Deirdre O’Neill Talks Compass Group’s New Direction

The Compass Group has relaunched and rebranded as Compass Ireland, in recognition of the distinct nature of the company’s Irish team. With annual revenue of roughly €68 million in Ireland and employing 1,500 people here, this is an important step. DEIRDRE O’NEILL, newly appointed Irish MD, spoke to Hospitality Ireland about the group’s new direction.

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in October of 2021.

For Deirdre O’Neill, new Irish MD of Compass Ireland, innovation and growth are keywords for the next stage of the group’s development. O’Neill studied in Galway, where she did a business degree at GMIT and a master’s in marketing at NUI Galway. She clocked up 15 years’ experience in Irish food and retail – including marketing roles in leading FMCG companies like Kildare based O’Brien Fine Foods and Carroll’s of Tullamore, as well as HMV Ireland Xtravision – before joining the Compass Group in 2016, to head up the marketing division and drive digital and brand communications. She developed the company’s ‘cloud kitchen’ operations as future food offer director, before being promoted to MD in June 2021.

“To continue to develop an industryleading team of foodservice providers, and to innovate in client services and sustainability initiatives. We aim to build transformative partnerships for each of Compass Ireland’s clients with flexible food services that meet unique needs and exceed expectations. We are dedicated to reducing the environmental footprint of the business by eliminating waste and sourcing responsibly grown produce from local Irish farms. Compass Group recently rebranded as Compass Ireland here, and that was to recognise our Irish team as a distinct business unit, at the forefront of global innovation for what is a substantial organisation.”

The people with whom O’Neill works “punch above their weight. They love to excel, to try different approaches, and to ensure their food, our service, and our customer satisfaction levels are consistently excellent.”


Why has Compass chosen to pursue this new direction?

“The world of work has changed, with hybrid workplaces, flexible hours, and employees’ health and well-being viewed as a central concern for employers. Food solutions need to be flexible, varied, high quality, and easily accessed, wherever the employee is based. Employers also need assurances on cost, value and sustainability issues, which Compass is tasked to meet. Clients tell us that our food helps them win ‘the war on talent’ – the perk of a huge variety of freshly cooked meals and snacks on site, in a staff restaurant or available to personally order on our Feedr app, is a recruitment draw.”


Where does chef Kevin Thornton fit into the new vision?

“As a double-Michelin-star chef, Kevin Thornton is a fantastic food innovator and a great business person who is very much tuned into exciting the customer. His expertise will contribute to the Compass Ireland food philosophy, menu development, training and team-building. Kevin is consulting with our culinary director, Shay Kendrick, on all aspects of our food and service, and I imagine that he will hugely motivate our team and appeal to our customers also.”


So, what are the major innovations that Compass will be making?

“Our Copper Pan Kitchen was a first for our industry – a centralised production kitchen for freshly delivered meals, established even ahead of Covid-19. The concept has become a solution for the new hybrid-working situation, capable of scaling up and down with demand, and delivering food experiences when and where required.

“We’re also helping businesses digitise catering solutions. The launch of the handy Feedr app earlier this year delivery of meals to workplaces and homes, and offered employees healthier choices from an extensive rotating menu of 140 balanced meals. This way, businesses can provide a flexible food perk without needing a full on-site restaurant. Employees have nutritious meals delivered to the office, when they’re in, and Feedr simultaneously groups orders, to facilitate deliveries.

“Among our food solutions to support the safe return to workplaces is an Irish Village Markets partnership for on-site food trucks at client premises, which offer diverse street food and multicultural cuisines, ranging from Spanish, Mexican and Lebanese to Korean and Hawaiian.”


What changes has O’Neill seen in the foodservice industry in Ireland over the last five years?

“The new generation of foodservices is built around customer needs and employee wants, providing a flexible and scalable way for employers and venues to feed their teams and visitors. Where the focus, initially, was on the food, the service is now equally, if not more, important. We need to get a variety of great food to people when, where and how they want it, to suit their business operation.

“The local agri-food sector and sustainability have also become key business drivers. Corporates are conscious of their environmental footprint, and Compass Ireland is the first foodservice company here to publish a commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in its own operations and value chain by 2030.

“We work with 180 Irish food producers, spending in the region of €35 million a year with our Irish supply base. We partner with sustainable producers, like Ireland’s first commercial vertical farmer, Brian O’Reilly of Emerald Green, who uses cutting-edge indoor farming technology at his Ballyporeen hydroponic farm.

“Menus need to constantly change and offer diverse flavours from around the globe, whether Asian, French, Italian or Eastern European dishes, or traditional Irish. We’re catering for multicultural, well-travelled workforces, and vegetarian, vegan, nut-free, dairy-free and glutenfree meal options are a given these days. Our Feedr app even lets users choose their lunch based on life goals, such as low-carb or gut-health-optimising food.”


What post-Covid changes does O’Neill expect to see?

“More flexible food solutions in workplaces, facilitated by innovation, like contactless ordering and delivery via apps. For on-site catering providers like ourselves, a cloud canteen service makes sense for many employers, too. It takes the headache and risk out of managing their own kitchens, particularly with businesses trying to manage costs when on-site headcounts are unpredictable. It’s cost-effective, scalable, and doesn’t sacrifice quality, but saves on maintenance, utilities and waste.”


What are the priorities now for Compass?

“To continue to meet customer needs, recruit food professionals and producers of the highest level, and to motivate our team to consistently innovate and excite. Our annual revenue on the island of Ireland is in the region of €68 million, and the business employs 1,500 people here. Our 2020 income was hit by the initial lockdowns, but the business has turned a corner, thanks to groundbreaking, clientfocused solutions. We will continue to restore business and expand our innovative foodservice solutions – many of which originally piloted in Dublin – countrywide.”


What does O’Neill see as the most significant challenges for the industry at this time?

“Sourcing talent is a top challenge for the entire sector. There is scarcity in highly trained professionals and the pipeline of upcoming talent. For this reason, we have always focused on developing staff, teamworking and mentoring. We believe passionately in ‘hiring the smile’ and ‘training the skill’, and committed employees can develop rewarding careers with us.

“Added to this, we have a new apprenticeship programme, to encourage people into our sector and to promote gender balance and enhanced diversity, including more female participation in culinary roles with Compass Ireland. Michelin-star chef Danni Barry is the ambassador for the new Compass Ireland apprenticeship scheme, which will support the skills development of existing employees and attract new talent, helping future-proof personnel needs in the business. It is being developed in conjunction with Shay Kendrick, chef and culinary director of Compass Ireland.

“Supply chain disruption and difficulties in the logistics sector are affecting some foodservice businesses, but our long-standing commitment to local in Ireland and our recent moves to expand Irish sourcing have lessened any exposure to import headaches.


Any new developments on the horizon for the next year?

“We will launch Ireland’s first ‘frictionless’ food-to-go store in Dublin later this year, bringing next-generation retail to the Irish market. A first in the Irish market, the store will use cutting-edge computer vision technology, allowing shoppers to buy meals and snacks to go, without having to wait in line or stop to scan or pay. This will offer the convenience of self-service at any time of day, and fresh, quality, ready-prepared food round the clock.

“By innovating and adapting our operations and offering, we will ensure we continue to lead the industry and remain relevant to clients and consumers. This direction is already helping to win business and secure strong retention rates, so we constantly grow and further leverage our scale and resources.”


Original article by Dave Simpson on

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