Survival course

08 February 2002 by
Survival course

While contract caterers may dream of refurbished kitchens, there's the small difficulty of having to cope with using temporary kitchens while the builders are in. Jane Baker talks to some about how they've managed to survive with the minimum of stress.

A crash on the M25 recently kept 150 patients at St Albans City Hospital waiting for their meals as Medirest Social Care struggled to transport them from a temporary kitchen six miles away during refurbishment of the hospital's kitchen and dining rooms. This, along with builders' dust, cramped space and a loss of custom, is just one of the problems facing caterers when trying to maintain a service during major refurbishments.

For St Albans, the 150 lunches and suppers and food for 400 staff were bulk-cooked, placed in heated trolleys and plugged into a vehicle to keep them at the right temperatures. But the temporary kitchen was within traffic-jam distance of two major motorways.

"We couldn't load the food too early because it would mean it waited at the hospital and we didn't advocate reheating at ward level. On the other hand, if it lost heat in traffic jams, it would mean sending another load across," says Gill Ferbuyt, Medirest's regional general manager, who carried out some careful planning before implementing the new route.

Having decided it was the only way to maintain the operation, she installed a strict checking service at both hospital and kitchen to ensure the correct number of meals went across twice a day. "If you forget to put in the mashed potato you can't pop down to the kitchen. It becomes a major issue involving a 12-mile round trip to go back for it," she says.

Communication was paramount and staff and patients were all kept informed of progress - or delays. "People will tolerate inconvenience if they know what is going on," says Ferbuyt. "We also made sure the environmental health officers were happy with the temporary system from the start. We didn't want them to find out halfway through and tell us we couldn't do it."

The St Albans refurbishment took two months, but catering staff at the Army Foundation College, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, had, until November, worked in temporary premises for three years during major rebuilding of the college complex, including the catering facilities. Since it won the contract 18 months ago, Eurest Defence Support Services fed up to 1,200 students three times a day in a 450-seat temporary dining room. It has also had to supply meals to training ranges and field kitchens.

Eurest operated from a temporary building with one corridor running the length of the building and wings either side accommodating areas such as stores, freezers and the wash-up.

"The main problem was congestion at meal times with catering staff and chefs all trying to get through one door to the hot plate at the servery," explains Mick Dance, senior contract manager, who has 125 catering staff. "We have thin chefs here because they perspired so much."

He admits the fabric has stood up well to the battering of such prolonged use, which included the addition of new "wings'" for freezer, fridges and an extra plate wash machine to accommodate the rising numbers. "They're bolted on the side like limpets," says Dance, who organises a deep clean every six to seven weeks. "My advice is to make sure you get enough equipment and that it's well maintained. You need a good instant repair service."

With a new batch of students every 42 weeks, there was little menu fatigue and virtually no change in the original menu design at the college. Things were different when the University of Cambridge spent nine months operating out of temporary kitchens while the kitchen and surrounding areas underwent modernisation as part of an overall £2m refit.

Menus had to be redesigned because the kitchens were further from the point of service than before. More pre-prepared items were used and food that couldn't be transported well was taken off the menu. This meant no chips for more than six months. During this time the 70 catering staff continued serving 1,000 students a day, seven days a week.

"Build in flexibility. If a delivery doesn't turn up, make sure you can substitute something else. We could control our own menus, so this worked OK, but not all caterers may be able to do this," says Tom Walston, general manager and catering adviser for the university, who stressed that caterers cannot expect to relocate and carry on as normal. "You must expect all jobs to take longer. We're asking people to work with different equipment and in a smaller space," he says.

Looking at the health and hygiene aspects of the increased transport of food from kitchen to serving point, Walston was careful to make sure that someone was responsible for each route. "We didn't want to be trolleying food through a dusty and hazardous building site," he says.

He issues a warning about the total clash of cultures refurbishment brings between caterers and building contractors. "Caterers are used to building relationships with their suppliers and looking for a long-term association with them. Builders see this as a one-off job and not a continual source of income," he says. "Therefore, if something happens, such as someone making them a better offer for goods you've hired, they will give it to them."

He cites his experience of expecting products he'd chosen from the glossy brochure, when in fact he got second-class goods with certain important elements, such as extraction, missing completely.

"What can you do when you've arranged with the police and the local authorities to close off roads for a 40-tonne crane to off-load goods and they are not what you ordered? You have to go ahead. They've got you over a barrel," says Walston. "The only thing you can do is to renegotiate certain payments later."

Not all problems cease when the caterers move back to the new premises. When pharmaceutical corporation Boehringer Ingelheim in Bracknell, Berkshire, decided to completely gut the restaurant and update the kitchen it meant caterers Charlton House serving over 300 customers in a converted squash hall from four Portakabins for five months.

Having dealt with this situation, catering manager Aditya Thapa and his 14 staff faced a new challenge when they moved back into the new facilities.

"We had to get used to working in a larger kitchen again, with new equipment. There was also a new coffee shop and deli bar and an additional breakfast service," says Thapa. Staff had to be retrained, allocated different jobs, deal with new menus and find their way round the refurbished premises. "It took a bit of juggling at first, but we recruited an extra assistant and take-up is now more than before the refurbishment."

Tips to remember

  • Don't underestimate the extra costs involved because they can be significant, such as a drop in sales.
  • Make sure you involve environmental health officers from the start.
  • Staff turnover may increase.
  • You might need more staff to transport food and wash up because the hire equipment is not capable of coping with the numbers.
  • Most projects inevitably overrun and caterers must make sure the builders or contractors are liable for any business losses that occur when this happens.
  • Keep client, staff and customers informed of progress. If people know why there's a change in the menu, they're generally more sympathetic.
  • If storage is limited resulting in more deliveries, expect increased paperwork and invoices which has a knock-on effect on the administrative and office staff.
  • Expect all jobs to take longer.
  • Make sure the delivery area is robust enough to take heavy vehicles and is protected from the elements.
  • Talk to the catering staff and ask them what equipment is necessary for the temporary premises. They know how many cookers, fryers, etc they need.
  • Liaise with client personnel and work alongside them on such things as electrics, cleaning, fire regulations.
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