Trying to keep all the staff in a catering company happy can be difficult, especially when so many spend their working days toiling in hot kitchens. Tom Vaughan goes to find out how Harrison Catering Services is keeping the smiles on dinner ladies' faces
The traditional notion of a school dinner lady is by no means outdated. Paula Eavis, human resources adviser to Harrisons Catering Services, admits that, even in this day and age, a large number of Harrisons staff are women who align their working hours with their children's school days.
Keeping staff happy all the way down the ladder is hard in any business, but it takes on an added dimension in school catering, when those near the bottom may see their job as one of convenience rather than ambition. The key to tackling this, says Eavis, is to ensure that Harrisons doesn't lose the aura of a family business that has surrounded it since its formation 12 years ago.
The company took over the contract to provide meals for nursery, primary and special schools in the London Borough of Lambeth two years ago and now employs more than 260 staff across 64 schools on the contract. After adopting a large number of personnel from the previous contractor, Service Team, Harrisons has managed to cut staff turnover from 40% to 22%.
According to Eavis, the answer to keeping staff is to make them feel that they are working for a family company, not a corporate machine, and key to this is keeping open a constant dialogue with them.
"We are a family company and we want staff to realise this," says Eavis. "This involves what we call 360-degree communication - communication from the top down but also from the bottom up. Staff have to have the confidence that their voice is being heard; otherwise, we would be in charge of a series of microcosms rather than a whole company."
Staff are encouraged to give feedback as much as possible. So while company news filters down via means of regular communication such as newsletters, staff are able to submit their own feedback. This, in turn, will be read and replied to by area and group managers or, in many cases, by Geoffrey Harrison himself, the owner and founder of Harrisons Catering.
Training is also a major part of the Harrisons philosophy, intended to ensure that staff do not leave because they feel they aren't being stretched.
The company prides itself on cooking 98% of ingredients from scratch, and pre-empted Jamie Oliver's flag-waving campaign to improve school meals. However, when it took over in Lambeth, it found that the previous caterers had spent the preceding five or six years working predominantly with deep-fat fryers rather than fresh produce.
"We had to go back to basics," says Nicola Turk, of the company's client management services. "A lot of the staff we adopted were Inner London Education Authority-trained cooks, but the past few years had left those skills unused."
Breath of fresh air
With Harrisons, all the staff underwent workshops on cooking fresh meat and vegetables. According to Turk, most saw it as a breath of fresh air compared with their previous roles. The children also reacted positively to the new food, with meal take-up rising from 53% to 72% in the past two years, meaning that Harrisons now cooks more than 10,000 school meals a day.
Internal promotion is also an area where Harrisons aims to continue improvement. Catering assistants can apply to join the trainee cook scheme, on which they will learn the cooking basics that will enable them to further their role in the kitchen. The career trajectory is evident - all Harrisons' current area managers were once cook-managers themselves.
As well as training staff in the use of fresh produce, Eavis has introduced a "customer care programme" to the schools. Using modules she devised herself, cook-managers - who are individually responsible for a whole school - sit down with their respective teams for 20 minutes, scheduled at their discretion, to discuss aspects of customer service and to try to educate and improve the team. "The role of tutor enriches the job of head chef and also proves cost-effective," says Eavis.
Not only do kitchen staff have cook-managers as mentors, they can also call on Harrisons' craft trainer, Ian Marvell. An experienced member of the catering industry, Marvell is dedicated to visiting schools and solving difficulties in the kitchen. "For example," says Turk, "if we have a catering assistant who is struggling preparing salads, then he will spend 15 minutes one-to-one with him."
When it comes to attracting new staff, Turk feels that the task has become easier. "The perception of school meals is changing, and it is becoming easier to attract the right people," she says. "The stigma that used to surround school kitchens is easing."
Most staff are now recruited through advertising in school magazines and literature, by word of mouth and only occasionally through outside agencies.
Another aspect to the familial nature of Harrisons is the annual cooks conference, where cook-managers gather to network and to hear the previous year's results and the forthcoming year's ambitions. Again, communication is the key, says Turk, making sure that all cook-managers realise the part they play in the success of the company.
With Harrisons growing, how long can the family company mentality last? "The perpetuation of that culture is going to be the biggest challenge facing Harrisons in the future," says Eavis. "Communication all the way down is our lifeblood, and is why people want to come and work for us."
Ask an expert
Carol Ann Guilford, of HR Solutions, offers advice on keeping a "family feeling"…
In the 21st century employees have different expectations about their working environment and job. They want to be treated as individuals, be happy, feel valued and have good relationships with their boss and colleagues. They also want to trust the employer, so they look for family-friendly companies.
Initiatives you can provide to maintain this family feeling are:
Enhanced payments for statutory entitlements such as maternity or paternity.
Family fun days and other social events to cater for all employees.
Flexible benefits - for example, swapping pension contributions for options such as gym membership or buyback of holidays.
Flexible working, which includes job-sharing, term-time, flexi-time or reduced or compressed hours.
Good communication - includes such things as team and/or company meetings and just talking to employees.
Recognition schemes that encourage staff involvement and the sharing of ideas.
Harrisons Catering Services
Set up: 1994
Clients: split between industry and education, with a 75% bias towards education - 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%
Human resources structure: HR is headed up by Paula Eavis. The Lambeth contract is divided into three areas, each with an area support manager. In conjunction with a group manager, they look after 64 schools; each school then has a cook-manager in charge of a kitchen assistant, a trainee cook and an assistant cook