Harrison Catering staff in Lambeth try to reflect the different cultures of the local children in the range and variety of dishes they offer
Harrison Catering Services founder Geoffrey Harrison has just got back from five days in Las Vegas. He wasn't, of course, gambling away his company's profits in the casinos. He was there to enhance his business, checking out a new Indian restaurant that a contact back home has launched.
"I was interested in how they style their food out there," says Harrison. "In the USA they naturally upsell, whereas here we just take the order. It was also interesting to see non-Indian staff selling Indian food, but they were well-trained and articulate. We lose revenue over here by, for instance, not selling Indian desserts. That is something we will be working on."
This might all seem a million miles away from a contract catering business where 75% of business is with independent and state schools. But it's not. Harrison has developed a mutually beneficial link with Raja Majid, owner of Origin Asia, in Kew, and now Origin India in Las Vegas.
The staff of both companies work with each other - no cash is involved - sharing craft skills and ideas. Majid's kitchen brigade recently decamped to Harrison's contract at Carphone Warehouse, where they pooled cooking methods.
"It helps us to develop the authenticity of our Asian food, which we can then use in our schools," explains Harrison.
This is particularly useful at his contract at the London Borough of Lambeth, where there is a wide ethnic mix across the 64 schools. The 260 staff try to reflect the cultures of the local children in the range and variety of dishes they offer.
Looking ahead, Harrison is keen to build on his achievements at Lambeth. Staff turnover, for instance, has been reduced from 40% to 22%, which has helped alleviate the knock-on effect on stability and cost.
To take this further, from September he is launching the Lambeth Academy, spearheaded by manager of client services Nicola Turk and human resources adviser Paula Eavis. The idea is that they will select six catering assistants to be trained over an academic year up to cook level. Some of the training will be done by executive chef Mark Stower and craft trainer Ian Marvell, who will be putting together a programme to develop good cooking skills.
One planned initiative is to take the apprentices to work at a Carphone Warehouse contract where Harrison feeds 1,500 people a day. Once there, they will see how a deli and theatre cooking works. In addition, they'll work with cooks in the borough, go out to markets and suppliers to learn about ingredients and attend workshops on menu planning and ordering.
The aim is to show the catering team in Lambeth that there is a clear career route if they stay with the company. It will be an annual programme, probably with numbers doubling in year two, and once it has been refined they will roll it out.
"It's a win-win situation for us. Evidence shows that the more formalised the route, the better the staff attitude, and for us it will create staff continuity."
In other contracts, craft training is already paying off, with dishes such as kedgeree being cooked well. "It's not such an easy dish, and I had images of undercooked rice and overcooked eggs," says Harrison. "But because of the training that isn't the case."
As the summer term kicks off, Harrison wants to head off the predicted 3% drop in uptake that is likely to be triggered by the increased number of school trips and outdoor activities.
To generate excitement, Harrison's team are launching a four-week menu programme called Summer Fun. Tuesdays, for instance, will be ice-cream day on Wednesdays children will be able to choose from a deli to make their own lunches and on Thursdays they will exploit supplier links to feature an unusual fruit, such as tiger melon, which has the added benefit of keeping awareness of healthy eating high.
The term will go out on a high with indoor barbecues scheduled across the schools for 4 July. While adhering to nutritional standards, the children will be allowed to build their own burgers - flavours include lamb and rosemary - served with a range of breads, such as focaccia, and chunky chips along with relishes such as guacamole and salsa. In schools where it's possible, the barbecue will be outdoors.
Pricing hasn't been decided yet. Harrison is aware that with some promotions this can be an issue. For instance, a sandwich lunch is priced at £1.80, but for that you get salad and a dessert - unfortunately, there is a perception that you just get a sandwich.
And what of the bigger picture? With school meals accounting for 75% of his company's contracts, Harrison has understandably been pondering the future of school meal uptake.
"I wonder what will be left when the school meals issue drops off the front page," he muses. "There has been a 6% drop in uptake of school meals [across all UK caterers] and I suspect that any money given by the Government to improve the service has been absorbed in trying to plug that hole."
Nutrition is important to Harrison. He refers to the fact that 17% of a child's annual food intake is at school, but he says that good eating has to start at home - even before a child reaches school age.
"For some children, the move to eat food that meets Government nutritional standards has been a massive leap," says Harrison. "This manifested itself in the news, with pictures of parents [at other boroughs] handing fish and chips and burgers and chips through the railings when they were enforced."
As we have seen over the past few months in our regular visits to Lambeth, Harrison Catering has made the transition for some children easy by introducing initiatives such as Eat Well, Live Well to improve food education among both staff and pupils. Harrison adds: "General confidence in school meals has been knocked, but it isn't true that we all serve Turkey Twizzlers. That perception has dented the industry."
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Harrison Catering Services
Chris Stern, managing director of Stern Consultancy, comments:
Harrison Catering Services is doing a good job by including ethnic dishes on its school menus.
Schools in general have difficulties in attracting Asian children to take up school meals - even when ethnic dishes are offered.
The reason why many Asian minorities bring their own food to school is because they have strict rules surrounding the quality or preparation of food for religious reasons.
For instance, they may be Hindu, and therefore vegetarian, or they may not eat pork - so simply offering Asian food is not enough for their peace of mind. Meanwhile, non-Asian children may find the food too spicy.
Set up 1994
Client split 75% education, 25% industry - state school meal provision constitutes half of total business
Notable clients Ericsson, Carphone Warehouse, Lambeth council
Turnover last year £36m
Growth Company has doubled in size over past five years
Net profit margin 2-3%
The Lambeth contract
Started September 2004
Number of schools 64
Meals served each day 10,000
Meal cost to parents £1.45
Food cost per pupil 60p a day
Average meal participation levels 68% (up from 52% inherited)
Staff structure HR is headed up by Paula Eavis. The contract is divided into three areas, each with an area support manager. Each school has a cook-manager in charge of a kitchen assistant, a trainee cook and an assistant cook.