital. We also have a joint venture with the Varkey group for catering to all the GEMS schools so we feed about 25,000 kids a day.

Mohammed Naveed Ahmed, sales manager, IFFCO: We are the solution partner for most of the departments here — Accuro, Abela, and Emirates Flight Catering.

Craig Finney, head of sales foodservice – UAE, IFFCO: We’re a UAE-based organisation that pulls high quality ingredients from around the world and then manufactures them in the local area so you get the benefit of both worlds — high quality ingredients but also local service and low cost in a factory.

Okay, let’s talk about outsourcing staff catering and why that’s a trend now?
RM: When Food Point was started as a manufacturing facility about eight years ago, one of the strategic decisions which was taken at the time was not to do the catering in-house; we did that through Abela.

At that time, it was decided it would be better for Food Point to focus on its core activities therefore sub-contract or outsource the staff catering to one of the most reputable catering companies in Dubai.

CC: If you’re in the business of hotels where F&B outlets are geared towards servicing their guests, one of the common threads is that they are actively engaged in the business of making food ‘high-end’. To be quite blunt, the staff is not eating from its steak, they’re not eating American prime meat.

The point is to outsource to someone whose area of expertise or specialisation is, in terms of scale of economy, to pay significantly lesser than what a hotel would pay for it. It makes economic sense, it frees up the hotel and the chefs to do what it is that they do, which is cook five-star food for five-star clients.

Mohammad Khalid Saeed, food health inspection officer, food inspection section, Food Control Department, Dubai Municipality: What we have observed after doing inspections, especially in hotels, hospitals and schools, is that once the food or the kitchen is outsourced, the food safety standards are better. The reason being perhaps that the hotel kitchens are not designed for mass catering.

How flexible can events or mass catering be, especially if you’re doing them regularly?
HO: You just put the finger on the point, so to say. We need to keep our daily production efficient while being flexible, and handle events like a royal wedding in Abu Dhabi and the next day work on GITEX.

So our key is having quality outsourced partners. You are limited with your production facility to a certain extent, because there is only so much you can do in one particular location. It is a totally different ballgame so you have to very carefully consider what’s on the market at the moment.

SSa: We have our kitchen — next to the airport — where we can produce the raw material. Plus if we have to, we can do a side kitchen. We have done a lot of side kitchens but we have finished food mainly on-site.

Production capacity we can have as much as we want. In terms of staff members, I can take them from the airport — as much as up to 200-250 well-trained service staff as well as up to 230 high-loaders. The main thing is to have the right equipment in-house. If you have that, it’s not much of a challenge.

What if you don’t have your own kitchen or can’t work in it? How does that experience differ?
SSe: We primarily work in client kitchens. Because in most hospitals, because of hygiene and safety, they naturally wouldn’t outsource into a place where food production takes place in a central processing unit, 20 or 40kms away.

Freshness of product is of primary concern there and the hospital management is more comfortable with food that can be produced in their kitchen under supervision.

The Dubai Municipality has a very rigorous programme of visiting most of these kitchens. Most facilities of the client do conform to the standards laid down in local legislation, or else they won’t be in business.

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How do you work around the issue of cooking on one site, transporting it to another, and then re-heating it?
SSa: You have to build up your menu where you’re not going to cook it on-site. You have special combi-ovens; so you cook it in your kitchen and blast chill it so the temperature goes down to below five degrees in 30 minutes.

Then you transport it in insulated boxes in high-loaders and then reheat on-site. There is also another challenge here: the combi-ovens are computerised so moving these to remote areas could damage them. You have to think of how easy it is to transport the ovens on-site.

CC: And in terms of checking the menu items, we also submit the menu to the HR departments of the client. They normally have a food relation committee which is taken up from various departments of the hotel, so they meet once a month and give me feedback on what’s popular.

What involvement do local organisations like municipalities have with events catering?
MKS: Our procedure is that for any big event, if it has more than 500 people they need to inform us prior to the event. In case of outdoor events, for any more than 200 people we have a special form to fill with details such as what is the menu, what are the risks associated and what are the controls they will be putting in place.

What we recommend to them is to minimise outside operation. We also have a team of around five or six members to check that the catering company or the hotel is complying with our regulations, and whether they are doing what they said they would on the form.

What is the regulation in terms of wasted food and what you are allowed to do with it?
MKS: The regulation is two hours for hot food or four hours for cold food. We have taken an initiative and approved three charities, where if the event is big and the chances of wastage is there, the approved charities collect the food in their vehicle and serve to people in Sonapur.

Only approved companies with the required facilities and trained staff are allowed to do this — their vehicle has to have hot-holding and freezing facilities. We recover the food, segregate it; perishable or high risk food we throw, but low-risk food we distribute to needy people.

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What about technology in the mass catering industry — how does that help?
SSa: There a lot of companies that have come up with new ideas. Some companies have developed a device which reheats the food in the trolley itself. And it is divided into cold and hot compartments.

CC: Technology is a wonderful thing. While you can go to any supplier, most in Dubai carry catalogues and you pay the money and they bring the product in. That’s the reality. If you take the traditional mode of transporting food — an insulator which neither heats nor cools — you don’t plug it in.

If you pay AED 900-1000 ($245-275) for one and if you have 1500 of them you need to upgrade those to electrically operated ones. That will cost around AED 4.5mn ($1.23mn) and someone has to pay for that. It comes at a cost and when you start factoring that in, it becomes exponential and unrealistic.

SSa: A challenge for remote areas when planning an event is also planning the power. We need to send the list of equipment and send the power requirements of each. We have had some locations where we were told there was not enough power, so we had to completely change the menu. We had for example, live cooking pasta stations like Blanco and there was no space for them. We had to shift it to the main kitchen, re-heat, and then send it to the site.

Does mass catering stick to the basics, or do you follow food trends or look at seasonal ingredients?
SSa: It goes back to the client requirements, or the nationality of the guests. You don’t have much limitation in terms of menu, except when it comes to picking foods that best suit the venue. And everything should be within the budget.

CC: But you have huge ends of that spectrum in terms of mass catering. When it comes for catering to labourers, what we pay for three meals a day, you couldn’t buy a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. It’s less than AED 10 a day for three meals.

There it’s all cost so the ingredient is actually driven by cost. There is no fancy schmancy, it’s absolutely to the bone — rice, dal, vegetable, bread. The expectation is that they should consume 3000-3500 calories a day. And then there’s the top end of catering where people are prepared to pay AED 250-300 ($68-82) per head.

Who takes responsibility for any hygiene concerns, and what happens in extreme cases of food poisoning?
MKS: All the hospitals and clinics are linked to the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) so when a case of food poisoning comes in, we are informed as well. Once we receive a notification from DHA, we have a team which interviews the patients and physically goes to the premises in question and checks the facility, the hygienic conditions, identifies the organism, and then identifies the food.

We find the links of a chain and find out who is responsible. While investigating, the team takes three to five days worth of information about where they had food, because it’s not always the case that the last thing they ate was the culprit.

SSa: We have a huge food safety department and it’s very, very strict. You have to look at the symptoms because the incubation period can be, as he said, five days. It’s definitely complicated.

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So what the reasons people fall ill?
MKS: There are different reasons. We had three outbreaks in the last one or two years. Two of them were because of uncooked egg –based products. The third issue was sanitisation of utensils — that particular outlet used the same plate for meat and vegetables.

SSa: There was once an outbreak in a hotel where the cause was the parsley from the tabbouleh — it had been treated with grey water from its country of origin.

Hygiene is a massive concern?
Peter Kanneth George, sales & marketing director, Diversey Gulf: When it comes to spending on hygiene products, technology plays a big role. We bring in concentrated products to reduce costs; it used to be that previously you needed two products to clean and sanitise. We brought in a single product to do both the jobs. Productivity increases and cost comes down.

Technology is playing a big role in this industry. Training is key — it is not about the product or the system but standard operating procedures to be followed. We go and train the staff; we have a consultancy division where we train on food safety and handling, and support the industry.

What about food quality?
SSa: We have recently found traces of salmonella in chicken pieces from a big supplier in the States, and even though it’s a big company, I don’t know what their source is. Ok you want to go cheaper for the staff catering, but what about health? You can imagine the impact if you lose your workforce. Companies have to think of that as well.

RM: if somebody gets sick then the trickledown effect in terms of HR, replacement, lack of production add up dramatically. The economic cost of health and safety is a factor.

Jamie Ferguson, regional manager Middle East North Africa, Meat & Livestock Australia: We export to more than a 100 countries and we have got to do a good job. Quality, price, and yield is important. We’re seeing centralised packing units, so they’re taking butchers out of retail.

It’s all about specification on trim standards and on quality. On the food safety side, we have compulsory HACCP on everything exported to Dubai. So from a cut you can trace it back to the farming family if you had to. And we have such good traceability because we cannot afford disease outbreak.

So if it happened, that there’s a problem, we can trace the cut back to the abattoir and shut that region down and our country can keep exporting. When people are ready to pay for that extra peace of mind, that’s where we come in.

RM: Awareness of health and safety is on the increase. We feel more and more in the market and various customer profiles that more are concerned about health and safety.

MKS: We have issued a food code in 2013 relating to every issue giving the industry clear guidelines [on this front]. We are also asking the industry to give us feedback so every year we can review that code. Before we lacked clear-cut guidelines and now we have those.

PKG: The major challenge is that there’s a lot of focus on hospitality and there’s no organisation that can discuss large-scale catering issues. All the suppliers and stakeholders need to work together to cater to everyone’s requirements.

RM: It’s not just about cutting cost, it’s about value integration and how you can get your suppliers into your production value chain to reduce your costs.

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