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Education month: Harrison Catering on the challenges of higher education

17 July 2008 by

Before the University of London brought in Harrison Catering to unitfy service across nine of its sites, the contract was shared by three outside operators and an in-house unit. However, says Emma Allen, the world of higher education has brought new challenges for this major player in the schools sector

Set up in 1994, Harrison Catering has grown to become a £42m-turnover business, with 2,500 employees. Most of its contracts are in the school meals sector and the remainder in business and industry, with clients including Carphone Warehouse and marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide.

Last year, however, the company stepped into the higher education market with its successful tender for a three-year contract with the University of London, worth £3m a year. Harrison now provides breakfast, lunch, vending and hospitality services on nine sites, serving as many as 115,000 meals per day.

For managing director Geoffrey Harrison, it seemed a logical step. "We could offer something different when they approached us to get involved in the tender process," he explains. "The university wanted a standard of food across all halls, and they were interested in the quality of food, as opposed to just a convenient offer."

The university was also keen to raise service levels across the entire operation. Previously, the contract had been run by three external caterers - Aramark, Compass and Host - plus one in-house unit, and it was a key objective to bring the contract under the control of a single operator to reduce inconsistency.

Winning the contract wasn't without its difficulties, however. A complicated, lengthy tender process meant that, in the end, there were just three weeks to prepare before the takeover date, a period described by Harrison as "challenging - especially as we had the university's Founder's Day to organise, which meant 500 guests, including Princess Anne, for Champagne and canapés. This year, all canapés were made on site for the first time, rather than being bought in. We really had to hit the ground running."

Seven months on, things have settled down somewhat. The amounts of bought-in and processed foods have been reduced so that now almost all food is freshly prepared and cooked in each site's kitchens. To appeal to some staff and students, more Fairtrade produce, such as coffee and fruit, has been introduced, and environmental and sustainability policies have been developed.

The company has also invested in training to drive up service levels, with staff undergoing hygiene, health and safety training. The company offers Eat Well, Live Well nutrition courses, too, plus customer care programmes, incorporated into staff coffee breaks.

A single management team has been put in place, which has improved consistency levels and communication across departments. "It's easier for the client to talk to us across campus now," explains Harrison. "We can interpret this at a local level, so a bursar at a particular college can exercise some influence."

With a large international student community, getting to know the individual requirements of each site has been particularly important for the company. For that reason, while a framework menu has been devised for all halls, different menus are produced in each according to the diverse tastes of the student population. Extra training is available for chefs wanting to brush up their skills in different types of cuisine - a recent course in Japanese sushi-making, for instance, was heavily oversubscribed.

There are, though, still similarities for the company with operations in the school meal sector. With cash-pressed students making up a large proportion of the university's customers, it's a price-sensitive market - as are the contracts under which caterers work at primary and secondary level. "Food costs are an issue, as in the rest of the education market," says Harrison, "but you don't gain much in reducing waste when you run different sites. There's not a huge amount you can do."

Competition from high-street brands is another obvious pressure but, according to Harrison, the quality of food is more important. "If you can put great food in front of people, you give higher value in a price-aware environment," he says. "That's one advantage of cooking fresh food on site, because the product is better. A sandwich that was made 24 hours earlier and then chilled right down just doesn't taste as good."

The main difference in servicing the higher education sector lies in what Harrison calls the "undulations" of university life. "Eating patterns are unpredictable," he says. "Not every student always comes down to breakfast or wants an evening meal, but you probably have a large number who want to stoke up at certain times of the day."

The company's growth means that it has already outgrown its existing head office in Thame, Oxfordshire, and new office space is being opened later this year. As for client development, Harrison doesn't rule out moving further into the higher education sector. "It's an exciting market and it works for us," he says, "but we want to grow steadily."

Harrison's history

  • Projected turnover for year ending March 2009 £45m
  • Staff 2,500
  • 1994 Founded by Geoffrey Harrison (pictured) with £230,000 of funding
  • 1996 Wins contract with Flight Refuelling in Wimborne, Dorset
  • 2003 Gains £3m five-year contract with the London Borough of Ealing, providing 9,500 meals a day to 59 primary and special schools
  • November 2003 Buys 13 contracts from Yorkshire-based O'Malleys Kitchen Restaurants, with £2m annual turnover
  • 2005 Wins £2m-turnover contract to feed 3,200 Carphone Warehouse staff over five sites
  • 2007 £4m school meals contract agreed with the London Borough of Bexley
  • October 2007 Wins £3m three-year contract with the University of London

Harrison's key clients

Carphone Warehouse

  • 5,000 employees
  • 4,250 meals daily
  • £3.5m turnover

This national contract covers six sites in London, Birmingham and Manchester. At the Carphone Warehouse headquarters in Acton, west London, 2,000 staff receive meals over seven days, and deli bar and hospitality facilities are provided for meetings and the executive management team.

Jack Morton Worldwide

  • 100 employees
  • £140,000 turnover

Harrison has provided catering for this global marketing agency for six years.

London Borough of Ealing

  • 59 schools
  • 8,000 meals per day
  • £2.9m turnover

The contract started in 2003, and a deal has been signed for another five years for meals across the borough's 59 primary and special schools.

Gordon's School, Surrey

  • 650 pupils
  • £520,000 turnover

Work with this volunteer-aided coâ€'educational state school for full and weekly boarders and day pupils started in 1996, providing meals for more than 650 pupils.

Mossbourne Community Academy, Hackney, east London

  • 650 pupils
  • £270,000 contract value

The contract began with the school's launch in September 2004, catering for several hundred children of diverse ethnicities.

City of London Academy

  • 740 pupils
  • £230,000 turnover

Serving of main meals, desserts, sandwiches, fresh fruit and healthy drinks began in September 2005. Harrison also produces a range of low-sugar, home-baked cakes.

Dane Court Grammar School, Broadstairs, Kent

  • 1,200 pupils
  • £130,000 turnover

Contract began in September 1997 for students aged 11 to 18. In a kitchen with limited facilities, the company was asked to provide a service to encourage students to turn away from the many retail take-away outlets close to the school.

Cranleigh Prep and Senior School, Surrey

  • 638 pupils (350 boarders)
  • £830,000 turnover

Contract began in April 2004, taking over from Sodexo to provide a service to both prep school and senior school pupils, plus special events for more than 1,000 visitors.

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