The art of buying food

Knowledge is power when it comes to smart purchasing of school food, says Graeme White, purchasing manager at Harrison Catering Services

Purchasing the ingredients for your school’s foodservice can be one of the more complicated areas of procurement. You want the best ingredients to feed your students well, but you also need to think about what’s seasonal and what can be sourced locally, so that you are investing in your community. And, of course, you want to be sure you’re always getting the best value for your food spend. 

Understanding your foodservice is key to making the best decisions when it comes to purchasing. Your catering team should have detailed recipes for their menus which allow them to work out the number of portions required for each dish and accurately order the ingredients needed. Your storeroom should be adequately, but not over, stocked; an over-stocked storeroom is money tied up in ingredients that are losing their freshness, risking unnecessary wastage. 

If you’re sure you are purchasing the right ingredients in the right amounts at the right times, then you can put together a ‘shopping basket’ of your top 20 items, which will usually represent the top 80 per cent of your total food spend, over a period of a week (as a minimum), and then compare the cost of this shopping basket at different suppliers to see which one gives you the best price. Cherry tomatoes might be more expensive at one supplier, but if the overall basket costs less, that’s the supplier you want to use. Once you’ve done this benchmarking exercise, you can repeat it at regular intervals to verify that you are still getting the best price. 

In addition, many suppliers specialise in particular types of food, so consolidating as much of your purchasing with a few key suppliers – perhaps using one for all your dairy, one for all your dry goods and one for your meat – provides several advantages, including being able to tap into their specialist knowledge to further develop your menus. In addition, your purchasing process will be easier and more streamlined for your staff, you’ll benefit from economies of scale, and when it comes time to pay the bills, it will take less time for your accounts team to pay a handful of suppliers rather than dozens. Finally, key suppliers are always interested in forming partnerships with their best customers and may be able to offer you additional discounts, specialist training to help develop your staff or other added-value benefits. It is always worth asking what else a supplier can do to help you. 

Of course, when you’re selecting your suppliers, you want to ensure that they are reputable and have the necessary due diligence in place to guarantee the providence and handling of their products. Any supplier should have an up-to-date British Retail Consortium (BRC) or equivalent accreditation to ensure they have full traceability of their supply chain. 

When you have a reliable stable of quality suppliers in place, there is still more work you can do with your catering team to ensure you are getting the most from your food spend. For example: 

  • Prioritise taste over aesthetics: if you’re serving individual portions of fruit, you obviously want beautiful, blemish-free products. But if you’re going to mash, sauté, chop or pulp an ingredient, like peppers or tomatoes, does it need to be a perfect specimen? You can purchase greengrocery items that are slightly misshapen or miscoloured, but still taste delicious and are perfect for use in soups, sauces and stews. And using these products helps support sustainability by keeping them from being thrown away just because they aren’t perfect-looking. 
  • Consider if you need a branded product: we all have our favourite brands, but they have been developed for consumer use. The major foodservice suppliers have developed products that are specifically designed to work best in a catering environment where food must retain its taste and attractiveness while on display throughout the meal service. In fact, the baked beans from one of the major foodservice suppliers have actually scored higher in tastes tests than the most popular consumer brand! 
  • Think about smart ingredient selection: simple changes can have a big impact. For example, using mature cheddar in cooking rather than mild cheddar requires about 25 per cent less and also reduces the fat content of your dish. Your catering team will no doubt have an abundance of such ideas to get the most out of your food spend while delivering delicious, nutritious meals to your students. 
  • Don’t get stuck in a rut with a menu cycle: make your suppliers your partners and work with them to upgrade specification on key items and take full advantage of seasonal ingredients so you are getting the best product at the best price and adding interesting ingredients and flavours to your menus.   

    Above all, the most important element in getting the best from your food purchasing is working in partnership with your catering team. They are on the front line of ensuring that ingredients are used in the best way, minimising wastage and coming up with creative ideas to improve your food offer.

Phone: 01844 216777



Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report