A growing number of contract caterers are introducing cookery classes, workshops and competitions into their education contracts in a bid to contribute to the corriculum and add value for clients. Elly Earls finds out more about the innovative food education initiatives popping up all over the industry
From cookery classes to foodie councils, Saturday cooking schools and full-blown fruit and vegetable roadshows, caterers are offering more and more activities to their education clients. But these schemes don't just benefit schools and universities, they also have tangible business gains for the caterers offering them, as well as knock-on effects for the hospitality industry as a whole.
Schools are increasingly looking for caterers that can provide something over and above the traditional food service offering by educating pupils on where their food comes from, as well as the importance of healthy eating. These schemes could make the difference between winning and losing a potential new education client.
Since the removal of home economics from the curriculum, a group of caterers have taken up the mantle and offered some level of food education as an additional service. "It is paramount that we teach pupils how to cook before they leave school," explains Donna Franklin, head of food at independent schools caterer The Brookwood Partnership.
On top of its normal services, Brookwood offers classroom activities such as assembly talks on healthy eating and interactive cookery classes. It also runs its 'Beyond Beans' programme, which helps prepare older pupils for life after school with guidance on menu preparation. This includes advice on budgeting and a recipe booklet full of nutritional gourmet meals that cost less than £5.
"The only thing charged back to the client is the ingredients. All of our people undertake the classes as part of the added-value service we provide to all our clients," Franklin says.
And the schools only have good things to say. "We have discovered - rather by accident - some budding chefs, who I feel sure will go on to achieve great things in the culinary world," says Kate Bailey, deputy head of one of Brookwood's clients, Wetherby Preparatory School in London. "It is so lovely to see this essential life skill becoming so popular and valued as an essential part of education again."
From college to catering Universities, too, are looking for food service providers that can extend their service beyond the traditional catering offer. "The role of university caterers has become so much more than simply catering," says Julie Barker, managing director of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and head of accommodation and hospitality services at the University of Brighton. "As a sector, this is something we are passionate about and we do recognise that there is a generation of young adults who have not benefited from cooking or food education as part of the national curriculum."
But, more than this, caterers in the education sector are being selected on their ability to contribute to universities' wider success. And it's for this reason that Aramark as started recruiting students from within the universities.
"Universities are competing against each other to attract students and, with tuition fees having risen significantly across the UK, students need an additional source of income. It's quite powerful for a university to be able to say that there are job opportunities 'on tap' within the university itself which fit with their students' studies and put extra money in their pocket. Universities increasingly want to work with caterers who can provide these opportunities," says Fiona Martin, Aramark's client relationships director - education.
Triple win On top of attracting clients, caterers can also benefit from these schemes in other ways. In fact, for Martin, Aramark's strategy of employing students from its education
contracts has been a "triple win". "It's helped our clients, customers and Aramark. It's a way of obtaining skilled employees who really understand what students want when it comes to food and drink. After all, what better way to show that your staff understands their customers than by taking on customers as staff? They have an understanding and empathy about student life, plus a certain work ethic that makes them reliable and enthusiastic team members, she says.
"The nature of their studies often means that they can work flexible schedules and, let's not forget, the employment needs of a university contract are greater during term time than holidays. Students are available during these peak times to help meet that requirement."
Of course, the scheme also benefits the hospitality industry as a whole by giving students a valuable insight into what a career in catering involves and the opportunities available to them. But pupils certainly don't need to wait until they're at university to learn more about working in hospitality: school food education initiatives, such as cookery classes and cooking competitions, also increase students' appetites for hospitality jobs at a much younger age.
Several students at schools catered for by education specialist Cucina Restaurants have ended up embarking on a career in catering thanks to the initiatives they were involved in at school, such as food tech lessons, young chef of the year competitions and school foodie councils.
- "One of our 'school foodies' is about to leave year 11, and we are helping him get started in a catering career," says managing director Steve Quinn. "Another student had been excluded for poor behaviour and attitude, but became so engrossed in his activities in the school kitchen that we ended up taking him on as a student in our Cucina Academy."
The Cucina Academy offers school leavers the opportunity to learn the catering trade in a busy restaurant kitchen, beginning as commis chef on a starting salary of around £12,000, as well as completing NVQ modules in hotel and catering.
At Elior, too, a key priority is demonstrating the possibilities of a career in hospitality to pupils as young as primary school age.
"Not every student wants to be a captain of industry," says Jarrott. "Some want to be more creative and work in hospitality. It's about igniting the imagination of these students and showing them where a career in catering can take them."
There's more good news, too. According to Franklin, the benefits of setting up these initiatives far outweigh the challenges. "The challenges are very minimal. As long as you have the right facilities, undertake all the necessary health and safety checks, supervise small classes and have a great chef or mentor, cookery classes can be a great success for the caterer, the school and the pupils," she says.
The costs are also far from prohibitive, and tend to be shared between the caterer, the suppliers and the school, Jarrott says. For example, Elior's recent fruit and vegetable roadshow was sponsored by the supplier and, with other schemes, ingredients are paid for by the school involved. "Suppliers also have a marketing budget that can be tapped into, which can be very useful," Jarrott adds.
Recruiting from within
Caterer Aramark has employed 13 students from the University of Westminster as "hospitality assistants" to supplement the core team at the university when delivering high volumes of hospitality.
"This could be anything from delivering a small lunch for 10 to a drinks and canapé reception for 250, or providing formal fine dining," says Fiona Martin (pictured), Aramark's client relationships director - education.
"Moreover, four of the students will be working for Aramark over the summer holidays to cater for the summer school customers at the University of Westminster. They will work five days a week over a seven-day rota, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner shifts. This allows them to earn a steady income throughout their summer break."
Not only has this benefited the business by providing enthusiastic, reliable staff for busy times, it has also improved the caterer's relationship with its client.
"It has helped to reinforce that Aramark shares the same vision as the University of Westminster - that students come first on the site," Martin says. "The job roles we recruited for would be perfect for students from any university, and the fact that Aramark only recruited from inside the University of Westminster was really appreciated both by its clients and the Students' Union."
Martin McKenna, associate director of strategy and performance at the University of Westminster's estates and facilities department, adds: "The Aramark approach allows us as a university to demonstrate that we have our students' interests at heart beyond just their studies, and it's
an initiative which is working really well."
Partnering with primary schools
Caterer Elior recently teamed up with its fresh produce supplier to launch a fruit and vegetable roadshow in partnership with seven primary schools in Swindon.
"We go into the classroom and run an interactive session that lasts for around one hour," says Elior group manager Paul Jarrott.
"We teach the students to eat a strawberry correctly and analyse the sugar content of a grape and the crunchiness of an apple. The students then gain a better understanding of where their food comes from and the importance of a balanced diet. The sessions are very interactive and fun for the kids."
It's not only the pupils who have reacted positively to the initiative - teachers, too, only have good things to say. One year six teacher, Martyn Cowell, was particularly impressed that the sessions "brought the science curriculum alive", and the management team at Red Oaks Primary School have asked Elior to run another roadshow at an upcoming school open day.
How to set up a cookery school
Talk to the school Contact the decision maker in the school and explain what you can offer. Teachers are very busy, but if you can get them on board, that's half the battle. It's then essential to maintain dialogue with both the school and the pupils as the initiative gets under way.
Make sure the school is informed of all arrangements. Get feedback after the sessions have been run and use that information when planning your next session.
Stay safe It's crucial to undertake the necessary risk assessment and health and safety procedures before you begin the initiative. Try to think of all the problems that could arise before they actually do.
Have a great team in place Ensure you have a patient, enthusiastic chef who is able to interact with pupils and has the organisational skills needed to plan each class.
Work together You'll need support from your suppliers, but this shouldn't be a problem as most will be more than happy to help.
Link into the curriculum Some of the most successful cookery schools will link in with some aspect of the school or college's curriculum. If schools are learning about China, for example, conduct Chinese cookery classes including practical stir-fry dishes.