Reviewing 2015

We’ve now had the first full year of the new School Food Standards which were launched in January 2015. Mandatory in all maintained schools as well as academies and free schools, the standards are aimed at ensuring that food provided in schools is healthy and nutritious. But ironically, the best caterers will always be the ones who don’t actually need the standards. We’ve always said that if you’re providing food you’d be happy to eat yourself, good, varied food offering healthy choices, you’ll always exceed the minimum requirements of the guidelines, whatever form they come in.

Our guiding principle is ‘serve food you’re proud of’. That’s what we’ve always done, but we’re the exception, not the rule. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to point that out. I wish there were more caterers like us around, but we are still like the tip of a very big iceberg, where everything below the water is of a relatively poor standard. Sadly, with current cuts to school budgets, I’m not over optimistic about things getting better in a hurry. Minimum wage increases, pension changes and other inflationary costs on labour are having to be met by schools, which for us, means doing what we’ve always been so good at – helping balance the school’s books by driving those restaurant sales.

Definitely the saddest part of my job is doing surveys – going into schools to see what’s there at the moment. We see enough to know that the sales promise in pitches and the reality of the operation are generally worlds apart. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but from our point of view, salesmen can copy what we say, but operators rarely do what we do. The hardest part of any caterer’s operation is to do what you say you’re going to do, to walk the walk. We’ve always taken the view that delivering 70% or 80% of your promise is not good enough, even though that might represent a vast improvement on what there was before. We show our client a 100% fulfilment, from day one.

This ‘going above and beyond’ philosophy is so well embedded into our company culture now, that individual chefs continue to amaze us with their innovations and initiatives. We have chefs running masterclasses with students, developing eco-gardens, and taking counter displays to new levels of excellence. When you see these chefs doing all these extra things, well beyond their remit, the school food standards are kind of irrelevant because here we have people with a genuine desire to make a difference. It’s inspiring to see chefs who don’t think in terms of ‘will this make us money?’ but rather ‘will this help the school?’

Our chefs have been encouraged to leave the hotel and commercial restaurant kitchens and join the unsexy world of school catering. While they’re guaranteed quality holiday time with their families, they’re still working harder than they’ve ever worked before, but as part of an educational community where they see, every day, the difference they’re making to people’s lives. This dedication, which I see right across the board, makes me incredibly proud of these people and this company. Our hard-working teams now have the chance to take a well-deserved break, spending time with the family, which, when you think about it, really is one of the huge benefits of a career in school catering. So, maybe quite sexy after all then!

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our clients, customers and friends a very happy and relaxing Christmas break.

Steve

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