Work-related restaurant visits have long been a significant part of the foodservice industry. According to NPD’s CREST, in 2019, 36% of all restaurant visits in six European countries were associated with work. People enjoyed work lunches with colleagues, had breakfasts on their way to offices, met with business partners for dinner, and, more often, had coffee and snacks at workplace cafeterias. These restaurant visits are often called ‘functional’ because customers simply need to eat during a workday. But many of these work-related meals were put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago. 

Governments were implementing restrictions, and people were working remotely; some were not working at all. Work-related restaurant visits had dropped dramatically and affected the whole European foodservice industry. Our research revealed that between August 2020 and July 2021, the industry lost more than 11 billion work-related visits, representing about half of the losses across Germany, the UK, Spain, France, Italy, and Russia.

As European officials are lifting most COVID-19 restrictions, the industry hopes that people will eventually leave their home offices and return to the office. But here comes a new challenge: the pandemic changed people’s habits and behaviors, which are likely to stick and change the trajectory of foodservice growth for years to come.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimated that more than 20% of the global workforce could work the majority of its time away from the office and be just as effective. NPD research shows that 38% of all employees across the biggest European countries were expecting that they would either work from home after the pandemic or adopt a hybrid system where they are able to work remotely on a part-time basis.

New work habits unlock new opportunities for the foodservice industry. I can think of a few ways to reach consumers who work remotely:

  1. Employees who work from home don’t have enough time to cook a proper lunch for themselves. They are busy with phone calls and video conferences, and don’t give much thought to lunchtime meals. As a result, people often eat non-healthy snacks or the same type of easy-to-make sandwiches. This is an excellent opportunity for foodservice companies. Those operators capable of offering healthy menu items along with convenient delivery options are likely to become “in-home workplace cafeterias.”
  2. Remote workers desperately need places where they can socialize with colleagues, family, and friends. Cafes and coffee bars can become an ideal place for such gatherings. Communal tables, local events, and special menu offerings can help cafes turn into community meeting spaces.
  3. New work behavior requires new workspaces outside people’s homes. Plus, freelancers and project teams need public spaces where they can work and collaborate. This is also an opportunity for some restaurants and hotels to extend their business models to become inviting co-working spaces during specific times of the day (usually when there is low foot traffic). 

Capitalizing on this new work movement may seem challenging, but the restaurant industry should seize the opportunity. The benefits outweigh the risks.