As more people return to work after the prolonged Spring Festival break, lunch arrangements have become a tricky issue amid the lingering novel coronavirus epidemic: what to eat, given the paucity of choices? and how to avoid crowds?
Catering companies and service platforms are cashing in on the opportunity by offering tailored lunch combos for enterprise clients who order in bulk and delivering them to their doorsteps.
From Feb 10, fast food giant Yum China, which operates KFC and Pizza Hut, has rolled out a dedicated catering delivery service for corporate clients.
Ordering from a special channel on the brands’ mobile app and proprietary public accounts on WeChat, company staff can choose to place a collective deal and have all meals dispatched together.
Employees whose companies’ human resources departments have applied for a dedicated delivery service can make individual orders and receive the lunchboxes at a designated time and venue.
“Bespoke lunch offerings and delivery are critical as companies restore operations,” said Joey Wat, CEO of Yum China. “We give full play to our expansive store networks to provide convenient and safe lunch choices for those who return to work during the special time.”
The menu includes exclusively one-portion dishes, such as hamburger and coffee, a spaghetti and juice, or pizza, a side dish plus lemon tea. Discounts may apply when deals reach a certain amount.
Joining the league of Yum China are over 2,000 catering enterprises, whose corporate lunch services can be accessed via Meituan, a major on-demand service and food delivery platform.
For participating merchants like local eatery Zhen Gongfu and upscale dining hall Shanghai Min, Meituan has provided perks like online promotions, logistics support, and data-backed recommendations to diners based on their dietary preferences.
Similarly, over 9,000 catering businesses have signed up for the corporate meal delivery initiative on Ele.me, another food delivery platform.
Group meal services enjoyed 10 percent compounded annual growth in the past five years but still claimed a minimal proportion of China’s dining industry, said Chen Ke, senior partner and vice-president of Roland Berger China. “The group meal service is not run by intuition. Its success relies on a mixture of factors including the food category per se, delivery standard, supply chain management, automation level, and even the weight a brand carries,” he said.
The demand side is also critical, Chen said, as not all companies are willing to spare a fixed and fair share of their budget for ordering meals for their employees.
Haosepai, a salad maker in Shenzhen, seemed a perfect fit for the emerging business. Salad makes a good option for healthy takeaways, and it is prudent to change the recipes according to different needs, said founder and CEO Xiao Guoxun.
“For instance, we add more protein-rich ingredients to our boxes for the purpose of immunity enhancement,” said Xiao, whose company offers group meals priced between 20 yuan ($2.85) and 50 yuan per set.
“And most interested clients are those from big and medium-sized technology companies, which have deep pockets and the good sense to provide safe and healthy dining options for employees,” Xiao said.
Some have hopes that group meals could salvage the sluggish out-of-home dining as people are advised to reduce social activities due to the chances of infection.
“Affected by the epidemic, only 300 out of our 800 chains are in operation, with the majority providing only takeaway services,” said Wang Wei, a manager at chicken-themed food stall Laoxiangji.
To this end, the company has changed its portfolio to devise corporate lunchboxes. “Sales are brisk, with revenue across our eight outlets in Shanghai surpassing 10,000 yuan on the first day of the new service. It is definitely a good sign.”
But Chen from Roland Berger remained cautious, citing a highly decentralized group－catering market from both the demand and supply side.
“The variety of Chinese cuisines, varying corporate needs make it difficult to standardize and scale,” Chen said. “The (group dining) business also requires a different set of skills, from menu designs to operation models and even certificate requirements. So it’s really a matter of choice whether or not to join the fray.”