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Mind Food

15 December 2005

Catering for a growing student population, universities are turning to inventive ideas from specialist catering consultants to ensure their food offering meets the needs and pockets of staff and students alike, and complements the property estate strategy

MEETING THE DEMAND FOR CATERING over the next decade for any university or major campus-based organisation raises a host of facilities issues. What is the shape of your offer; what is the volume throughput likely to be? Who runs your catering? Self-managed or contracted, how do you construct the right strategy in terms of the catering offer and space utilisation to maximise the return? Every campus poses different questions but these four examples show how universities have tackled the challenge of catering for the future with the aid of catering consultant members of The Foodservice Consultants Society International FCSI (UK).

... University of Wales, Caerleon, Newport: To help the university plan the future, Andrew Etherington FCSI, of Andrew Etherington Associates carried out a management survey to determine trends, throughput, product selection and the type of customer. The survey was combined with the University's research on its event business to produce a clear picture of future demand on the refectory facilities. FCSI kitchen design consultant Jackie Snaith, of Chapel Foodservice Consultants then took the existing floor plan of facilities and designed a bright and contemporary new refectory to fit the future requirements.

Simon Bray BSc (Hons), Head of Events Services, University of Wales, Newport commented: “Like all universities we are keen to ensure a good income and throughput at manageable levels. So rather than guess as to what the future will hold or use past trends which are changing all the time, we decided to go to a consultant that knows the trends in university catering and who could come up with a thorough study and provide us with conceptual designs that our own in-house design team could follow through.”

As a result of Etherington’s survey, a new café/delicatessen bar has been added to the refectory, offering a speedy meal and snack service. This features its own dedicated seating area for approximately 60. Adjacent to the deli counter is the new servery area, featuring new counters, till point, ambient and chilled display cabinets and a beverage dispense area.

A new 200-seat dining room completes the picture. Bray is particularly proud of the partition system specified by the FCSI consultants. “It gives us a range of options to divide and use the space and that is the key to what we wanted. We were looking for a clean, funky, student orientated facility that still allowed the refectory to serve our 665 staple meals to residential students. We will be able to comfortably serve 1,000 people in one meal time via the main servery and the deli counter.”

● Thames Valley University: One of the largest universities in Europe, TVU is spread over three sites and caters for around 45,000 students. Its Ealing campus is renowned for its catering courses since the 1950s and it was by recommendation of the School of Hospitality that Vic Laws FCSI, of AVL Consultancy Limited, started his professional association with the college. An ex-student of Ealing, Laws has over the last 10 years ago undertaken an number of projects for the Director of the University’s Facilities Department.

When the School of Hospitality wanted to merge its Ealing and Slough sites onto the Ealing campus, a ‘space swap’ was the answer – and the School of Hospitality and the catering department effectively swapped premises. The benefit was two-fold – more space for the School and the refectory was able to move from the third-floor to a more suitable ground floor location.

The building of the new refectory at Ealing and a new catering facility on the Slough campus prompted a re-evaluation of the catering operation contracted to Scolarest. In 2002, the contract was re-tendered to take into account the changed nature of the operation and a subsidy of £250,000 was turned into a positive

In 2004 TVU merged with Reading College where the catering contractor was also Scolarest. Working with Dee Martin, TVU Facilities Manager, Laws assisted with the consolidation of both contracts.

“Vic is involved in advising on everything to do with our catering – including termly reviews, catering surveys, hygiene and facilities. The facilities department needs independent professional advice and we rely on Vic to give us that added dimension,” says Martin. “One of the most significant things is how you set the brief and Vic was completely instrumental in converting a £1/4m outgoing to a positive contribution.

“These changes – along with the introduction of more productive, high technology catering equipment – have produced labour efficiencies while providing a service which is more attuned to what students want.”

● The University of Birmingham: The University has installed one of the largest central production unit (CPU) developments in recent times which has taken over the operations of 15 separate kitchens in accommodation and teaching blocks. The cost of developing the CPU at around £3.2m was much less that the £12m estimate for refurbishing five ageing kitchens.

Cook-chill was the only viable alternative to cook-hot because it provides better quality and it is freshly served. There are 36 food outlets across the campus including modern food court style dining and it employs 45 including 21 chefs as well as kitchen porters, drivers, storemen and administration staff. Centralising production has given Executive Chef Mark Houghton the capacity to expand and look outside of the university to generate business. The CPU runs a successful delivered buffet business and a delivered pizza service. “After 11pm at night, this site comes alive with the buzz of mopeds delivering pizza,” says Houghton. “We can match their quality and beat their prices and earn revenue for The University.”

Several FCSI consultancies worked together to create the CPU including The Russell Partnership which originally looked at the overall strategy for foodservice at the University, and Garry Nokes of GWP Foodservice Design & Management Consultants who helped with the specification and evaluation of tenders for the CPU.

● University of East Anglia: “We considered not using a catering consultant but wanted the reassurance that we were doing the right thing and using the best intelligence and practice in the marketplace. We also wanted a consultant who would stay with us from concept design and inception through to implementation and beyond,” says Brian Summers, Registrar and Secretary.

UEA began working with FCSI consultants, The Russell Partnership, in 2002 to develop a five-year commercial catering strategy which involved qualitative and quantitative research, a commercial audit, space and financial modelling. This identified both a commercial and geographical gap within the university’s Central Square designed as a gathering place for students for catering provision. A new grab-and-go food offer for students and staff was located in the former campus bank. Called ‘Mango’, the in-house contemporary deli brand was launched following the development of a business case. Currently it is generating £1,500 ‘new business’ revenue per day term-time, and projected payback has been halved to 1.2 years.

A new funky food and social hub was also needed to create a heart to the campus. This was to be constructed in the Central Square replacing the original hub building. The Russell Partnership was appointed as project agent working alongside Peter Bilverstone of the University’s estates team and Johan Bolling, general manager of the catering services department. The project budget was £2.2m and construction was planned over the summer break 2004.

It created street-level food offers including a bright and fast, hot grab-and-go offer and a self service ‘fuelling’ offer called ‘Zest’, which satisfies the main meal demand. The research pointed to a relaxed coffee and snack bar concept and ‘Blend’ on the first floor offers 200 seats. For staff, postgraduates and the conference market, ‘Vista’ was created with a refined environment and quality food offer on the top floor of the building.

“We needed to regain the confidence of the university that the facilities, the food and the service was right,” says Bolling. “We recruited an executive chef, Stephen Wright, from Grosvenor House and a deputy, Laura Cahill, from the Bank of England, to improve the skills of the 80 staff to match the new product. Students know what food costs in supermarkets and they can judge quality and compare. There is an image that students have no money. They do have money but will only spend on value – not cheap goods. I changed all the coffee machines from instant to bean-to-cup, put the prices up and it keeps selling.”

The Russell Partnership is now involved on the next UEA project – the refurbishment of the Sainsbury Centre – where they are working with architects Foster & Partners to produce a continental café for 80 and full kitchen servicing a restaurant/function space for 200.

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