A CATERING business is on a mission to bring back lunch as a way of improving people’s working lives.

Table Mates is a pop-up catering service which encourages staff and bosses to get away form their desks and eat hot meals together.

The Bournemouth business was devised by Declan O’Toole as an offshoot of his company Forerunner Catering, which provides 2,000 meals a day to local primary schools.

“We were looking to sweat our assets and see what else we could do with the facilities we’ve got,” he said.

He had been learning about workplace culture and management and devised Table Mates – with its slogan “Bring back lunch” – as a way of encouraging a better atmosphere at work.

As of this week, the business is approaching businesses with around 150 staff or more to offer its catering.

“What we really want is companies taking it every day so it becomes part of the fabric,” he said.

“It’s all about getting people away from their desk and talking. It’s all about community. I find things happen when people eat together.

“That real human connection happens face to face because you read people’s body language and facial expressions.”

Table Mates serves the meal at a company’s existing lunch area and clears up afterwards.

“We charge £4.30 per meal. It’s up to the company to decide how much they want to subsidise that by. We suggest £1.30 per meal,” Mr O’Toole said.

Bringing the price to staff down to £3 makes it competitive with a supermarket meal deal.

Bosses are fed for free in the initial weeks to encourage them to take part in the experience. “It’s really important, for this to work, that senior management and leaders are seen to come down and eat,” said Mr O’Toole.

“You need to come and sit down with your people.”

Menu options might include chicken and roasted red pepper rigatoni, or Mediterranean vegetable stack with pesto drizzle and focaccia. Different tastes are catered for on different days, so staff might choose particular days that are most to their likeling.

Meals are booked on an app and it is anticipated that many people might want to book for two or three days a week.

At a time when staff are hard to find, Mr O’Toole argues it is important to take care of those you have. He hopes Table Mates will aid companies’ productivity as well as staff retention.

“We think we’re in the right place at the right tie to help companies with their culture,” he said.

He is a former marine biologist from New Zealand who ran a a speicalist consultancy in that field. It relied on a small number of major clients and was vulnerable to them not paying on time.

On moving to the UK with his British wife and child, he bought a meals-on-wheels business which relied on many customers paying small amounts of money. He later turned it into the school catering service.

Now he is looking to provide the Table Mates service to companies within 25 miles of its Southbourne base.

“If we can do 60-70 meals a day we’ll start to make a little bit of money out of it,” he said.