Running an in-house catering service can be an isolating experience, but Rob Bullock and the team at St Wilfrid’s RC College are fully committed to creating standout provision that can be replicated with others, writes Morag Wilson
Many of us think that the school catering industry is a close-knit one. We attend the same events, are very active on social media (do follow us at @EDUcateringMag), and if we have a question or problem we know that there’s friendly advice at the other end of the phone line. But what about when you run your own catering service? It can at times be a pretty lonely place and you don’t always know that you’re doing things right.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being a self-managed school caterer. You can create your own menus, have a say on the running of the service, and the design of the kitchen and front of house areas if you’re lucky. There aren’t any lengthy approval processes to go through and it often means that the headteacher is engaged in what you’re doing.
That’s certainly the case at St Wilfrid’s RC College in South Shields where Rob Bullock is executive head chef and manages his team of 14 catering staff, including two apprentices.
A former lecturer at South Tyneside College, Rob had no previous experience of school catering before coming to St Wilfrid’s. He joined the school in February 2015 in a newly created role. The catering was still under the local authority and was, as he describes it, a “learning curve of regulations”, with school food standards to get to grips with – quite a minefield if you’ve come from having complete freedom catering to the general public.
But then the school became an academy a year later and the catering was brought in-house; Rob was on his own.
Not one to despair, Rob quickly set about action. He changed the menus and created bespoke dishes for special diets, upskilled his team and set up an action plan and working party to drive up standards of the catering. Bright furniture, new branding, cashless catering and new staff uniforms have helped to create a service that the whole school can be proud of. Innovative concepts like a made-to-order deli bar and an omelette station have helped to drive meal uptake (take-up has risen year on year since going in-house and Free School Meal take-up is a healthy 95%) and a PKL pod was installed in the grounds to help to reduce queues.
There are definite benefits to being an academy and setting your own rules. The school has a stay-on-site policy and this has certainly helped to drive meal uptake in the school. Sixth formers are allowed to venture off-site and so this has been Rob’s main focus recently, to find ways to keep them in school and choosing a school meal. Ideas have included a pre-ordering system so they don’t have to join the main school queue and takeaway pizza boxes that directly compete with the tempting offer down the road.
St Wilfrid’s is a co-educational secondary school with strong community ties. Recognising that food is what brings everyone together, the catering facilities are right in the heart of the main school. Long benches line the dining hall, surrounded by house colours and school beliefs – charity, wisdom, courage – and the upper floor looks down onto the area over a balcony. Food is definitely part of the school day and the kitchen are part of the school staff – the team are allocated a house and wear their house colours when serving out front.
Space is still an issue though, and when the lunch bell rings the queues soon form out the door. The cashless system has helped, says Rob, but the dining space is not enough to handle even half the school sitting down to enjoy a meal. There are around 1,200 pupils including the sixth form and two one-hour sittings at lunch, which means the kitchen team are busy serving from 12pm until 2pm.
“It does take the whole hour to get all the kids through,” says Rob. Which means some pupils can be waiting a long time for their food.
It’s why the school invested in an outdoor pod, which can be manned by one member of staff and take a lot of the strain away from the main dining room. It serves paninis and the special of the day (when I visit it’s a Chinese chicken burrito). Plans are afoot to extend into the outdoor courtyard to provide more indoor seating and to also create a dedicated sixth form block with its own catering facility.
“This would be great as we could tailor the menu to create more of a high street offer, keeping the sixth form on-site and not accessible to younger pupils,” says Rob.
Because this is Rob’s first experience of school catering he has been able to bring a fresh approach to the menus. Breakfast, which is served to all pupils from 8am, see the kitchen team get through over 200 slices of toast each day and lots of reduced sugar waffles. The deli bar, in which pupils can choose their bread and fillings, has been really popular, and staff in particular like the omelette station, a manned piece of equipment offered each lunchtime apart from roast day on Wednesdays. There are four hot dishes on the menu each day as well as specials, jacket potatoes and soup.
Around 90% of the menu is scratch-made and Rob has been pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness of pupils to new dishes. Halloumi and vegetable pockets have been a recent addition and they’ve gone down a storm. All of the menus – which are on a four-week cycle – are taste tested by the student council.
A lot of Rob’s success has come down to his staff. As well as taking on two apprentices he recruited a head chef in September, an old boy of the school, who like him, had no previous experience of school catering, coming instead from Café 21 in Fenwick, Newcastle. He is lucky to have a large team which frees him up to do other things like helping other local schools to turn around their catering offer. One, down the road, recently came to Rob for help in recruiting a new chef.
“I don’t know what other schools are doing with their catering,” says Rob. “But, I can run it my way and share that experience with others.”
Whatever he’s doing is working and it’s being recognised by others in the industry; Rob was nominated for Self-Managed School Caterer of the Year at the EDUcatering Excellence Awards last year and to him, it’s a recognition that what he is doing at St Wilfrid’s – and now helping other schools in the local area – is one of best practice. He’s no longer going it alone.