School catering standards are improving thanks to the modernisation of primary school kitchens and ongoing investment in colleges and universities, but there’s a long road ahead. FEJ looks at how foodservice equipment suppliers are conquering some of the education sector’s most notorious kitchen design challenges.
The education sector is a vast and varied one, with multiple different strands and layers to it. But if you take the market as a whole then there has only been one topic dominating the conversation over the past 12 months: UIFSM, or Universal Infant Free School Meals for those unfamiliar with the acronym.
Introduced by the coalition government last year to provide free school meals to all infants in reception, year 1 and year 2, the scheme sparked the largest kitchen upgrade and installation programme in the history of school catering. More than £150m was pumped into the project from central government, although many warned from the beginning that the cash wouldn’t stretch far enough. Reports of over-spending by local authorities, and teachers dipping into funds from other budgets to bridge spending deficits, arose within weeks of the grants being allocated.
Still, as far as the catering equipment supply chain is concerned, it instigated a level of activity that far exceeded the usual summer holiday school work which must manufacturers and distributors have grown akin to over the years.
The move prompted both a mixture of one-off sales as part of a general kitchen upgrade, coupled with more expansive refurbishment to cater for the general increase in the number of meals served, and the word is that this has carried over into the summer just passed, although obviously not to the same extent.
Cedabond, a buying group for catering equipment distributors, recently conducted a survey among its members on the impact of UIFSM and one of the observations to come from that was the differences in approach taken by those on the buying and procurement side.
The older sites were still relying primarily upon atmospheric steaming ovens so the opportunity to upgrade to a combi gave them increased versatility”
“There was definitely a mix of both scenarios at the beginning,” reflects Ian Berrow, managing director of C&C Catering Engineers. “One of our regular clients is a local authority who took the opportunity to grab the bull by the horns, completely upgrading the less-equipped sites where funds permitted. We found ourselves completing a number of full kitchen installations in addition to a series of upgrades to such items as combination ovens and dishwashing systems for instance.
“The older sites were still relying primarily upon atmospheric steaming ovens so the opportunity to upgrade to a combi gave them increased versatility and performance, as well as reduced cooking times, so it proved to be a very popular move. The general modernisation of the catering facility overall included installing ventilation systems that, in most cases, vastly improved working conditions for the staff as well as satisfying the current regulatory requirements.”
Of course, not every school wanted or needed to sanction full-scale refurbishments worth tens of thousands of pounds. Many focused on specific areas where they required greater capacity, such as updating dishwashing systems, replacing outdated sterilising sinks or introducing combi ovens.
In the warewashing space, Meiko’s managing director, Bill Downie, believes the impact of the UFISM programme has been an increased interest in contract rental rather than outright purchase.
“This provides state-of-the-art dishwashers at an economic cost for schools and public sector customers who have nothing to pay other than a set monthly rental that remains the same throughout the period of the contract,” he says. “At the end of the rental period the customer can opt to pay a reduced monthly charge for technical support and chemicals, purchase the machine for a one-off payment, or simply ask for the machine to be taken away. In addition, at any time during the rental period, the school can opt to upgrade to a higher throughput machine should the numbers to be catered for increase.”
Investment has also gone into new counters and serveries so that schools can get the extra children through in the short time that service takes place. Some schools solved this challenge by introducing secondary service points in their main halls, so adequate hot holding and service became critical.
Peter Walker, marketing manager at Garners Food Service Equipment, agrees that servery areas have become more important to the education sector. “A lot of focus goes on the kitchen but less on the servery, which plays a major role in the efficiency of that school’s operation and potential profitability,” he says. “Primary schools tend to be within much older building stock than BSF-funded secondary schools, but there are many examples of space-saving, high-production kit we can specify that will address these issues.”
Neil Montgomery, managing director of C&M Kitchen Engineering, also believes that the biggest changes to the way that primary school buyers are thinking has come in the servery area, but even with all the upgrades he warns that there is plenty more to be done: “There are still some works to be undertaken due to access restraints, but that is where being local has a benefit. It allows us to be more flexible with restricted access issues and to provide better response times, which benefit the local authorities.”
Irrespective of product category, the message from many in the supply chain is that buyers need to think beyond the short term when selecting equipment and look for kit which provides flexibility, performance and overall value.
As John Wannan, sales and marketing manager of ER Moffat, notes: “Primary schools often don’t have a dedicated dining area — it’s a multifunctional space. Therefore they will need equipment that can adapt to changing needs. What they don’t want is equipment that will be redundant in a few years. Modular, mobile units allow caterers to change the layout and attributes of the daily food service area easily and simply, and they can be wheeled away when not in use. Using drop-in systems, even the function of a mobile server unit can be changed from, say, hot service to cold.”
The priority for most school buyers with UIFSM budget to invest was ensuring that the equipment specified met their precise needs based on the number of pupils, dietary requirements and kitchen footprint. The space issue posed the most pressing challenge, claims Stuart Flint, regional training and demonstration manager at Electrolux Professional.
“We found that a small footprint was by far the biggest issue for schools,” he says. “Some of the kitchens we saw were so small that it wasn’t always possible to increase the number of meals that could be served and install extra equipment. This is where efficient kitchen design comes in, and it has become even more vital for buyers to talk to equipment suppliers and design consultants to make the most of the space available. An efficient layout, good operating systems and a considered production flow are vital to ensuring kitchens are up to the task of high-volume catering.”
Schools, colleges and universities continue to face budgetary and time management issues. Suppliers that minimise the amount of time and work involved in resolving equipment problems are recognised as making a valuable contribution”
While the UIFSM programme has had its critics, we shouldn’t forget that it has allowed the primary school sector to embark on a modernisation programme which would otherwise never have been possible. Kitchens that were decades old, deploying antiquated cooking techniques, were given makeovers that should last for years to come.
Gareth Newton, managing director of BGL Rieber, ultimately believes the upshot of the UIFSM programme is an improvement in school catering standards through the use of better equipment. “Schools took a long hard look at their catering facilities, and induction — particularly induction with self-ventilation — is being increasingly specified into designs because it brings flexibility and mobility to the school food offer. It comes at a price, so it may not be for everybody but it is a worthwhile investment where you want to highlight that food is being ‘cooked to order’ and communicate the use of all fresh ingredients and healthy eating options.”
School kitchens today have the potential to be more efficient than ever before, but Graham Kille, managing director of Frima, says it is important for kitchen decision-makers to seize the opportunity and not let it slip.
“New-build kitchens are often dictated by the architects and builders who have no real concerns for the longevity of the kitchen design, and so short-sighted decisions are made. School catering managers need to get more involved and fight for the right equipment for their specific catering operation,” he suggests.
Elsewhere in the education sector, business seems to be brisk. Colleges and universities continue to take on large catering projects and there has been a genuine attempt to improve the quality and service on offer. There is increasing diversification of the kinds of catering services offered by higher education providers and universities, particularly with the increasing popularity of grab-and-go or self-service models.
“Creating multiple service areas allows for a variety of choice and price points to cater for large numbers,” says Newton at BGL. “Some university caterers are moving away from the traditional meal offer and have introduced food courts featuring front-of-house cooking alongside other offers.”
Paul Crowley, marketing development manager at warewashing manufacturer Winterhalter, feels that kitchens are certainly becoming a focal point for university developers now, and this is encouraging them to take a more long-term view of procurement.
“A lot of universities are clearly investing in better quality kit. Fees are undoubtedly driving the change and catering facilities are as important when it comes to attracting students to the university. Menu design and increasingly complex food offerings mean the kit has to be flexible and robust enough to cope with changing demands.”
It is not only regular breakfast and lunchtime service that universities have to contend with, many are also involved in high-end catering for conferences and banqueting. This creates a need for multifunctional equipment that is flexible enough to use in a variety of contexts, suggests Mark Hogan, marketing and sales manager of FEM.
“Multifunctional equipment, such as cook and hold ovens, allows university kitchens to maximise output on a smaller footprint, as well as adapt to changing menus and demands,” he says. “Cook and hold ovens enable staff to smooth out peaks and troughs in demand by allowing food to be cooked in advance and held at the perfect temperature for serving. They are ideal for cooking and holding a wide variety of meat, poultry and vegetables, as well as for braising, baking and proofing bread dough.”
Electrolux’s Stuart Flint says that as secondary schools tend to be a lot larger than primary, and universities much larger still, bulk preparation has always been a challenge, and this will not be changing any time soon.
“There will always be the issue of balancing bulk food production with creating healthy plates for students to enjoy. We’re seeing buyers opt for a mix of equipment, such as combi ovens and blast chillers, that will stand cooks in good stead by allowing them to prepare and freeze food in advance, ready to be refreshed just before service,” he concludes.
Meiko’s Downie ends by saying that the role of the supply chain in supporting the education sector remains as important as ever.
“Schools, colleges and universities continue to face budgetary and time management issues. Suppliers that minimise the amount of time and work involved in resolving equipment problems are recognised as making a valuable contribution.”
School overcomes servery space woes
Space was too tight for a conventional servery unit at Corringham Primary near Stanford-le-Hope in Essex, so the school turned to a specialist piece of equipment to solve its dilemma. It brought in K-Pots from BGL Rieber, which are fully mobile, easy to carry and just need plugging in to begin serving. The school now uses up to seven K-Pots at one time.
Head of kitchen, Beverley Bailey, says: “Food is transported here for service but there was not enough space for servery equipment. The K-Pot units really served the purpose. If you are limited for space, then the K-Pots really are fine for both hot and cold food.”
Front cooking induction and ceran heated hobs are also replacing traditional serveries. Food can still be kept warm as required, but these units bring versatility and flexibility by doubling as front cookers, enabling stir-fries, fried-to-order eggs and bacon, Chinese dishes and fresh pasta offers from the same counter. Self-ventilating induction can also be sited remotely, next to lecture theatres for example, to take advantage of foot traffic outside of the main catering facility.
K-Pot offers significant health and safety advantages, according to BGL. It insists there is no risk of fire because it does not use gel heaters like conventional chafers, while it claims risk assessment is much easier.
College kitchen in cornwall fully equipped and ready to welcome chefs from the industry
A new pastry and confectionary kitchen equipped with state-of-the-art kit has opened at Cornwall College St Austell with the backing of leading industry partners. The facility includes a conching machine, chocolate tempering machine and some of the latest designs of moulds to make artisan chocolates and spectacular sugar and chocolate showpieces.
The St Austell campus is part of the Cornwall College Group, which was recently recognised as one of the best catering colleges in the UK by People First after receiving ‘Centre of Excellence’ status in three disciplines, including patisserie and confectionary.
Chef lecturer, Shirley Sweeney, says the project marks a major milestone for the college: “We are now better prepared to both maintain and build upon those standards with the realisation of our new artisan pastry kitchen, equipped with up-to-date equipment for working with chocolate. The facilities are excellent. In addition to the individual sugar lamps that hang from the ceiling, the kitchen also boasts individual benches designed with a marble insert, essential for both complex sugar and chocolate work.”
As well as offering catering courses for students, the college plans to maximise the foodservice equipment facilities at its disposal by running short courses for chefs already working in the industry.