Staying fresh and consistent – the key to higher sales

As pioneers of high end school food, perhaps the most crucial aspect of our work is achieving and maintaining consistency right across our brand.

When you go into the London Pret a Manger, you would expect a Hoisin Duck Salad Wrap to be exactly the same as the one you ate at their Oxford outlet. And that’s how it is for us too.

Despite the great work that we and some of our competitors are doing in attaining ever higher standards of school food, there are still too many people with old fashioned and outmoded ideas on school food.

Some of the opinions I hear seem to be based on the old notion of children lining up and accepting whatever might be dished up to them. That’s still how it is in quite a few places, but that’s it’s not how it should be, and it’s certainly not how you change things.

Our school restaurants follow exactly the same principles as those on the High Street. We have to see those children as customers, and we have to work very hard to drive sales up and keep them there.

Consistency is perhaps the most vital part of doing that. Bear in mind that these school students have to go to the same dining area almost every day of their school lives for 6 or 7 years. It is up to us to make sure they are constantly inspired by the food. It must be exciting, attractive, varied and continually refreshed.

When we go into a new contract the existing kitchen staff almost always go through a painful learning curve because they suddenly have to produce three times the amount of food they did before, and they also have to cook everything on site.

So no more opening up packets of sauce. Now it must all be made fresh. And each recipe must be adhered to – to the letter, because every dish has been carefully developed for taste and goodness.

I have to say that our kitchen teams are very very good at maintaining our standards. They’ve undergone rigorous training, but it is also up to me and my team to make sure we have the right quality control to guarantee complete consistency.

This applies to any new dish we develop. Once it has been, tasted, costed, nutritionally analysed and photographed, we put the recipe spec together and then show the chefs how to prepare it. Then we watch while they do it.

Then, in the course of our routine restaurant inspections, we check carefully again. Is there strict adherence to the spec? The ‘oh we’ve done this hundreds of times’ mentality can sometimes lead to lapses. Somebody might have forgotten the wedge of lemon that goes into that Thai spiced baguette, and that piece of lemon could be the element that makes all the difference to the dish.

So everywhere we go in the business, we look, we inspect, we taste. We take a dish to pieces and we continuously evaluate how they are to eat. Just like the High Street, our customers come back because they know what they like.

Alongside that, we will also be adding new items all the time. Sometimes a customer might be in the right mood to bypass the old favourite and try that exotic looking Malaysian prawn wrap. So it’s really important that we keep adding to the range.

Our customers are fantastic at helping us to do that. More on this  in my next post!

Till then,

Sam Davies

Director of Food, Cucina

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