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ESS is embracing tech to enhance its offer


Taken from an interview in Public Sector Catering – January 2024 issue

The Defence, Marine and Aerospace sector of ESS, part of Compass Group UK & Ireland, supports over 250 military establishments across the UK, from Cornwall to the north of Scotland. These include operational, headquarters and training environments in partnership with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) and other industry providers.

Bob Gray, Managing Director of ESS Defence, Marine & Aerospace, talks below about how the organisation is embracing technology to enhance its foodservice and retail delivery for customers.      

Our Defence clients provide a ‘home from home’ living environment for service personnel and, like many employers, are experiencing increasing pressures around attracting and retaining the best talent in a competitive market. To position themselves as an employer of choice and support ongoing welfare, there is a continual focus on enhancing the lived experience for members of the Armed Forces.

The food we serve is paramount and we have talented culinary and retail teams committed to developing the best offers for our military customers. In our restaurants, we provide innovative dining options designed to meet a variety of tastes, including nutritionally balanced choices, global food concepts, hot and cold deli items, lighter meals, an extensive plant-forward range and dishes for specific dietary needs. In our cafés, bars and stores, we work independently and in partnership with high street brands to offer a selection of hot and cold food and drinks for now and carefully selected food for later and non-food ranges.

The ways that we deliver these offers to our customers is becoming ever more important. In 2020, we introduced the ESS App, a completely bespoke platform which initially provided service information (including menus and allergens), a loyalty scheme and secure integrated cashless payment. 

We’ve built on this and now provide these services across much of our estate, with specially developed menus in some locations.

Around the same time, we opened our first self-service convenience store at RNAS Yeovilton providing customers with high quality hot and cold food and drink options as well as essential non-food items. There are multiple self-service cashless tills and a host to guide and assist customers on the shop floor, which has increased speed of service and mirrors the model customers are used to seeing on the high street.

We’ve subsequently extended the self-service model to create outlets that can operate with hosts during busy periods and be self-serve outside these peak times, with remote technical support. This means they can open for much longer, in many cases 24/7.

We’re using digital signage to enhance the customer journey across our estate. At our two Army EATS sites, Allenby and Kendrew Barracks, we’ve delivered a large-scale renovation and complete rebuild of mess facilities in collaboration with the Army and Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).

In our retail stores, we’ve introduced digital shelf edge labelling which is much easier for our teams to use and enables us to promote value for money options for consumers by presenting high street comparisons at the point of selection.

We’re at the forefront of innovation at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom where we’ve recently opened our first fully frictionless store, giving our customers access to the latest technology being deployed on the high street. The store utilises AI-powered computer vision technology which allows customers to purchase items without having to wait in line or stop to scan or pay. Customers tap a contactless card when entering. Once inside, computer vision cameras anonymously track all purchases and add them to a virtual shopping cart. There is no scanning or queuing to pay, and customers simply leave with their purchases.

The frictionless format is ideally positioned to support out of hours study, research, laboratory and syndicate work and students use the facilities throughout the day and night. Security is obviously critical to our clients, and we worked closely with the establishment and our technology partners throughout the design and build phases to ensure the strict requirements were met.

It’s vital that we also draw on the benefits it can bring in creating environments where our customers want to socialise and build support networks which is a key priority for our Defence clients.

Sustainability is of considerable importance too, so we work with a community sharing app to redistribute surplus good-to-eat packaged food to members of the local community.

With increasing numbers of the UK Armed Forces now falling into generations Y and Z, it’s important that we meet the expectations of these demographics to support our military clients by helping with attraction, retention and increasing job satisfaction. Embracing the latest technology available in our market is enabling us to do this, giving our customers access to great food and drinks where and when they want them, and providing facilities that meet a range of requirements, from a quick visit to an extended stay where they can socialise with colleagues and friends.

We’re embracing this ethos in the wider facilities management space too, with robotic cleaners being introduced across our estate, digital auditing of our services as standard and the recent redesign of our accommodation management system to ensure a better experience for customers.