We are all aware of the negative aspects of the pandemic and for us these were largely things we couldn’t change. However, for us in Campus Commerce, as we were already a year into the process of transforming our offer in March 2020, we made a conscious decision to take advantage of the unusual pausing of many of our services. Our central aim is ‘providing quality food and drink, made from scratch, delivering the highest levels of customer satisfaction, increasing customer uptake, in a manner that is financially, environmentally and socially sustainable’. Putting this into practice, does require time from the people who understood our operations in detail rather than huge amounts of investment or external consultants as it is requires careful thought and a methodical approach to ensure strong foundations.
We had expected to spend around 3 years re-formulating, testing, developing and writing recipes that observed the 24 Principles of covered by the Menus of Change framework. The luxury of having more time, allowed our Head Chef to complete around 6,500 recipes in 12 months. These recipes are then used to populate our 51 week menu cycle reflecting seasonality and our new approach to food.
Transforming our services will still take several years to achieve, as Campus Commerce is a large and complex operation, running seven days per week for up to 18 hours per day (and Park Eat, has remained open every day for three meals per day throughout COVID). It offers everything from bar meals to residential dining with around 60 permanent staff including our Chefs and 400+ student workers based across 8 sites. Training our team is a huge task in itself with anything from on-site training to podcasts being used – it certainly isn’t as simple as a flick of a switch.
Pork is a great illustration of this of example of this. We are on a deliberate path of reducing the portion sizes of meat, to allow us to source better quality while holding prices. It was quick to switch pork to UK sourced however sourcing locally was more complicated. Working closely with our butcher, they went and spoke to various producers with estimates of what we were likely to use and when, establish pricing and then come back to us with a proposal. We accepted that in February, and the first free-range pork, all sourced from one farm, will arrive on our plates in September, as the farmer adjusts his working to include us.
Understanding our customers better has been another piece of exciting work. One of my team wrote his Henley Business School Masters’ dissertation on an in-depth look at what students really want. Interestingly, Catering was widely seen as an important aspect of student live, those who were Catered said it made their life easier and those that had to isolate during the last year, were happier with Catering than those who hadn’t, due to the support provided to them. We have also developed relationships with a number of US Universities who operate exceptional food offerings on their campuses hitting all the right boxes – great nutrition, popular amongst both staff and students (one example had 90% of students voluntarily opting into Catering in their second year) and financially sustainable. All ran on a model that the happier you made your customers, the more people used you, allowed you to achieve volume, allowing pricing to be more competitive. Again, easy to say, much harder to do.
The work with academic colleagues on developing the Living Laboratories concept, where we utilise the University’s Dining Rooms to support teaching and research, and sharing of knowledge and expertise is another gradual but steady change. We are all learning more each week about what we all do, how we do it, what facilities we have as University and how to elevate our amazing University and gain another competitive edge by working together.
Over time, we hope that working collaboratively both with colleagues within the University and within the Menus of Change Universities Research Collaborative, of which we are the first European member, we can bring benefit to our entire campus population by offering better nutrition to all, implementing our research into our outlets, using food as recruitment tool for both staff and students. We have lots to look forward to in the future including developing our community teaching and demonstration kitchen, the first pieces of fruit from the National Fruit Collection reaching our Dining Rooms and the replacement of our IT systems, allowing us to provide a wealth of information to those visiting us such as upcoming menus, nutrition, allergens and providing data for academic research and teaching.
Matt Tebbit is the Head of Residential Catering and Bars.