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School of life: Meet the colleges bucking the downward trend

19 December 2019 by

College restaurants are under pressure, tasked with meeting students' educational demands while dealing with a lack of funds. Yet three colleges seem to have found an answer, and it lies in thinking more commercially, having students effectively run a catering business and charging the dining public for their efforts, giving them valuable real-life experience. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports

A nnual cuts to further education funding have put colleges – particularly training restaurants – under intense pressure to keep their books balanced. And costly courses like catering and hospitality run a very real risk of being in the firing line.

Already this year we have seen highprofile casualties, with the closure of Foxholes restaurant at Runshaw College in Lancashire, and Oxford Brookes university has confirmed its intention to close its Brookes restaurant in May 2020.

"There's always that balance being considered by college senior management around whether they can stick 20 computers in the room and do a business admin course rather than a catering course," says Andy Doyle, membership operations manager at People 1st International. "But college restaurants are an integral part of the course for students because that's where they get to practice with real-life customers."

It's not all doom and gloom though. There is a concerted effort being made by individual colleges [see panels] and industry leaders alike to preserve this vital resource for transitioning students from the classroom to the realities of a commercial operation.

One such initiative is the AA College Rosette scheme. Developed by People 1st and AA Hotel Services, the scheme recognises college restaurants for the quality of the food they produce and the standard of service they deliver, with three levels of awards: recommended (entry level); level one; and level two (highly commended).

In turn this has led to the launch of the AA College Restaurant of the Year award, which has been running for four years. The award is designed to recognise accredited colleges within the rosette scheme that have shown outstanding achievements in a realistic working environment.

"College restaurants are hidden gems across the country," says Doyle. "That's part of the reason we are trying to raise their profile. Because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what they're doing – if they haven't got customers to serve, the students aren't getting the experience they need."

Historically, the typical college restaurant customer could be described as a member of the ‘blue rinse brigade'. But according to Doyle, the restaurants that have seen the most success are those that market themselves, share ideas and innovation with fellow colleges, and look at creative ways to drive footfall.

"Take Cheshire College South & West [which this year saw its Academy restaurant win the AA College Restaurant of the Year for the second time]. It regularly holds gourmet evenings that are booked up for the whole academic year," says Doyle.

"Milton Keynes is a previous winner and has always been in the AA final, and this is the second year in a row that Cornwall College has been in the final. They must be doing something right."

The award is undeniably a huge achievement, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to save the inaugural winner, Foxholes restaurant, which closed in June as a result of the "extremely high" costs of running a training restaurant and "nine consecutive years of government cuts to further education funding in England", according to a spokesperson. Cuts that Doyle says have led to a downward trend in the number of students going to college across the board, not just for catering courses.

"It's fair to say we've hit a plateau," he adds. "In the past catering was seen as something to try if you weren't going to amount to much, but based on the conversations I've had with lecturers and students, there's been a bit of a sea change. A larger percentage are doing catering courses because they want to and they see it as a potential career."

This is great news for a sector that has always faced a skills shortage, which Brexit is reportedly accelerating due to the industry's strong reliance on migrant workers.

With support from the sector at large, colleges can help plug that gap. That's according to Sean Wheeler, former director of people development at InterContinental Hotels Group and the chair of the People 1st International employer-led college accreditation board.

"We have so much talent on our own doorstep that we need to protect, grow and bring into the business. It's about that pipeline," explains the winner of the Outstanding Contribution award at the 2019 Hotel Cateys, who was instrumental in developing the newly launched Our Hospitality Commitment, a new voluntary code for employers aimed at alleviating the recruitment and retainment crisis across the hospitality industry.

"One of the things that really winds me up is that you hear a lot of industry people moaning about colleges but they've probably not been in one for a while. They've certainly never had a conversation with a college," says Wheeler.

"There are ways that we as industry can help colleges survive. It's about building those partnerships and relationships and showing them other ways they can bring funds to the party."

Cornwall College Camborne

"We've designed our restaurant around incorporating as many different styles of service that we can within an academic year," says Clyde Connellan, chef-lecturer at Cornwall College Camborne, which saw its 40-seater Trevenson restaurant placed runner-up at the AA College Restaurant of the Year 2018-19.

CORNWALL PICS Trevenson pic
CORNWALL PICS Trevenson pic

While predominantly a fine dining restaurant, Trevenson changes its menu every five to six weeks to ensure students get a meaningful new experience. And, crucially, each menu is featured at the right stage of the students' learning experience. "In January we'll start a two-for-one concept, because that's when people aren't spending very much money," says Connellan. "That actually works out quite well for us because our learners get to work with cheaper cuts, while the deal also means we get the customers in. And that's the style of service our students need to learn because lots of places in Cornwall are doing [post-Christmas offers].

"Then, when we get towards mid-February, we'll move to our seven-course tasting menu, because that's around Valentine's Day and when people start to go out again. At that point in the learner journey the students are able to deliver that quality because they've built up to it since the start of the academic year."

Visits from high-profile guest chefs, including Stew Eddy and Nathan Outlaw, are another key element of the student experience because, according to Connellan, it's about being creatively commercial while maintaining focus on the needs of the students.

"Before I started, the learners would have seen how to do a tasting menu, for example," he explains. "But I had to put it on at the right time of the year, when the students are ready to move on to that stage. And the menu has to be profitable. It couldn't just be anything; it had to be in the budget of what a local person could afford."

He adds: "It's not necessarily a money-making thing, but the restaurant holds its own."

Milton Keynes College

The Brasserie at Milton Keynes College has made the finals of the AA College Restaurant of the Year competition ever since it launched in 2015-16, most recently as runner-up, having taken the coveted title in 2017-18.

MK PICS IMG 3776.jpeg
MK PICS IMG 3776.jpeg

One key ingredient of the Brasserie's success is the way it is run. A team of six, including five full-time and one part-time member of staff, operate the restaurant 52 weeks a year. It is open Monday to Friday, while the weekends are often taken up with external catering events, with the students working shifts to support and learn from what is fundamentally a commercial service.

"On an ordinary week the students will do a practical cookery session with the academic team and then five hours in the Brasserie," explains Sarah King, restaurant manager of the Brasserie. "Their practical time is split pretty much 50-50."

By opening at 8.30am every weekday, the Brasserie is busy until last orders as late as 7pm, with the learners doing their shifts on a rota system, just as they would in any other restaurant they worked in.

With a permanent workforce comes labour costs that college restaurants don't typically have, which is why King and her team have been creatively looking at ways they can save money.

"We're trying to look at how we can be less expensive, and one idea we're trialling is turning the practical session for level threes into prep for a taste night, which is a £20, five-course set menu," she explains.

While level three assessments would traditionally see a dish made for examiners that ends up in the bin, the plates are now assessed in the restaurant and ultimately get served to diners, thereby cutting costs.

"It's reducing our waste, but it also means the students have more pride in their work because they know it's going to customers. That's been one of our biggest successes of the year."

Cheshire College

"We challenge ourselves to make sure our students are going to be ready for industry," says Daniel Hunter, assistant director of hair, beauty, hospitality and retail operations at Cheshire College South & West, which saw its restaurant, the Academy, named AA College Restaurant of the Year 2018-19.


Hunter was a chef for 16 years before moving into education, so his understanding of that gap is extensive: fresh graduates were well-versed in theory, but they lacked experience.

"One of my biggest bugbears was chefs coming out of college wanting junior sous chef or senior chef de partie roles," he says. "While they can probably do six or eight portions of something, can they do 100? In an hour?"

The answer is a firm yes when it comes to students of Cheshire College, not least because each must learn both F&B service and cookery through their City & Guilds course. The Academy runs the same menu for two weeks, with students spending one week front of house and the other in the kitchen.

"That's how we get them qualified," says Hunter. "But it's all the other things that we link in that stretches them and gives them that enrichment and those employability skills. That's what is getting them ready for industry."

These "other things" are the extra-curricular activities, such as running catering contracts for local businesses, which includes nearby Nantwich Town Football Club.

"The market was mainly about pastries and desserts, so we started supplying those and making £1,000 a week in income. Rather than tell a student to make 10 portions of chocolate brownie, we had a company that wanted 240 portions a week. Suddenly they're not only being stretched to create for 240 covers, they've got to scale up recipes, work out timings and even take ownership of ordering to make sure they've got the ingredients," says Hunter.

Rather than college hours of 9am to 4pm, the students work to a rota system that enables them to experience the reality of the hospitality industry, where evenings and weekends are a massive part.

"When we took the restaurant on, it was turning over between £28,000 and £30,000 a year. Now we're generating about £170,000 to £180,000 a year," says Hunter. "Our first 12 to 18 months were difficult because it's all about getting the college staff on board first. "They've had so many promises in the past that no one delivered. But we're really passionate about what we do and we put a lot of hard work in to prove ourselves."

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