When I was at school, school dinners would fill me with an all-encompassing feeling of dread. I was a notoriously fussy eater and with only one option in my school canteen, I had no choice but to bring in a packed lunch.
So, when The Brookwood Partnership invited me to visit Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls to find out about their catering, I was intrigued. I knew that school catering had drastically changed in the past decade but as I entered the school gates, I wondered whether they had managed to conquer fussy eaters too…
“It was old and very tired,” said David Thompson, Bursar at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls (Habs Girls), when I asked how he would describe the previous school dining room. Looking around the dining room, I found it difficult to imagine anything but the bright and airy space in front of me. The new area, which was completed in November 2015, had clearly been designed with the pupils in mind. There are large tables and benches, instead of seats, so that the girls can all sit together easily. There is also a separate upstairs mezzanine café, so sixth formers can relax in a space that they share happily with staff and visitors. Technology even has its place in the new dining room, as the girls use biometric machines to seamlessly enter the food service area.
“We had always had in-house catering, but one of the things that I realised when I joined the school in 2008 was that the specialism of the school was educating bright young girls, not producing food,” explained David. “It didn’t take me long to realise that we needed to go through a specialist firm to ensure the school’s catering was a success.”
Consequently, once plans to develop the school dining room had been finalised, Habs Girls went out to competitive tender so they could find a specialist to help. The brief was to find a caterer that could help to design the new kitchen and dining area as well as also help the school whilst the new facility was being built. After an extensive research programme and tender process, the school chose Brookwood and they came on board in May 2013.
“We chose Brookwood because their ethos is about being a genuine partnership as well as the fact they specialise only in independent school catering,” said David. “During the tender, I asked whose number I would have on speed dial and Brookwood’s Managing Partner said it would be hers. That was really important.”
Seasoned, not salted
Alongside a strong partnership, Habs Girls were keen to choose a company that would promote the importance of cooking fresh food onsite. The school’s ethos is to promote wellbeing and healthy eating, so it was essential that their catering company also had the same underlying philosophy about fresh food and ensured it was central to their catering service. Habs Girls identified with the fact that Brookwood always cooked fresh food onsite and found their innovative ideas to be a unique selling point. For example, Brookwood have a programme called ‘Halt the Salt’ which is where they don’t cook using salt and find alternatives to season their food. Brookwood are always looking for ways to make food healthier and cutting out salt is just one of the ways they do this. David and the team who were evaluating caterers which included girls, staff and governors, were impressed by these ideas, and felt it would help to move the school’s catering to the next level.
Indeed, the school is now able to satisfy the majority of the needs of its diverse community as Brookwood provides daily options which will meet most ethical and religious needs. Through the different menus, Habs Girls celebrates the diversity of faiths at the school.
“I think 80% of the food that we serve is now vegetarian,” said David. “Since Brookwood everything has changed; the variety, the depth and the nutrition and the fact we can incorporate more vegetarian food is all because of Brookwood. Vegetarian food is our main go-to for many cultures but making it varied and interesting is still a daily challenge.”
At this point of the interview I couldn’t help but glance downstairs to see the girls tucking into their lunch. Aptly, the interview was taking place in the mezzanine café area of the dining room, and due to the open-plan design, I could easily see the day’s lunch menu. The girls’ lunch plates were filled with brightly coloured salad, fruit and falafel.
Angela Tait, Catering Manager at Brookwood, is in charge of catering at Habs Girls and makes sure that every day the lunches run like clockwork, whilst meeting the pupils’ needs.
“I think the first time we served quinoa all we heard was, “what’s that?” But now, they happily tuck into it,” said Angela. “It’s all about educating the pupils and giving them a choice at lunchtime.”
Aside from making sure that over 900 students and over 200 staff members all enjoy their school lunch, which has the same choices for all, Angela also actively educates pupils by going into the classroom. She will hold cookery classes or talk to students about healthy snacking, as she is passionate about Brookwood always looking for opportunities to help the school. However, before the school lunches could even be served, Angela and her team offered their support as soon as they were hired by Habs Girls.
Time for change
“There were many reasons for choosing Brookwood, but one of our key requirements was finding a company that could manage the temporary accommodation whilst the new dining area was being built,” explained David. “Due to our location, there is no high street for the girls to buy their lunch so we had to still feed them during the new building programme. During the pitch, Brookwood said that they would be able to manage the temporary dining room and make sure that the food was better so that more girls would eat it – and that happened! Now over 70% of the girls have a school lunch, in the past we were definitely not known for our food and the figure was less than 50%”
The temporary dining room was in place for four-and-a-half terms, and as well as increasing lunch uptake during this period, Brookwood also managed to save the school an incredible cost.
“When Brookwood came on board, we went on various site visits to look at how other schools and universities including Oxford and Cambridge Colleges had managed moving into temporary catering accommodation,” said David. “Through these visits, it became clear to me that if it worked for them then it would work for us. Also, one of the big wins from Brookwood was a solution that meant we didn’t need to hire a temporary dining room. They said that we could use our main school hall to serve lunch and then they would turn around the service so that the hall could be used before and after lunch. This saved us a phenomenal amount of money.”
By using the school’s main hall as a dining room, Habs Girls also saw an opportunity to bring staff and pupils closer together. Historically, staff would sit in a separate dining area, but with the new temporary accommodation everyone had to eat together.
“Biddie O’Connor, the Headmistress, wanted them to eat together so that the girls could see that the staff are eating exactly the same food as them,” said David. “Staff and girls came together for the very first time in the temporary dining room and symbolically it was a very good change.”
The new norm
Today, the temporary dining accommodation is a distant memory and the girls have now settled into their new space. It also shows no signs of aging, which is a testament to IID Architects, who completed the project and have now been nominated for the Building Design Awards for ‘School Architect of the Year’.
“I think what’s happened is that we have now reached a new norm, so it is important that we keep moving forward with our ideas,” expressed David. “That’s why we set up a food committee with the girls so that they could give us their feedback on what they would like to be eating.”
Brookwood have found this feedback to be invaluable as they continue to push the boundaries with the school catering at Habs Girls. Sue Parfett, Managing Partner at Brookwood, explained why they always strive for fresh ideas.
“It’s all about taking it to the next level,” said Sue. “You are not just ending up in a very nice environment, it has to be more than that. It is especially important with teenagers as they have quite a low threshold of boredom so you have to keep them interested, and that is why the team at Brookwood has a real energy for new ideas.”
“That is why we change the menus every half term, rather than termly,” added Angela. “There are staple favourites but other than a few core dishes, nothing is sacred. The menu adjusts with food trends so that the girls are always trying new things. We like to provide new ideas and then inspire the girls.”
After my interview with David and Brookwood, I was offered the chance to taste the food that had inspired Habs Girls. As I made my selection, I was amazed by the variety of food on offer and even my peculiar taste buds were catered for. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Brookwood has increased lunch uptake at Habs Girls, as even fussy eaters like myself can enjoy freshly cooked food every day.