Every business is under pressure. Uncertainty in international trade, costs and increasing competitiveness brings pressure on businesses. For many years, food at school has been high on everyone’s agenda and it has become an important factor for parents when choosing a school for their children. We are also facing skills shortages, repatriation of EU nationals and increased political pressure from apprenticeship levy to sugar consumption statistics.
Many schools are also under pressure to maintain their market. The costs of education today are completely different to my experience of a chalk blackboard and a well-worn book. In feeding our pupils and school staff, the fact is that our customers tend to be well-versed in eating out and well-travelled. This creates an expectation that school food is the same as dining out. It must reflect what is available on the high street and provide an interesting international range.
On the high street, competition is always close by. This makes it necessary for commercial enterprises to allocate vast budgets to ensure their establishment stands out and is the one customers choose. Now, we might not have competition ‘on-site’ per se, but it is just as important that we keep up with the latest trends and create a dining experience that is exciting and appealing. Especially for boarders and sixth formers, who want this space to give them the feeling that they are ‘anywhere
Of course, the extreme to which we go can be dependent on the budget available, but this does not have to stifle progress and change. There are always differing levels of what can be achieved and I am a great believer in the ‘build it and they will come’ approach. Of course, a major re-build giving a fabulous state-of-the art facility can have the edge. However, a lot can be done that, visually, creates a great atmosphere for the dining experience. Whether embracing the history of a dining room or dressing it to create a fresh look, students usually embrace change that creates a new excitement – especially when it keeps the food offer and dining rooms fresh and on-trend! The dining room experience can help a school meet its targets and this is a fact that is hard to ignore. A recent major re-build we partnered saw an increase of 20% take-up in a matter of weeks. As many schools already have compulsory dining, and the few who don’t are mainly working this way, the demands of pupils and parents become greater. It is the caterer’s role to ensure they are working with the school, creating ways of meeting expectations. The best dining room is wasted if the food falls short, but similarly the food can be the very best but peeling paint and worn out facilities tend to put people off.
Capital budgets are always under pressure but with the volatility of food costs reflecting the current uncertainty, it would be advisable to add in some element of contingency for an ‘interesting’ market. Whilst we have the ‘buying’ power to help maintain a competitive playing field, until some decisions have been ironed out in parliament and overseas, we can’t take anything for granted. However, necessity is the mother of invention. I read that stocks of wheat are reducing as the global diet becomes more westernised. Coupled with erratic weather patterns, this would undoubtedly result in rising prices and world shortages. But, I also read about a small enterprise that has developed a way of making flour from green bananas. Used in cooking, they have little, if any, banana flavour, and have a completely different characteristic than the ripe, yellow variety. This enterprise has found a way of mechanically peeling the notoriously difficult skin and making it into flour. So, it looks like a matter of time before there is a healthier alternative to wheat. If we can all work creatively together then we can face the difficulties of the current conditions knowing that the strangest solutions can come from the most unexpected places.
Sue Parfett is Founding Partner of Brookwood, independent school caterer part of CH&Co Group.