School caterers always look closely at high street trends before implementing new concepts, but how many consider the ways they can improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils to regain their focus for afternoon lessons? Morag Wilson gets some ‘eco therapy’ at Tiller & Hobs from ISS Education.
The bell sounds. It’s loud, it’s crowded, full-on, the queue snakes out the door. There are groups of friends messing about, bumping into the child who stands there alone, waiting patiently. School lunchtime is hard to control as pupils let off steam from their morning lessons. The chaos can be intimidating, encroaching and overactive. Not a state of mind in which to begin an afternoon of learning.
But create a calming space in the dining room, with satellite counters that reduce the queues, food that can be eaten on-the-go to lessen the crowds, and décor that promotes rest and relaxation, and the lunch break can be a very different experience. Swap grey plain walls with picked-off paint for feature walls picturing rolling hills and farm scenes and rustic signage.
This is eco-therapy, an idea that has influenced the Tiller & Hobs secondary school branding from ISS Education, which helped the company win Contract Caterer of the Year at the EDUcatering Excellence Awards in 2018. Throughout its marketing, menus and dining rooms, Tiller & Hobs’ focus on nature brings the outside in, highlighting ISS’ farm to fork journey and the quality of the British and local ingredients it uses, but also to have a positive impact on diners’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
It’s a simple idea and one that is working. The food on offer – reflecting current high street trends – restores the energy spent during the morning lessons, while the natural environment allows students to regain new focus for the afternoon classes ahead.
“If the dining room is crowded and noisy then it’s not a nice environment, it’s just chaotic and the student’s whole experience will filter into the afternoon, affecting their learning and attainment,” explains Dawn Harvey, regional operations director at ISS Education, who oversees contracts in Lambeth, Redbridge, Brent, Barnet, Southwark, Harrow and Essex.
“There’s no getting away from the fact that we could have 1,000 students in the dining room at any one time and that comes with its challenges, so we looked at the whole environment and tried to calm it down. If you want to influence the student experience then it has to be right from the time they enter the dining room and not just at the counter.”
ISS has been quite forward-thinking in their approach, which has been supported by their own research and inspired by a National Geographic report which found that views of landscapes can decrease one stress hormone by as much as 16%. Tiller & Hobs was officially launched in June 2016 and is now the standard offer to all new contracts – and when it is rolled out to existing sites there is generally a consistent 10-11% increase in uptake. Yet research into how hospitality spaces can support student wellbeing is only recently being investigated. The University Caterers Organisation published a report into the subject in December 2018.
But crucially, Tiller & Hobs isn’t just about promoting a positive dining environment. Without good food, there would be no children in the dining room to benefit from it. And so, the concept comes hand in hand with an innovative food offer that takes its inspiration from the high street.
First, there’s The Kitchen, a traditional sit-down offer, while The Graze is where pupils can go for a cold grab and go option such as salads and sandwiches, all packaged in Tiller & Hobs branding. The real hero of the concept, however, is Tiller & Hobs Presents.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that these concepts were brought in from outside; each offer has its own identity and branding, giving the appearance of totally on-trend and up-to-date, rotating food offers. There’s Philly Mac & Co, Rue d’Tasty Soul & Spice, Moshi Urban Noodles, Ciao Italia pasta and pizza, Love Soup, Me Gusta Burritos Mexican street food, The Karma Curry Club and Coupers and Co chicken concept.
But they’re all the sub-brands of Tiller & Hobs, created by ISS’ development chefs, in line with the high street brands children are used to seeing and experiencing.
Schools can rotate the concepts daily or weekly, use some and not others, it’s often the student council who will decide, says Dawn.
“The really fun part is that we go out as a team to the latest places, Borough Market, Spitalfields, as they’re leading the trends,” she says.
Currently, the development chefs are working on bao buns and how such a dish can work in schools.
“It has to be doable, nutritious and compliant,” says Dawn. “They think about the latest trends, go into the kitchen and make it work for us.
“All students love something new and they’re so aware of what’s out there now.”
This is where ISS has created a long lifespan for Tiller & Hobs. While the brand can remain constant, its rotating concepts of global cuisine can regularly change, or come and go. ISS are currently working on some new concepts for Tiller & Hobs Presents and it will also be refreshing the dining environment for those schools that have had the concept from the beginning almost two years ago.
Importantly, with around 50 secondary schools contracting ISS to provide its catering services, Dawn stresses that Tiller & Hobs is not a concept that can be handed out in a manual and the on-site team expected to cook it and present it properly overnight. Especially when staff need to understand the positive environment ISS is trying to create with Tiller & Hobs.
“Our team have got to understand why we are doing it,” says Dawn. “The focus isn’t about the school meal, it’s about fuelling them to learn and our team need to understand that purpose as well.”
So while you can’t expect to find children not letting off steam during their terribly short lunch break, what Tiller & Hobs aims to do is provide a positive environment that children want to eat in, who can enjoy a good meal and when the bell goes for afternoon lessons, are happy and energised for what they’re about to learn.