Panic in the pantry?

Supply companies are having trouble with their own suppliers, delivery drivers are rare as hen’s teeth, kitchen staff are thin on the ground and the bell’s just gone for lunch. Cris Warren asks, who’d be a catering manager in an independent school right now?

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It’s the start of a new academic year; the refectory shutters are about to be hoisted, the hungry hordes are back and demanding their lunch (and dinner, and breakfast if you’re catering for boarders). That’s all par for the course, but this term you may well be frantically trying to fill staffing gaps thanks to the pandemic (and Brexit) and keeping a weather eye on your gas and electricity usage in anticipation of price leaps.

Putting those woes to one side, you find some distraction by taking to the larder for a relaxing stock take. Only to be startled by a short, sharp, ‘snap!’ What IS that? Are we being raided by the alliteration police? Nope. That’s the sound of the UK’s distribution chain breaking…

Presuming you actually have any – how do you like them apples?

What a carry on

For catering managers at independent schools across the UK the pressures on maintaining normal service under these, still, unfolding circumstances are enormous.

Hard to imagine, then, that there are any cherries in this almost farcical trifle of events. But, based on my phone around of a selection of independent schools, we can report with some confidence that the mantra in the kitchens is less ‘Carry on Screaming’, more ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

I emailed and telephoned a number of schools about the national situation. I asked how it was affecting them and their charges, and how they were adapting to the (temporary, it’s hoped) changes.

Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools in Wales and St Dunstan’s College in Catford, Greater London, agreed to be quoted on record, but their responses broadly chimed with those schools who didn’t want to be named, one of whom spoke of the situation as being, “…certainly a headache, just as we seem to have come to terms with all the disruption of the pandemic – it’s not welcome, it’s irritating, but it’s not some Biblical disaster. My view is: we teach our students to have perspective and to be resourceful; we’re being called to practise what we preach, so we just have to get on with it.”

The trials of (the) job

Taking the same tack, loins are certainly being girded in the rural border counties of Wales. “The priority for us is to not let people, including the staff, feel the effects of the current environment we are operating in,” says Karen Wood, catering manager at Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools (the prep, boys’ school and girls’ school), feeding 1,200 pupils, plus staff, as well as a wider service for their 300-strong boarding community.

“I think we’ve managed this current situation pretty well and, from our menus, many people will probably not have realised the challenges we have been facing.”

Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools have barely had time to breathe between terms. “We’ve been looking after our international students through the holiday periods, including Easter and Christmas, due to the fact that some have not been able to travel home due to international borders closing, lack of flights or long isolation periods caused by the Covid pandemic.”

It sounds like it’s been tough on the kids, but Wood says her team pull out all the stops to make school a home from home – and the disruption won’t change that.

“Last Christmas we made them a giant gingerbread house and other festive goods. We make all the junior children in boarding a birthday cake on their special day and cater for themed events in the dining hall to try and make things as special as we can for them.”

“As long as we can source the basic ingredients – flour, sugar, rice, meat and fresh vegetables – then I know that we can cope,” says Karen Wood


Demand… just no supply

For both schools, purchasing stock has been a trial. According to Wood, it has been, “…volatile – with many items being out of stock for long periods of time and other items being in and out of stock, which means we don’t know which items we can get from one week to another. Our suppliers are struggling with their own stock suppliers, their own staff, which includes lack of drivers and that is having a huge impact on the service (such as limits on certain lines) that they provide to us… over-ordering is not allowed.”

Nonetheless, Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools have a good relationship with their dried- and frozen-goods suppliers Bidfood, a national chain which Wood praises for keeping the school in the loop at every stage of the process. “They have things in place such as prioritising schools, reducing order cut-off points to allow staff to cope in the warehouses and are offering incentives to increase their driving staff.”

The school has, in turn, changed its ordering patterns. “Previously,” says Wood, “we used to buy a day in advance and now we buy up to a week in advance. We are being a bit more generic with our menus too – and not being too specific in our descriptions of dishes so we can make changes without pupils or staff really noticing.”

Softening the blow for Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools’ kitchens and larders is a long-standing policy of buying fresh, seasonal food grown on their doorstep. “The butcher and greengrocer are both family-run businesses and they source their goods locally, in and around the Wye Valley, so they do not rely on deliveries from outside the area, and their staff live in the community. We have remained loyal to them and they are looking after us, but it still remains a very uncertain time with no end to the current situation in sight,” says Wood.

While that return to normal service remains blurred, Wood is still positive that her staff can continue to provide the range of delicious meals the school has quite the reputation for. “We take enormous pride in our work,” she says. “The high standard and diverse range of our food offering is often the talk of the schools. We have a varied menu and always look at current food trends. As long as we can source the basic ingredients – flour, sugar, rice, meat and fresh vegetables – then I know that we can cope.”

There have been, subtle, menu changes at St Dunstan’s College, too. “Our food delivery companies are having to substitute items at short notice, depending on what is readily available to them at the time,” says catering manager Brett Smyth. “As a result, our catering team have needed to adapt menus for lunches, events and our café offering daily.”

In spite of substitutions, and less than usual quantities, deliveries are getting through, and Smyth has been impressed by how his suppliers have shown their true colours. “This has been challenging from the outset of the term, but each supplier has gone above and beyond to support us during this difficult time,” he says.

The catering team at St Dunstan’s College have had to adapt menus daily


Skeleton crew

There’s no bones about it, the woe of delivery shortages is being exacerbated by the knock-on effects of the pandemic and a reduced labour market. Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools say they have been, “…hamstrung by not being able to recruit new members of staff for the catering department, in the current environment”.

Neither of the schools cited Brexit as a major cause of their staff shortages but it can’t have helped. As reported widely across the media in recent months, independent schools across the UK rely on casual and full-time term-time cleaning and kitchen staff drawn from the European Union. As Brexit beds in, they’re not coming back and locally sourced staff aren’t coming in.

In terms of the staff issues, Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools are hoping to link up with the local authority’s employment liaison officer and work together to create opportunities for people who want to work in catering. “We are also on our own recruitment drive and are offering incentives to staff to encourage them to recommend others to come and work in our catering department,” says Wood.

St Dunstan’s College has a staff shortfall across its catering and cleaning departments, the source of staffing challenges across the school. The school has launched a recruitment drive and is optimistic about returning to a full complement soon. In the meantime, management staff are rolling their sleeves up, donning aprons and getting stuck in serving meals, something that’s been “fantastic to see”, according to Smyth.

We’re all in it together

Samantha Davis, head of procurement at CH&CO, explains:

“Partnerships and relationships have been key to managing the current supply chain crisis. We’ve been working hand in glove with our supply partners to navigate and flex to the current situation, adapting the way in which we order and accept deliveries, including forward planning and carrying more stock than normal.

“For example, in preparation for September’s back to school, we placed orders in July and took in stock for non-fresh produce. We’ve also worked closely with our teams in schools, maintaining regular communication. It’s essential to keep sharing information, good and bad, so that they can react and adapt accordingly and keep our schools updated should menus need to change at short notice.”

Owen Hurley, head of food operations at CH&CO Independent, concurs:

“We quite simply want to give our pupils the best food and dining experience possible – that’s what being a chef is all about. Working in collaboration is so important to achieving this, and not just in the kitchen. The procurement team and suppliers are a huge part of the process and with the current supply chain challenges, we’ve all pulled together and remained agile to ensure great-tasting, nutritious food continues to flow. Focusing on the solution and not the problem is always far more productive!”

Lessons learned?

One positive St Dunstan’s College has noticed out of all this, is how it’s got the kids debating national breaking news in the social areas and even feeding (ahem) into the classroom.

“There have been a wide range of discussions taking place across the college about the supply chain issues,” says bursar Clair Wilkins. “Several sixth form students have discussed this in their business and economics lessons, sparking some thought-provoking conversations.

“As always, pastoral teams across college are on hand to support students and families who have any queries at any time. We are hoping to see the situation improve as soon as possible, however, it looks like the challenges are to stay for the time being.”

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