The supposed end of the currywurst caused a nationwide uproar: When VW switched a large canteen in Wolfsburg to vegetarian options, even ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spoke out in favor of saving the sausage - and coined the term "worker's power bar".
The question of how trend-conscious canteen food should be is not only a topic of conversation at VW. A survey of canteen operators has now shown for the first time that the suspicion that the switch to more vegetarian and vegan dishes is not primarily based on the wishes of the employees is correct. In fact, it is not the employees, but above all the company bosses who are pushing for sustainable offers.
A main reason for the prescribed veggie wave is apparently the work on the company image both internally and externally: "The company values should be reflected on the plate," said Claudia Zilz from the specialist publisher, who carried out the study with the food company Nestlé.
Accordingly, only a good fifth of the canteen operators see sustainability - i.e. primarily vegetarian dishes - as a means of customer loyalty. A good 40 percent, on the other hand, emphasize the image effect.
The operators worked on their ranges, especially during the Corona period. Since then there has often been less choice on the menu. This saves waste and increases efficiency – especially when costs are rising. However, this also means: Since there is a vegetarian or even vegan dish on the menu more and more every day, the selection of meat variants in particular is decreasing.
This does not always meet the taste of the end customer. According to the study, a third of the 276 canteen managers surveyed say that company management demands sustainability the most. Only 28.9 percent see the desire of canteen users as a driver. And the works council, which represents employees and is allowed to have a say in the canteen food, is the main driver in only three percent of the cases.
Switching to vegetarian alternatives is also in the interests of Nestlé, who commissioned the study. The group supplies canteens and other restaurateurs with its professional division - traditionally mainly with sauce powders, stocks and other ingredients to round off a dish.
However, vegetables and meat are not on offer. With its Garden Gourmet meat substitute brand, Nestlé now wants to supply the main ingredient of a dish more frequently in the future - and is therefore pushing the trend towards vegetarian substitute products, also out of self-interest. The study is therefore coming in time for the opening of the Internorga gastro trade fair in Hamburg.
In addition, politics is pressing. The key issues paper of the federal government on the nutrition strategy, which the Minister of Nutrition Cem Özdemir (Greens) was responsible for drafting, provides for public catering to be significantly more sustainable and less meat - i.e. government canteens, daycare catering, hospital and home kitchens. The operators have to react to this with their concepts if they want to keep their orders or win new ones.
This can lead to unrest in the workplace. "For some companies, this is a balancing act," said nutrition trend researcher Hanni Rützer when the study was presented. The change in offer in the canteens is happening very quickly – and is disturbing to people who are used to meat. In the survey, canteen operators reported low acceptance of vegetarian offerings. The best days went with schnitzel and currywurst.
According to the will of the federal government, more organic food and less sugar should be served in day-care centers and canteens. In Berlin, the cabinet approved the cornerstones of Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (Greens) on the food strategy. He strives for healthier meals in factories and hospitals.
It is therefore important for the canteens to avoid "fear of loss", said Rützer. She suggested avoiding terms like "meat-free." Instead, operators should come up with positive labels for plant-based foods.
The stronger alignment of the canteens to the wishes of the company leaders instead of those of the end consumers means that the canteens are now at the forefront of the veggie trend.
Trend researcher Rützer: "You show more guts in the orientation than the rest of the gastronomy." The selection of dishes in the canteens is becoming smaller, but the orientation is clearer - unlike in restaurants, which have to focus solely on customer demand.
However, this does not mean that meat will disappear completely from the canteen. "The currywurst remains, but it is increasingly being offered with a vegetable sausage to choose from," said Zilz. One reason: acceptance of higher prices is low. Although vegetables are usually cheaper than meat, industrial vegetarian meat substitutes are often more expensive.
One thing is clear: in the medium term, the canteens will again meet the taste of the employees. Because older meat lovers are retiring, younger people define themselves more often as vegetarians. This is shown in the survey by comparing the canteens with the canteens of the student unions.
They already see customer loyalty as the most important reason for sustainable offers - before image improvement. Accordingly, almost two thirds of the student unions say that customer requests are the reason for more sustainability. Two thirds see that the students want to eat vegetarian more often in the past two years.
This age group will soon also arrive in companies. Then vegetarian food in the canteen could help attract the scarce young workforce.
In Germany there are around 8,500 canteens with a turnover of 4.4 billion euros in 2022. A fifth of the workforce regularly uses the offer organized by the employer.
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