Contract and expand

Sometimes creating an effective catering department within a UK university is an outside job, says Luke Evans

Unless you’re attending a cookery school, eating food is likely to be part of the background noise of academic life. Whereas journals, libraries and lectures are all hallmarks of higher education, cafeterias and cafés are one of the few things that undergraduates have already learned to take for granted by the time they start their studies. On the other side of things, however, the university caterer has to maintain a careful balancing act between suppliers, staff and consumers to achieve maximum efficiency without sacrificing ethics – and that’s not even taking into account the cleaning, construction and renovation that needs to be done from time to time on kitchens and dining halls.

Understandably, many UK universities are beginning to step outside of the higher education sector to achieve the best results possible by outsourcing their work to professional contract caterers. In many cases, these caterers are able to offer the university a complete package deal, renovating dining areas and creating new spaces for students to hang out, use the Wi-Fi and enjoy a variety of food options, from cooked meals and takeaway to fully catered accommodation. One of the fastest rising contract caterers is Aramark Ltd, which operates as the UK arm of the international Aramark Corporation. Aramark’s rise in higher education has been impressive, with the caterer securing lucrative contracts with Worcester and Westminster universities in 2012, while their largest client, Regent’s University London, has one of the greatest international student bases of any university in the world.

Regarding their success, Aramark’s Client Relationship Director for Education, Fiona Martin, chalks it up to the company choosing to focus on areas outside of the average caterer’s purview. “Managing finances, VAT, supply chain, stock control, insurance, equipment maintenance, supplier contracts and relationships – these are all vital. But, again, they’re invariably time consuming and can be problematic if not backed by the right expertise,” she says.

Part of ensuring that expertise across the board includes providing extensive training for staff in areas outside of cooking and cleaning, including working with the Institute of Customer Service and finding ways to stay on top of health and safety legislature. “We employ dedicated professionals who ensure that the highest standards in health and safety are maintained, from accident prevention to clean environments and food safety. Our national team ensures our people on the ground are thoroughly trained and kept up to date with the latest safety legislation.”

Martin believes that this saves the University money in the both the short and long term, allowing the contract caterer to take on the training cost while preventing future accidents. Sure enough, the company has won the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ (RoSPA) Catering Industry Sector Award three years in a row, which Martin feels is a boon to both the company and their clients: “Outsourcing means that these essential catering functions can be managed efficiently, accurately and to a high standard… It means we’re genuinely adding value to our client service by being at the top of our game – our success becomes our clients’ success.”

The University of the Arts, London (UAL) also know a thing or two about building a successful partnership. Since 2007, they’ve been working with contract caterer BaxterStorey to deliver excellent food service across all six of their colleges. “We’ve always been outsourced,” says Alastair Johns, their Head of Catering. “When the universities were separate colleges, going back to the ’80s, that’s actually how it was run, so we’ve never really had an in-house catering team.” This has left him in an odd position as one of the few members of the catering department who works for the University: “For a UAL employee, I’m it.” 

Although BaxterStorey handle all aspects of catering, including payroll and human resources, this hasn’t stopped them from being approachable. “One of the key pieces is the operations manager, who only looks after UAL. She’s been with me for five years, and she understands she’s part of the University, that people don’t see her as a contract caterer, they see her as part of UAL. And that’s absolutely key to having that relationship with a contract caterer.” Being able to communicate easily is also part of the reason that the University has formed a strong bond with their caterer. “If I have any issue, I can speak to the manager or director by picking up the phone,” he says. “For example, I’ve got direct contact with the Director of Sustainability for BaxterStorey, and that’s terribly useful.”

BaxterStorey’s focus on sustainability dovetails perfectly with UAL’s ethos. The University get much of their fruit and vegetables from Chegworth Valley, which is around 40 miles away from the majority of the University campuses, while they source their pork from Dingley Dell, a high welfare farm in Suffolk. “We were quite clear [with BaxterStorey] about what we wanted as a University, which was… the sustainable food route, local provenance – and that’s always been there at the start,” says Johns. 

By focusing on issues of food sourcing and nutrition, UAL have helped to set the industry standard for ethical catering. The Soil Association Food for Life Catering Mark is given to dining establishments that serve food which is free from GM ingredients, artificial trans-fats, and E-numbers, with further rankings for ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ depending on whether the produce is organic, fair trade, free range and locally produced.

So far, contract caterers including Sodexo, Chartwells, BaxterStorey and Aramark have all received Food for Life marks, with the latter receiving the most awards across their client base. UAL, however, are the only university to achieve ‘gold’ status across all their services. “There were obviously some changes which they had to make, and I had to get agreement from the executive board because there was a slight price increase when you have to use organic food,” says Johns. “But I just thought this was a golden opportunity, excuse the pun, to set a benchmark – a mark down that actually we can achieve this, and we don’t have to go through bronze or silver. I also knew that BaxterStorey were capable of doing it.”

Johns believes that the question of finding the right contract caterer – or deciding whether to use one at all – is relative. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “I won’t say which company – but when [BaxterStorey] went to tender in 2002, one company came in and did all the side visits, and actually were very honest … they said ‘Alastair, thank you very much. We can’t deliver what you want. So with the greatest respect, we’re going to bow out at this stage.”

Although Johns feels that their relationship with BaxterStorey works well, he still takes the contract tender as an opportunity to see what other companies might have to offer: “[BaxterStorey have] had to fight probably almost harder, in a funny sort of way, than the other caterers who obviously bid.”

By continuing to push one another to achieve better results, higher education caterers are beginning to address some of the larger issues facing the food service industry in general. Many of those looking to work in professional catering have to work their way up through lengthy hours and low pay to the top positions. In higher education, however, things are looking far more positive: UAL and BaxterStorey have arranged to pay their workers a London living wage of £9.15 from the beginning of next year, without the students having to shoulder the cost in tariff increases.

Aramark, meanwhile, are becoming more involved in helping undergraduate students prepare for future employment in general. “We now have a record number of students at our UK client contracts taking part-time employment with Aramark,” says Martin, “allowing them to conveniently gain work experience and additional income on campus to support them through their studies.”

While things are improving on the side of service, Johns points to food education as the next step towards improving catering overall in universities. “We’ve got to actually get people to understand, communicate and educate, how important food provenance is,” he says. “If there’s one thing – in a funny sort of way, I would love people to go home and then think about what they’ve just bought.”

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