In recent years, Sodexo has built on its heritage and is driving excellence in the delivery of catering services in the independent schools sector. Helping to do so is Tom Allen, executive development chef for Independents by Sodexo.
Tom joined the company at the beginning of 2013 and has taken the company’s emphasis on producing fresh food from scratch to a new level. Already known for the care taken in the selection of ingredients, Tom wanted to bring together the 70-plus teams across the UK to share the same vision in providing meals that are appealing and appetising to pupils, while focusing on sustainability, seasonality and provenance and a service which stands out from the crowd.
The independent schools market is changing and, with more competition, schools are realising they need to deliver excellence in everything associated with their establishments, including catering. One interesting development is the increasing number of schools which are removing catering costs from the main school fee. Catering teams are becoming more aware that there is a need to raise the bar and prove their worth not only to schools but also to parents and children.
With a team of highly skilled chefs, Tom started bringing different skills from around the business together to instil not only team spirit but also to showcase and encourage creative thinking. Through the development of innovation hubs, centred at schools which were excelling in all areas, Tom has been able to set a minimum standard that every school should achieve. Visiting teams can see how the hubs work in practice. Tom started with just one innovation hub, but this has grown to seven in the past year.
Tom’s approach to encouraging team sharing has boosted standards of delivery across the company. Along with these hubs, he has been instrumental in developing a series of style guides; these provide both the minimum standard expected in terms of the display and presentation of food counters, and ideas to make them interesting and quirky.
An internal social network for the independents team has been created to match the growth in social media. With some 122 members, Tom encourages everyone to join up and share what they are doing at their schools. This has been a great tool for teams to communicate and has really boosted team spirit and idea sharing.
Back to the food; we all know that a good diet is crucial for young people but catering for their tastes is not easy. Tom is emphatic that for children to adopt a healthy, balanced diet he has to get them engaged with the food on offer. He therefore needs his team of chefs to understand the ingredients they are using and its origins, with regular trips to visit suppliers.
Tom has also driven a partnership initiative with Ecole Lenôtre, a Paris-based leading culinary schools. Every year, Independents by Sodexo produces a new course specifically for chefs with the first focusing on boulangerie. Bread is already baked daily on site but the three-day course provides chefs with the skills to offer more speciality and artisan breads.
Many schools are looking to their catering teams to offer support in other areas other than providing pupil meals, such as open days, sports teas, weddings and corporate events outside of the school term. Therefore the focus for the next course will be on corporate hospitality and will include finger and bowl food, and everything that is suitable for a working lunch.
Tom’s passion for food, his focus on driving up standards and his strong leadership skills have been integral to Sodexo’s recent success in adding new schools to its already impressive portfolio of independent schools from Newcastle to Cornwall.