ESS Delivers Cutting Edge Catering to Britain's Service Personnel

12 January 2024

Put the words 'military' and 'technology' together and you might well have visions of drones and robot soldiers come to mind. ESS, though, is investing heavily in technology to improve the 'lived experience for Britain's service personnel and Bob Gray, managing director of ESS Defence, Marine & Aerospace, talks about how this is happening. 

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. As a collaborative foodservice and FM partner, ESS plays a key role in this by providing:

  • Contemporary food concepts and delivery styles that mirror the high street.
  • Service availability that is reflective of modern lifestyles.
  • Quick service times to align with the tempo on military sites.
  • Offers and formats that support social interaction.

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.

Within these sites we support many military and civilian personnel. Site populations differ substantially across the estate, but to give an idea there are more than 3,000+ personnel based at some of our larger sites.

ESS delivers catering, retail, leisure, cleaning, waste management, laundry, tailoring, administration and stores management alongside a variety of other FM services. 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. As well as deploying friendly colleagues to provide a warm and welcoming atmosphere, scaling the benefits of the latest technology is now an essential part of our service. We’re on an exciting journey with our clients in this space!


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. During the pandemic, customers’ needs and expectations shifted, and we added click & collect and click & deliver services to support social distancing. 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. Examples include:

  • The Radio School Café at RAF Cosford – Here we undertook the refurbishment of an existing café, introducing an extended product range and self-service cashless tills with a host at peak times. This has improved customer flow in a facility that experiences significant peaks when students undertaking training leave classes for short breaks and enabled extended opening for those wanting to work longer and still have access to great food and drinks.
  • The Community Store at MOD Abbey Wood – Here we have introduced a new self-service convenience outlet which stocks food and drinks for now as well as ingredients and meal options for later. The range has been designed to meet the needs of customers who don’t want to leave the site to purchase basic provisions and the self-service infrastructure supports extended opening hours for those working early or late.

We’re using digital signage to enhance the customer journey across our estate. At our two Army EATS [i] 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). The facilities incorporate extensive digital screen media throughout, including above serving stations to make it easy to identify the options available. 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. A receipt is delivered to their phone moments later. Facial recognition or biometrics are not needed, so privacy and security are assured.

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.

As ESS Defence, Marine & Aerospace forms part of a wider community of Compass teams delivering market-leading services to Armed Forces around the world. We also draw significantly on cross-sector knowledge, data and insight from our colleagues both in the UK and globally.

I have talked a lot about using technology to support service availability and speed, but 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. Digital screen media gives our outlets a contemporary look and feel and, coupled with great food and drinks offers, delivers environments where our customers want to spend time.

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. Since the partnership with Olio commenced in July last year, there have been 550 successful collections, with more than 14,000 items or 4.6 tonnes of edible food saved, amounting to almost 10,000 meals, and over 800 unique households fed. This equates to 17,550 kg of CO2 emissions and over 3 million litres of water saved. We also use a digital waste management tool to support us in minimising food waste in our kitchens.


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.

And we’re seeing some great results:

  • The ESS App now has over 40,000 registered users.
  • At RAF Cosford, Radio School Café transactions have doubled during peak times, overall sales have increased, and customer flow is around three times faster than it was previously.
  • At MOD Abbey Wood, the new Community Store has been very well received and almost 20% of transactions are outside of core working hours.
  • At the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, our frictionless store is open for an extra 116 hours per week compared to the previous outlet, overall sales have substantially increased, the average shopping time is under two minutes so customers can pop in and quickly get what they need, and the store is on track to achieve 100% of its forecasted sales.

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.

This sort of equipment needs to be adequately funded and the company has invested a multi-million-pound sum over the past year, and we’ll be continuing with this level of investment this year too.

Feedback From Service Users

Our client at The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom commented:

“Market @ Churchill is a fantastic new facility introduced in collaboration with ESS. The store is open 24/7 and customers can go in, pick what they want and leave without waiting to checkout. This is ideal for our many personnel on academic courses with busy schedules. We’re proud to have access to this cutting-edge technology which isn’t yet available on most high streets or elsewhere within the MOD. In our partnership with ESS, we work together and learn together and, in doing so, add to the richness of the Academy for those working and living here.”


[i] Exploring the Appetite of Today’s Soldiers trial which is introducing a more flexible approach to catering at six Army sites with a view to delivering a dining and social experience that is relevant, nutritious and supportive of modern lifestyles.