Graduating with honours: TUCO's Julie Barker

08 March 2016 by
Graduating with honours: TUCO's Julie Barker

Public Sector Caterer Catey 2015 winner Julie Barker, director of accommodation and hospitality at University of Brighton, tells Rosalind Mullen what she would like to achieve in her final year as chair of the University Caterers Organisation

Where did your hospitality career begin?

I am a classically trained chef, but apart from some stints with Trusthouse Forte and Bass Charrington, I honed my career in the public sector, particularly in hospital catering. I had a fragmented education, but was good at culinary work and my parents were pub managers so I grew up with food and beverage (F&B) in my blood.

You are known as the driving force behind the University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), but tell us first about your day job.

In 1991, I moved south from Yorkshire and applied for a job in the education sector as catering officer at the University of Brighton. I then worked up to director of accommodation and hospitality, which is a more strategic role, and I now manage a £20m budget.

And what about your role with TUCO?

I became a member in 1995 and was made chair in 2010. The usual term for a chair is four years, but in 2012 the parent and subsidiary organisations merged and I was re-elected to oversee the whole. TUCO represents in-house caterers, which tend to be closer to the customers and the university than contract caterers. My job is to raise awareness of TUCO and to share information and services to enhance the performance of our members.

How does TUCO help members to meet the universities' increasing demands?

TUCO offers value for money purchasing services with a minimal administration process; training opportunities that are subsidised, accredited and delivered regionally; research opportunities, whereby we discuss members' research and funding requirements to develop their business; and network opportunities, so they can share ideas and learn from other members.

Can you tell us more about the development of the procurement service?

TUCO was originally set up more than 50 years ago so that like-minded people could network. Then, about 40 years ago, there was an interest in collaborative procurement and that side of things is now huge. The team are now responsible for a spend of about £200m on TUCO contracts.

We've now streamlined the process to include information on EU compliance, relevant accreditation and terms and conditions all in one place. The framework agreements tailored to members' specific requirements mean they can leverage TUCO's purchasing power and economies of scale. Our annual independent audit reveals the contribution it makes to our members' bottom line, with collective savings of more than £10m in 2014.

Yes. In the summer we launched the TUCO Academy in partnership with Southbank University. We have held culinary and front-of-house competitions for the past 26 years and we have always provided training for members, but not on such a strategic level. This is one of the first sector-specific led training academies. These accredited courses are held across the country and span craft skills, compliance, professional development and personal growth, enabling employees to develop not only within their institution, but in the wider university hospitality sector.

What drove you to launch the academy?

The need to address the skills shortage. Hospitality recruitment in the education sector is in some ways tougher than the rest of the industry because people don't always see it as an option for a career. But in the long-term it is not as bad, because once we have recruited them, they tend to stay.

Some caterers are recruiting university students as casual staff while they study. But why might people then choose to work permanently in the education sector?

The sector is broad in what we deliver - from feeding students to hosting corporate or VIP events that attract dignitaries and even royalty. The scope of work is fantastic. There are also fewer unsociable hours and the terms and conditions are good, so when they do see us as an opportunity, we tend to keep them. Nevertheless, recruitment is challenging, particularly in certain regions.

TUCO also supports a lot of research. What has emerged as significant recently?

In July, we revealed the results of extensive research into university catering and eating habits across 3,000 students in the USA and UK. They cited a low price point as an important factor, and tended to prefer eating five smaller meals a day rather than the

traditional three, suggesting a new revenue opportunity through snacking. We also found that 67% of international students like to try different dishes and the top three cuisines they would like to see more of were Chinese (42%), Italian (31%) and Japanese (30%).

Tell us what students want to eat.

Student tastes tend to be dominated by the high street and trends from the USA. But, a university with a high number of international students will have more demand for, say, Asian or halal food, and our members have to respond to that. We are also seeing trends from South America and variations on sushi and so on. Of course, the café culture is still hot and the healthy eating trend is a big one.

The TUCO annual conference 2015

With Chinese students now the biggest source of international tuition fees, did anything useful emerge from TUCO's trip to China?

Yes. In the autumn, we took a group of members on a study trip to China to learn from practices at Peking, Nankai and Hong Kong universities. Key findings were that Chinese people do not snack, they have three meals a day and they love food from their provincial homes.

Various things need to change. For instance, we should not be charging for chopsticks. Also, our typical British breakfast would be very daunting for Chinese students. Their typical breakfast would be steamed buns, congee and broths (similar to consommé) that they build up by adding noodles, coriander and chillies to taste - some universities have been using the wrong recipe for this.

We are looking to produce an authentic cookbook representing the most popular dishes served in Chinese universities. We will also look at potential exchange visits for chefs.

What are you focusing on in your final year as chair?

The sustainability agenda. We worked with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) to develop a rating that will work in education catering. It was piloted by Brighton and Plymouth universities, which earned the highest rating, and is now available throughout the UK.

Four years ago, I approached the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges, which didn't have a category for F&B. This has resulted in the development of an F&B award.

Students and staff expect ethically sourced food, but sustainability for our members has to align with delivering quality meals against a strict budget. A joint system of application or information sharing, therefore, helps to support caterers.

You are also pushing healthy eating.

Yes. I will be raising awareness on nutrition and healthy eating and getting it onto the agenda for higher education institutions. I am developing formal relationships with organisations such as the Jamie Oliver Foundation and Adopt a School. We need to engage with young adults because they will be our customers soon. We feed young adults and have a responsibility to share information on new initiatives.

Universities are increasingly seeing the value of investing in F&B. Can you explain more?

F&B outlets at universities today include large restaurants, food courts, cafés, enhanced cafés such as Pret and so on. Some universities provide funding for F&B development.

However, there has been an interesting evolution in halls of residence. Traditionally, these had no catering facility, but new-build halls have included kitchens. That is now coming full circle. The cost of developing accommodation with kitchens is expensive. Cookery is no longer on the curriculum, and a generation is coming through with no culinary skills. In some cases, this has resulted in malnourished students, and it is also impacting on behaviour.

In response, a number of universities have reversed the self-catering trend by offering catering packages - some include it in the rent. The feedback after one year is that students now have fewer health issues, plus the police report a reduction in antisocial behaviour.

You feel strongly about putting cookery back on the curriculum.

Yes - watch this space. Plans are at an embryonic stage in respect to developing students' skills and knowledge. Removing culinary skills teaching from the curriculum was a huge mistake. We are seeing the results in schools and universities now.

Julie Barker in a nutshell

  • Chair of TUCO, responsible for board management and company duties
  • Director accommodation and hospitality services at the University of Brighton, both on and off campus
  • Qualified chef, and passionate advocate of the industry
  • Public Sector Catey winner 2015
  • Member of the Women 1st Top100 Club
  • Fellow of the Institute of Hospitality
  • PS100 Group ranked as one of the cost sector's Most Influential Top 20

TUCO in a nutshell

The University Caterers Organisation is an independent not-for-profit company owned by higher and further education institutions that are its members. Its aim is to advance education and training in relation to catering and hospitality and it achieves this through providing training courses, conferences, exhibitions and competitions

It also offers a group purchasing service, exploiting economies ofscale by co-ordinating the demand of individual universities and colleges.

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