University catering is no longer just about feeding students, it is a business in its own right. Thanks to a combination of food trends, changes in eating habits and catering for the public as well as students, a university is a challenging, but exciting environment to work in. Take Stock spoke to Darren Edwards, executive chef at the University of Reading, about how he and his team manage to feed their 17,000 students and why grab-and-go is their biggest seller.
“Students’ eating habits have changed,” says Darren, who has been at the university for more than five years and was promoted to executive chef from chef manager 12 months ago. “Where hot meals like lasagne and cottage pie were once the most popular, now it’s all about grab-and-go. Students no longer take the traditional one hour lunch; instead they take 10 minutes to eat something quick so they can get back to their phones or laptops. Food is just fuel.”
This new trend means the university is doing a lot more grab-and-go options for students, in both catered halls and in the many food outlets dotted about the campus. And for the academic year ahead, Darren is keen to do more.
He says: “We used to turn out about 40,000 portions of hot food but because our paninis, sandwiches and wraps are becoming more popular, hot food is in decline. So we have to come up with new grab-and-go foods in our central kitchen.”
But it’s not just menu planning that Darren and his team are having to rethink. There are a number of new pressures on university chefs. “Catering for dietary and allergen needs is something we do more than ever,” says Darren. “We saw a big increase last year – especially catering for students who want vegetarian and vegan food, halal meats, gluten free and nut free products. There are 14 allergens and all have to be catered for. It’s now a big part of our provision.”
On 13 December this year, an update to the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 will oblige all businesses to declare or label all prepacked food they serve with nutritional information. So Darren and his team have an even greater challenge on their hands.
“Once the regulation comes in, all the pre-packed food from our central kitchen – where we produce our ready-to-eat products – will need to be labelled with nutritional content so the students are aware what is in their food,” says Darren. “At our serving counters, all of our menus are available on a rolling screen or on chalk boards. So if a particular dish on the menu is gluten free it will have ‘GF’ beside it, for instance. If a student is unsure about an allergen they can ask one of the serving staff who can check in their ‘bible’,” says Darren. “This manual contains every recipe and all of the ingredients that go in it so if a student questions them about a dish they know if it is suitable for them to eat.”
Being a business, the university needs to make money, so it is always looking to meet the budget.
“This is where The University Caterers Association (TUCO) gives us a lot of support,” says Darren. “When it comes to suppliers, they negotiate on our behalf.”
Darren, an RAF reservist for the past 18 years, has worked in hotel catering, fine dining and the university sector, and was once offered a job at Buckingham Palace.
“Wherever you work, a kitchen is a kitchen – granted it was slightly daunting walking into the one at Buckingham Palace!” smiles Darren. “It’s not about where you cook, it’s about the passion you cook with – without that, you will not succeed. You are only as good as your last plate of food!”
And that’s how Darren decides what stays and goes when he is planning the menu for the new term.
“The kitchen porter is the best person to ask,” said Darren. “After all, he is the one who scrapes the plates. And if he is scraping too much cottage pie into the bin then we know that shouldn’t be on the menu for the following term.”
Darren reports into Julie Frost, the head of catering operations, and together they meet with their head chef and lead chefs to discuss new menu ideas and recipes.
“We leave feedback forms for our students and take their feedback on board,” says Darren. “Students are more knowledgeable these days. We have a lot of international students too so we make Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese curries but on the other hand, we also serve a fish finger wrap – the key is a diverse offering.”
With research from Premier Foods announcing that only 42% of students buy from on-campus outlets in the UK with the vast majority of students (82%) turning to food-to-go outlets on the high
street, Darren is aware that competition is fierce and aims to keep his offerings on-trend.
“We do a number of grab-and-go items similar to those served in high-street chains that are perfect for a student’s sweet fix!” says Darren.
As well as catering for their students in a five-mile radius over three campuses’, Darren and his team are also responsible for catering for events which take place at the Meadow Suite venue for up to 300 people, and fine dining with their vice chancellor.
“The Meadow Suite is available to anyone who wants to book it,” said Darren. “Weddings, birthdays, proms, it doesn’t matter who you are. We rent out the right package to whoever wants to book it. University catering is now a business – and I can’t echo that enough.”
Uni Cuts Sugar
The University of Brighton is hitting out against sugar. A member of TUCO, the university is the first in the country to launch a campaign to cut sugar consumption – backed by Jamie Oliver – by joining with Brighton & Hove City Council in the Sugar Smart City campaign. The university will introduce a number of initiatives this year to raise awareness of sugar consumption and hidden sugars, through cooking lessons, education and nutritional information. It includes the introduction of a 10p levy on the price of sugary drinks, and money raised from this will be used to fund food education schemes for university students. Mike Haslin, chief operating officer of TUCO, said: “Obesity is a massive problem in the UK and the sugar debate forms a key part of this. As the first university in the UK to launch an initiative to tackle sugar consumption, Brighton University is demonstrating the influential position TUCO members are in, shaping the leaders of the future and driving important health messages in order to address the issues of obesity and high sugar intake.”