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The Caterer

Planet Holyrood

17 November 2004
Planet Holyrood

The controversy surrounding the lengthy delays and spiralling cost of the Scottish Parliament building, Holyrood, which officially opened on 9 October, created a uniquely challenging working environment for all staff, including those of catering contractor Sodexho. The media have had a field day, with journalists testing Holyrood's security and scrutinising every aspect of how it's run.

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Nearly £500m has been sunk into the building, but its original budget was just £40m. Both of the men who planned the project - architect Enric Miralles and First Minister Donald Dewar - sadly died before seeing the finished product.

Sodexho general manager Sandy Thomassen explains: "Everyone's fed up with the cost, and the media are looking for stories. Everyone's under the microscope. It puts more pressure on you. There's a media village in here, which is quite worrying." As we speak, a television crew is setting up near by.

Things got off to a bad start for Sodexho shortly after the move from the interim parliament building in August. About £8,000 of restaurant takings went missing from Thomassen's safe. The money had been waiting to be picked up by a security firm. Police have ruled out the possibility that someone walked in off the street and took the money, and believe it was an "inside job". The only people who knew the combination were four Sodexho managers.

The four were carted off to the police station for questioning, which Thomassen found very upsetting. The questioning was personal and rigorous, and back at work he says: "I sat down here and fell to pieces. It's been the hardest three weeks of my life." Police say the investigation is still ongoing.

The number of Sodexho employees has increased from 18 to 52 since the new building opened. Thomassen says that all staff went through security clearance from the police national computer and the Scottish Criminal Records Office, and all references were double-checked.

Journalists also pounced after some MSPs took issue with the sale of sandwiches made in England in the public caf‚. Priced at £2.80, the pre-packaged sandwiches available to visitors are manufactured by Oldfields in Chorley, Lancashire. Sodexho has promised to introduce Scottish-made alternatives later in the year, but defended the English sandwiches, saying they were very popular and had sold in great numbers. Thomassen adds: "It's the quality of the product that's the issue. They are superb sandwiches."

Another incident arose from a casual comment Thomassen made to a colleague about the porridge. Thomassen had said: "You're using the wrong oatmeal. It should be flake oatmeal, not pin." A few hours later he had a call from Sodexho's public relations office in London saying that journalists had been ringing up alleging, "They can't even make porridge properly at the new Scottish Parliament."

The next morning a scrum of salivating hacks arrived at the staff canteen to try out the porridge. But Sodexho was prepared. It visibly promoted Scotts, a local brand of porridge oats, and served up the finest steaming oatmeal. "What could have been bad press turned out to be fantastic," Thomassen remembers. He adds that in addition to authentic porridge, Sodexho uses a local bakery for its rolls, and the shortbread freshly made on site has been highly praised.

The construction delays have been frustrating. When Thomassen took the job, the original contract was for 18 months. More than five years later he's finally moved from the interim parliament building at George IV Bridge, also in Edinburgh. "There have been other, better-paid opportunities for me with Sodexho during that time. But I knew this was going to be the most prestigious catering management job in Scotland," he says, thoughtfully.

Staff at Holyrood are jumpy during our visit, the day before its official opening by the Queen. If you idle unattended for more than a few seconds, a security guard appears at your elbow, asking who you are and who you are with. Cooking is interrupted for two hours while the upper basement kitchen is searched for bombs.

Despite such setbacks, there's a buzz of activity everywhere you look. Everyone wants to gain publicity from involvement with the Scottish Parliament. Plaisir du Chocolat, a local chocolatiŠre, is providing the cake for dinner. It has also donated an enormous cake that will be cut into 1,500 pieces and given to charities to distribute to care homes and hospitals.

Sodexho has a three-year contract with an option for a further three years. The contract has an annual turnover of £1.3m to cover food costs, disposables and labour, and Sodexho takes a percentage of cash sales as an annual management fee.

Is the contract lucrative? Managing director of Sodexho Scotland David Pease smiles: "I'd have to be careful about using words like ‘lucrative' as it looks like the Parliament is wasting money. The tendering process was very rigorous and focused on both quality and price. It's not run on a profit basis. It's a subsidy."

While sales at Sodexho UK & Ireland as a whole have continued to drop during the 12 months to 31 August, according to Pease, sales in Scotland are on the up, with recent contract wins adding £5.8m to an annual Scottish turnover of £70m.

A year ago the Scottish business and industry division was restructured. National corporate account clients that were previously managed from England are now managed from Scotland. Pease claims this change to a wholly Scottish-managed business has raised contract retention from 82% to 90% and increased team motivation.

Whatever your opinion of devolution or architect Miralles's design, the Scottish Parliament is undoubtedly a flagship contract for Sodexho UK & Ireland.

"We've built the whole operation up from scratch, and all our equipment and communications systems have had to be tested, adjusted and tested again," Pease concludes. "Once all of that is operating successfully we only have to create menus, cook food and serve it - and that's what we're best at." n

Official opening by the Queen

Catering requirements
Cooked breakfast for 950
Mid-morning tea, coffee and shortbread for 1,900 throughout the building
Buffet lunch for 1,500
Afternoon tea, coffee and shortbread for 600
Drinks reception and dinner for 120

Buffet lunch menu - Sesame and coriander choux pastry, hummus, cherry tomato and basil dressing

  • Haggis balls and an Arran mustard dip
  • Smoked chicken roulade with wild mushrooms
  • Fish cake
  • Prawn and melon on a brochette

Dinner menu

  • A demitasse of celeriac soup with a hint of parsnip, topped with mushroom dust

D'Istinto Cataratto-Chardonnay, Calatrasi, 2003
- Shot glass of crabbies jelly with apple sorbet and an apple crisp
- Fillet of Scotch beef with creamed spinach, fondant potato filled with wild mushroom rago-t, stovie cake and rosemary and rowanberry jus
ChÁ¢teau Prieure-Lichine, créme cru classé, 1993
- Duo of bramble parfait and buttermilk panna cotta, confit kumquat, rhubarb spiced syrup and puff candy
Auslese, Pfalz, Langenbach, 2002
- Chef's selection of Scottish cheeses
Graham's Late Bottled Vintage Port, 1997
- Coffee and chocolate cake
Scottish Parliament 10-year-old Malt Whisky

How to deal with media attention If, like Sodexho, you find yourself having to fend off a pack of hungry journalists, Ann Mealor, deputy director at the Institute of Public Relations, and hotel and restaurant PR Rochelle Cohen have some practical advice:

- Before you say or do anything, find out exactly what happened.
- Once you've agreed the line to take, make
sure everyone in the company is briefed.
- Clients, customers and staff may all need reassuring. Your message must be consistent.
- Even if the issue isn't your fault, it's still important to get across your side of the story.
- Nominate one or two people to take calls from the press.
- Another good tactic is to prepare a written statement. Don't admit any liability at this stage. Just stick to the facts.
- Hiding behind "no comment" is a risky strategy. It's far better to communicate. That way you can take control of what to say and portray yourself in a positive light.
- Having the press on your doorstep is an opportunity to show your professionalism.
- If you have a website, make sure it's up-to-date and accurate.
- It is possible to emerge with a stronger public image than before.
by Emma Allen

Kitchen of Dark deeds The 17th-century Queensberry House, now incorporated into the new parliament building, has its own dedicated kitchen for the Scottish Executive's private dining. The kitchen holds a grizzly place in Scottish history after an event that took place in 1707 on the day the Treaty of Union was signed, putting an end to Scotland's independence.

When the household departed to sign the Act of Union, the Duke of Queensberry left his mentally disabled son, James, behind unattended. The boy, who was described as "rabid, gluttonous and huge", was attracted to the kitchen by the cooking smells. Here he found a young spit boy idly turning the handle over the fire for the day's roast dinner. James seized the boy, took the meat from the spit, replaced it with the struggling youth, and began to cook him. When the family returned, the demented James was found contentedly eating the half-cooked spit boy.

Sodexho's head chef Jack Evans says: "It's a relief to me that there are no open fires left in the building. Because of the historic nature of Queensberry House, I can only cook by electricity."

Sodexho's catering operation also includes a ground-floor caf‚ and 160-seat staff restaurant served by the upper-basement kitchen. There are 17 lifts that lead to all corners of the building. On the first floor there is an 120-seat restaurant, which is open to all pass holders on Mondays and Fridays. During the rest of the week it is reserved for MSPs and their guests. This is served by its own kitchen.

The same security card that MSPs use to vote and open doors can be charged with cash to pay at restaurant tills.

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