"If they ask us, we can serve fresh prawns daily. No problem. But for seven euros a patient's full board or three euros for a school menu..." A senior executive in the catering sector in Spain sums up the certain bad press of a kitchen that will never appear in the Michelin guide but to which more and more Spaniards are heading: schools, prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, large companies, often in industrial estates and with working hours that have sacrificed maximum time for lunch...
Ladies and gentlemen: the gastronomy of the tray.
The times drive the catering industry whose turnover reached 2,920 million euros in 2021, an increase of 14.7%. Every day, two million meals are served in Spain, one of the countries that ages the most in Europe (9.5 million citizens are over 65, one in five, one in four in 2035, according to the projection of the INE ).
The conclusion is sung: today's gourmets and gourmands will be tomorrow's catering consumers –see hospitals and residences for the elderly–. Goodbye discussions about textures and chronicles about this or that chef. Everything will be a “this is what it is”. Nobody, however, seems very interested in the debate from the gastronomic or social or hedonistic point of view (where is the pleasure?).
Battle catering –daily– reflects economic and social transformations. "Paella? It's worth nothing. And the Roman hake is frozen", are the type of common phrases among some of the 400,000 residents in Spanish nursing homes when referring to the food they are served, without taking into account, sometimes, that their state of health does not allow them to continue with the dishes of a lifetime that they loved to eat or cook so much – in the residences, the women are the overwhelming majority, many former housewives, who were, in general, excellent cooks with judgment and knowledge of quality and freshness of the products.
“The cost of full board in residences and hospitals per person per day is around seven euros (1 euro for breakfast, 2.6 for lunch, 70 cents for a snack and 2.4 for dinner). It must be clarified that the centers provide the facilities, the electricity and water costs. We, the kitchen staff. There are very few schools left that have their own kitchen staff,” says the source, who prefers not to identify himself to express himself more frankly. We will always have macaroni or casserole noodles, two college classics.
The sector grows and the more it grows, the greater the concentration. The market leader is Serunión, with 21,000 employees, founded 30 years ago - as a result of a merger of five companies - and integrated into the French group Elior, the second in the world in catering. It is followed by Mediterranean Catering, with 8,000 workers and 1,100 work points where they serve 250,000 meals a day.
Everything favors concentration: can a small company acquire the raw material at the same price? Impossible. “In terms of prices and investment, the big companies are unbeatable. And they can better cope with a drama that little ones have: getting by when a cook gets sick or changes jobs. You cannot stop serving what was agreed for a single day. Undoubtedly, we make a more home-cooked meal but... you hear more and more the same phrase from those who decide to hire: 'we want a price. The price is decisive'”, says David Prats, owner of catering Plats Prats S.L., founded in 2003, which serves two nursing homes in Barcelona, managed by nuns, with around 130 residents, and also owner of the successful restaurant Disbauxa, in the neighborhood Barcelona from Gràcia.
Beating offers of seven euros per person per day is almost impossible. "We, as I have already commented, could provide better quality, better products, but the margins are very tight. In addition, food inflation is much higher than that of the CPI, the index applied by administrations to update contracts. In the medium term, it is a pity that greater public spending on food for schoolchildren, the sick or the elderly is not considered to improve health and reduce the consequent health spending. But...", points out the senior executive of one of the five big ones (five companies that cover 48.2% of the market, an upward percentage).
“Food service awards were a very notorious and widespread source of corruption and commissions until a few years ago. Recruitment processes have improved a lot in this regard” points out another executive from the sector who prefers not to be quoted.
Paradoxically, this greater transparency goes against the offers of higher quality –and higher rates–. “Officials or professionals who make decisions are terrified of arousing suspicions of favoritism, prevarication or, directly, corruption. What is the best to avoid mess? Deciding on the lowest offer...", says the aforementioned senior executive.
The pandemic has also harmed the possibility that in residences and hospitals the budget for the four 'trays' will improve. The assistance section –residents tend to be increasingly dependent– has increased in budget and personnel. Improving nutrition is not on the table...
“Many hygiene has also improved over the years. The standards are very demanding and there are hardly any collective food poisonings, something that was not so uncommon in the 20th century”, estimates David Prats. Another factor that favors the big companies even though the result is a rather tasteless cuisine, simply edible and very crushed. They have impeccable chains, they are demanding with traceability and, finally, they have more resources for research and another of the great challenges of catering: every day there are more allergies, intolerances and religious or vegetarian criteria. It is a question, it should be remembered, of serving very special "customers" because they are either in the growth phase or in a very delicate state of health. The counterpart is that they complain little and if they do, they find little social support.
“We are capable of serving 40 different diets in a hospital. We work hand in hand with the client and we always give what they ask of us. In fact, nutritionists have a very large weight in the company. How many? About three hundred”, says the senior executive.
Schools are another “classic” in the catering sector. The service is simpler and is usually limited to lunch. Companies bill between 3 and 5 euros per child. "What they end up charging parents is no longer our thing, but the center's," argues the sector. For many children, it is the most complete and appropriate meal of the day...
“We are interested in the debate because we believe that even with very low costs, food in hospitals, schools or residences can improve. Food culture is not just about money. More and more people eat from catering. As a society we are not aware of the importance of the fact and that we are a hyper-aged country. And you can't stop pampering and feeding the elderly who have fed us so far. And so well”, estimates Toni Massanés, director of the Alicia Foundation.