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‘Providing The Best School Food Plays An Acute Role In Pupil Wellbeing’

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‘Providing The Best School Food Plays An Acute Role In Pupil Wellbeing’

‘Providing The Best School Food Plays An Acute Role In Pupil Wellbeing’
November 16
10:45 2023

With the Scottish School Food Awards 2023 coming up in two weeks’ time, we sat down with Paul Cowie, Stirling-based Senior Consultant at SFA award sponsor, Litmus Partnership, to discuss what 2024 holds for the Scottish hospitality industry…

CS: Litmus has a strong heritage in the foodservice sector. What are the core services you provide?

PC: ‘We work with both single sites and multi-site estates, and our team’s specialist knowledge, skills and experience sets us apart from other consultancies. Services cover every aspect of an organisation’s operation, from catering and foodservice and ‘hard’ facilities management (asset management, HVAC, fire safety systems), to ‘soft’ FM (cleaning and security) and retail – both in-house and third party food, beverage and onsite retail outlets.

CS: The hospitality sector has been significantly impacted by rising inflation, staffing challenges and increasing operational costs. How have these impacted relationships between service providers and businesses?

PC: ‘In the past, if there were any budgetary concerns, these weren’t always proactively flagged. Rather, either side may have voiced their worries amongst themselves and then raised them later on. This trend has now changed and open, honest and transparent communication is becoming increasingly important. The fact is, it’s likely that both parties are facing very similar financial hurdles, and so putting heads together to collectively solve problems or mitigate risks together will always produce more positive results. One of our key objectives is to help schools establish and maintain stable, competitive pricing across every commodity. We do this by integrating the buying process with management, finance and data reporting systems.

‘At the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat when it comes to navigating the current climate and so true partnerships have never been more important.’

CS: Sustainability continues to be a key priority for the foodservice sector. But with sustainable initiatives often requiring budget, how do businesses balance both?

PC: ‘We encourage organisations to look beyond the upfront costs of sustainability initiatives and focus on the the wider benefits and savings that can be achieved by implementing sustainability improvements.

‘It is important to remember that not everything has to be done at once. If you’re not clear about what’s most important to your users – whether that’s school pupils, employees using a workplace dining area or patients eating the hospital food – we recommend gathering feedback via tools such as Litmus’s consumer insight service. This identifies what matters most to a community through clever gap analysis techniques, so you can understand and prioritise what your customers actually want to see being implemented in order to improve sustainability within the organisation.

‘Although many sustainability initiatives will require an upfront cost to implement they will likely drive greater uptake or spend, therefore resulting in some (or all) of the investment being recouped, or even improving margins.

Equally, initiatives that reduce waste – particularly food waste – can also reduce costs and pay for themselves.’

CS: How can businesses ensure their current catering provider is the best fit for them?

PC: ‘Organisations can’t see what their peers are being charged for their F&B provision, and so they have no idea if what they’ve been quoted is in line with market averages. This is where benchmarking comes in.

‘We collect millions of food procurement prices every month from the education, care, B&I, leisure, hotels and public sectors. This data provides strategic and tactical insight for our clients, letting them see how their costs compare to an anonymised list of others in their sector, and also against the market average. Armed with this knowledge, it’s far easier to challenge any cost increases.

‘Likewise, many organisations simply don’t have the time to check invoices thoroughly, and so errors can go unnoticed. At Litmus, track and forensically analyse hundreds of actual vs budgeted outcomes, and where there’s a discrepancy from what is expected, we investigate and challenge.

‘We’ve built up a wealth of regional and national benchmarks which enable us to verify that key financial indicators and ratios are within acceptable ranges. We currently monitor almost 200 clients in more than 600 sites throughout the UK we’ve made over 50 challenges in the last year alone, saving a total of £500,000.

CS: Post-COVID, Litmus have witnessed an increasing demand to assist organisations throughout the UK to ensure their premises are compliant and that their FM assets are suitably tagged, recorded and managed. Why do you think that is?

PC: ‘An opportunity was created during both the pandemic and post-pandemic return to work period in order to evaluate the condition of building assets, ensure compliance and assess their performance. Organisations could bring existing asset data and registers fully up to date – something that normally proves difficult during day-to-day operational activities.

‘Similarly, it also provided the opportunity for organisations to evaluate their estates strategy and make arrangements to mothball or dispose of under-utilised facilities, enabling them to implement effective lifecycle management and forward-maintenance plans.’

CS: How can independent schools mitigate the financial pressures resulting from a Labour government’s proposed introduction of VAT on school fees, and other potential challenges to schools’ tax benefits?

PC: ‘There are several actions that schools can take right now in order to get the best value from their catering spend, regardless of the political context. If catering is outsourced, savings are likely to be made either through renegotiation, following a best-value benchmarking review or by putting the contract out to tender.

‘Cost-plus contracts should not provide a blank cheque to operators. There are several ways of guaranteeing or capping costs and incentivising the contractor avoid overspending – which many contracts perversely encourage – but instead to meet or exceed the budget without compromising service standards.

‘Internal hospitality spend is notoriously uncontrolled and food waste is an expensive problem. Tech solutions enable visibility and tracking of spend and waste, and can significantly reduce costs.

‘Alternatively, taking catering services in-house can be a way of reducing costs but should only be implemented following a comprehensive options appraisal.

‘Short-term savings may be quickly eroded without proper management systems, procurement expertise and staff development. If the catering provision is already in-house, then it would be advisable to conduct an independent review of how efficiently you are operating. Catering is a central and highly visible part of the pupil experience and, if school fees do increase, providing the best possible food efficiently will play an even more acute role in attracting pupils.’

CS: The Scottish School Food Awards are coming up at the end of the month. What advice would you give to schools undertaking their own in-house support services to ensure they remain competitive, on trend and legislatively compliant?

PC: ‘Good question. It can be easy to get into the cycle of doing the same thing when services are in-house. However, there are various measures that can be introduced to ensure the service remains fresh and competitive. For example, schools could conduct regular consumer insight exercises to gather student feedback and understand how satisfied they are with the facilities and service, as well as identifying what matters most to users and quickly implement remedial actions.

‘It is also important to understand what’s available on the high street – particularly with students who view hundreds of brands on social media and are in tune with the latest trends – and looking at smart tech solutions such as click and collect services is also essential.

‘These can help improve the offer and they can help ensure the school is compliant with legislation by digitally recording the services and maintenance checks on equipment so it’s all managed automatically.’

One of the country’s leading catering and facilities management consultancies, Litmus works with independent schools, colleges and universities, as well as state schools and academies, across the UK. With 30 years’ experience in education, the company also works in B&I, leisure, retail, healthcare and hospitality. This year they are co-sponsoring the SFA Wellbeing in Education category at the Scottish School Food Awards, which take place at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, on the evening of Wednesday 29th November. Hosted by Kaye Adams, the awards seek to recognise and celebrate the top performers across wellbeing foodservice and catering staff in Scottish schools.

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Catering Scotland

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