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The Caterer

Seats of earning

01 June 2004
Seats of earning

When it comes to updating school kitchen and restaurant space, the options might be limited by budgets, but making the space available for other paying users can make it more viable.

This was the approach adopted by a Surrey comprehensive school when it decided to open a new restaurant, which will double as a cybercaf‚ with public access. The school had outgrown its old dining area, which was built in the late 1930s when there were only 350 pupils. Now there are more than 1,500.

The project was made more financially viable when the Howard of Effingham School was awarded specialist status for science in 2002, and the ensuing grant went some way to meeting the project's £250,000 cost. The resulting cybercaf‚, which is believed to be unique, has a twofold aim: as well as providing much-needed additional space to accommodate pupils for lunch, it's also expected to generate income for the school through its use by the local community.

Salad bar The new canteen is open to pupils aged 10 to 13, while the old canteen is reserved solely for the use of pupils aged seven, eight and nine. As well as offering a selection of hot dishes, baguettes and paninis, the extra space has allowed for the introduction of a salad bar.

"The cybercaf‚ has improved the facilities within the school immensely and generated interest among the local community," says head teacher Rona Barnfield. "As a much-needed second dining hall, it enables all students to eat their midday meal in very civilised surroundings, which has had a positive impact on the culture of the school."

Pupils are able to sit and enjoy their lunch at a more leisurely pace, knowing they will no longer be pushed out by the next sitting of students, and there has also been a huge reduction in litter around the school. Before the new canteen opened, pupils had to eat their packed lunches in the playgrounds. Now all food, including packed lunches, must be eaten in one of the two restaurants.

While the new canteen's immediate impact is upon the ethos of the school itself, school caterers and local authorities will be keeping a close eye on the long-term financial benefits.

A visit to the cybercaf‚ at the Howard of Effingham school, soon after the new space had started to cater for pupils during morning and lunch breaks, revealed a site with high vaulted ceilings and full-length glass windows opening out on to a grassed area. The computers, of which there will be 20, and an interactive whiteboard, were yet to be installed, and operating details are still undecided, but the enthusiasm for the project from the school's assistant head teacher, Ben Bartlett, was palpable.

Letting space
"The potential for the development of the cybercaf‚, and its use as a letting space for functions, is enormous," says Bartlett. "We're working out when the caf‚ will be open to the public - should it only be after school hours or should it include the hour before morning break, say 9.30-10.30am, as well as after lunch, from 2.30-3.30pm?

"Whatever the timings, the security of pupils will be our paramount concern. So it's important that the use of the room as a cybercaf‚ is kept separate from its use as a school canteen."

It's likely that the cybercaf‚ will be opened to registered users who want to drop in on a casual basis, as opposed to members of the general public.

Also under consideration is the type of catering to be offered. Chris Hillier, regional manager of the school's caterer, the direct service organisation Surrey Commercial Services (SCS), says he will consider any request from the school.

"It depends on the demand from customers and what they want," he says. "We could offer just teas and coffees or something more comprehensive. We might suggest vending as a way forward, but many schools are against vending."

As to catering for functions, Hillier explains that this could be provided on an individual basis with the customer liaising through the school or directly with SCS.

Whichever route the Howard of Effingham decides to take, the unique dual facility could well become a blueprint for the development of new school restaurants in the future.

Generating extra income from school canteens Potential new growth areas for the education caterer are highlighted in the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) School Meals Survey, published recently.

In particular, there is the emergence of an after-school supper service, offered by almost 6% of secondary schools in England and 10% of those in Wales. Breakfast is already a well-established trend. From virtually no provision a few years ago, about half of all secondary schools are now offering a full breakfast service.

Beyond providing additional meal services to pupils, extra income, generated by offering a catering service to outside customers, is patchy. Surrey County Council, it seems, is one local authority ahead of all others in this respect. As well as the cybercaf‚ at the Howard of Effingham school, a caf‚ will open in September at the newly launched Children's Centre in nearby Guildford. The centre was formed from the amalgamation of two nurseries and will eventually have 60 pupils. It will also provide other services, including ante- and post-natal care and parenting workshops.

The children, who eat in a dining room area of the main hall, will be kept separate from the general public in the purpose-built caf‚. The food, all freshly prepared by Surrey Commercial Services, will be served from one kitchen. With a three-course meal expected to cost about £5, the caf‚ is expected to attract students and disadvantaged families.

Some schools generate income by letting out their facilities for training and functions during after-school hours. The direct service organisations in Hampshire, Suffolk and Devon, for instance, all provide catering for such events when required.

However, it's in the private school sector, where the facilities are more attractive, that the scope for hosting lucrative events and functions is greatest. With 500 acres of grounds and a dining hall seating 700 and topped by a stunning cupola designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it's not surprising that Haileybury School in Hertfordshire is busy with outside catering events, from which it earns an annual turnover of £600,000.

"Our priority is feeding the pupils," says Joyce Goodwin, conference and banqueting manager at the co-educational boarding school which caters for 700 11- to 18-year-olds. "We do run some smaller functions during term time, but it's during the holiday periods that we're particularly busy, catering for language and sports schools as well as for many major events, including weddings and Army functions."

Scolarest, the educational division of Compass Group, runs the catering at Haileybury. The company's managing director, Mike Bond, who is responsible for independent schools, colleges and universities, agrees that catering for hospitality and functions is a growing business within the independent schools sector.

"As well as a fantastic marketing opportunity for the schools, the functions also provide variety for the kitchen brigades," he says.

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