Canteen's comeback gives food for thought

Canteens used to be dingy, unfriendly places that served up the worst of British food. They were the adult's version of the...

Canteens used to be dingy, unfriendly places that served up the worst of British food. They were the adult's version of the school dining hall, complete with watery soup and stodgy puddings

Roisin Woolnough.

In the past couple of years, however, there has been a renaissance in the corporate dining world and many canteens have been transformed. Some unlucky staff still have to suffer unpalatable food and ugly surroundings - if they are lucky enough to have a canteen, that is - but many can now have a decent lunch in a nice environment without leaving the building.

The food on offer is actually edible and of a greater variety. Some canteens run themed days when they serve food from a particular region or genre. Jansari Hitesh, technology consultant for the supply chain group at Computer Associates, is a big fan of canteens that offer food from around the world. "You have lots of choice in our canteen - Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Scandinavian - it is excellent," he says.

It is not just the canteen food that has gone upmarket either - many offices now provide deli counters where fresh sandwiches can be made up, as well as pre-packaged sandwiches. The fillings themselves have moved on from the standard cheese and pickle fare to more adventurous options that would not look out of place in trendy sandwich chain Pret a Manger.

Some of the credit for this shift goes to the dotcom industry. The archetypal dotcom office boasts at least one trendy eating area, where the plants are real, coffee tastes like coffee and the seats are comfortable. It is all part of the image of a dotcom office, but employers also felt that if staff were required to work long hours in order to kickstart the business, then they needed pleasant surroundings in which to relax.

It is by no means just start-ups that are now providing decent canteens. When people started flocking to new economy companies 18 months ago, many of the more traditional employers felt compelled to improve the working environment of their offices in order to retain staff.

Research indicates that staff are putting in longer hours and many professionals are waiving a proper lunch break, instead grabbing a sandwich and eating it at their desk while carrying on with their work. It is important that anyone who does not have time to take a good break and leave the office can buy what they want in the office instead.

However, some employers do not think their workforce is large enough to warrant a canteen. Ingrid Marson, a Java developer at Carlton Interactive, says there is no central eating area in her building, although there is a kitchen on each floor. "It can be annoying when you have to go outside for lunch," she says. "But there are lots of shops and cafes here and I bring food in some days and use the fridge and microwave in the kitchen."

For Hitesh, much of the appeal of visiting the staff canteen is because it is a relaxing, friendly place for him to mix with colleagues. "The canteen is good because you socialise more and don't think about work during your lunch hour."

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