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Keeping it in-house

Thomas's London Day Schools explain why they decided to move from contract catering to in-house catering

Posted by Charley Rogers | September 28, 2017 | Catering & hospitality

Thomas’s London Day Schools has established an international reputation for offering a rich and broad education, which aims to inspire enjoyment, learning and achievement for every child. It attracts national and international interest, with a recent new starter including a member of the British royal family. The group comprises of four independent, co-educational preparatory schools located at prestigious campuses, including Battersea, Clapham, Fulham and Kensington. There is also a primary academy in Fulham in addition to a kindergarten in Battersea. Since launching in 1971, Thomas’s has grown organically from humble beginnings into a school that is able to sustain and support the high academic aims, broad curriculum and ethos of kindness expected by the principals, heads, staff, parents and pupils of genuinely first-class independent schools within a global capital city.

Mark Newman, General Catering Manager at Thomas’s London Day Schools, discusses the challenges he faces in delivering over 2,000 high-quality meals, every day, and the decision to move from contract catering to an in-house catering model…

It’s the start of another new term; September is always incredibly busy, however, more so this year as we have just completed a large kitchen refurbishment project at our Battersea school. In addition, every term we launch new menus that include a range of ideas and dishes that have an emphasis on healthy cooking, full flavour and presentation. We serve over 2,000 meals a day and our menus are designed in a three-weekly menu cycle, so it rotates half-termly. I design the menu based on season, trends, children’s likes and feedback; our pupils are well travelled and quality, authentic ingredients and choice is vital. 

Above: The catering team always provide balanced meals

The menus are used across all five schools, yet each chef has the opportunity to make their own differences in terms of personal flair. The menus are made up of freshly made soups and breads, main course choices include a protein option, fish dish or carbohydrate choice, along with vegetables.  There is also a vegetarian option, a gluten-free/dairy-free allergy choice, as well as our popular desserts. Many of our ingredients are organic wherever possible. We also create a fresh seasonal salad bar every day, along with fresh fruit platters and yoghurts as an alternative to the dessert of the day.

The switch over to in-house catering has been a real success story

In addition to producing daily meals for our pupils, we also provide catering for guests and visitors, as well as for after-school events or parents’ meetings, for example. Back in 2003, we took the decision to switch from a contract catered model to in-house catering. One of the main reasons for doing so was to have greater control of our purchasing needs. I found that previously, we were greatly restricted on what ingredients and products we could buy. For example, if one school needed sugar, we could only get a 3kg bag. We would have sight of some wonderful brochures with many different food products, however, we were limited to about a third of the products due to the agreement our caterer had reached. For us, this didn’t work – I wanted to have greater choice. I wanted to be that ‘kid in the candy store’ and source the finest products that we need to deliver the quality balanced meals that we pride ourselves on here at St Thomas’s. 

When we took the decision to switch to in-house catering, I was introduced to Pelican Procurement and they have been a close partner to the group ever since. They support me in managing supplier relationships, pricing negotiations and essentially they provide me with a great deal of procurement expertise. The team at Pelican is like an extension of my catering function. They enable me to have complete control over the supply chain; to manage this myself would involve such a massive amount of work. For example, they closely monitor fluctuating commodities and prices and are able to go to all suppliers relevant to us, to negotiate on our behalf. I know I wouldn’t necessarily have visibility of such increases if it was down to me. We’ve definitely gained significant margins over the years. 

Kelly Fry and the procurement team at Pelican have the industry knowledge, understanding of product availability, and have a cross-contract and cross-industry view which means they have foresight into trends. The information on pricing is vital and, for Thomas’s, is invaluable; over the years it has saved us a lot of money, without compromising quality. Unlike other clients of Pelican, price isn’t our main driver, however, because we are not ‘bottom-line driven’. Quality of product, delivery and then price is what matters to us. We’re a private school with exceptional menus; we therefore need to provide exceptional food. Everything we cook is delivered on the same day, so the deliveries need to be at all sites, when we need them. Pelican supports me in managing suppliers to ensure service delivery is A+. Of course, price is still a factor – we still have a budget to work to – however, I am safe in the knowledge that Pelican is monitoring each and every category and product, to ensure we get the best value.  

Above: Fresh ingredients are key

When it comes to nutrition, I have been keen to provide complete transparency on our menus to reassure parents of our focus on delivering nutritionally-balanced menus which are constructed in a way that works. We break everything down and ensure that all our menus are reviewed and certified by Anna-Maria Holt, Pelican’s registered dietician and nutrition specialist. Constructing balanced menus at the outset is a hard task. You need to make sure that the meals are providing the children with everything they need to help them maintain concentration and keep energy levels up during the day. Plus, they need to be appetising so children look forward to meal times. I think we have been able to really strike the right balance here and having support from Anna-Maria to evaluate, assess and certificate the menus provides an important part of the service and delivers a great deal of reassurance to parents.  

I found that previously, we were greatly restricted on what ingredients and products we could buy. 

The way in which catering is managed has been evolving over the years and now much of the supplier contact and payments are managed via an online service – Pelican Pi. This has removed much of the manual paperwork management, and makes everything accessible in one place. Previously, I would have paper invoices from suppliers for each of the five school sites; they had to be reviewed, photocopied and shared with accounts. This was extremely time-consuming. Now, all invoices are checked by Pelican and are centrally delivered on the Pi system. It removes the hassle for me and the finance team.

On reflection, the switch over to in-house catering has been a real success story. The benefits have been phenomenal. We have the passion to do it ourselves in order to deliver a catering service that is second to none, with no restrictions on what products or ingredients we can source. Having Pelican beside me means that I can be confident that the food supply will happen; I have peace of mind knowing that this is being taken care of while I’m concentrating on other tasks.  The Pelican team is extremely helpful in supporting me and Thomas’s – they listen to our needs and have always been 100% dedicated to me as a client.  


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