O brave new world of caffe latte and couscous 1

April 1, 2005

In the last in our series, English and Scots team leaders meet the challenge of taking student catering from stodgy past to cosmopolitan future

Lizzie Anderson of Stirling University's catering department travels south to Yorkshire to size up what's on the Sassenachs' plates. She finds good food, shared values, heftier price tags and the enduring cross-border popularity of Audrey Hepburn

On the way to York University in my new suit, I began to think I had done this all wrong. Why had I not suggested Helen come to Stirling first? At least then I would be on my own turf for the first meeting, which, according to football pundits, confers an advantage. What would Helen be like? A dictator who ruled her staff with an iron rod? And would the catering unit be out of this world?

On first sight, I was surprised at how modern York is. In fact, it's not unlike Stirling, with lovely grounds and features as opposed to the intimidatingly gothic buildings I had envisaged. Helen is based in Derwent College, one of the seven colleges within the university's grounds. Once there, Ihad to find Café Fiesta - which sounds easy, but a common trait of universities is not to signpost anything, especially catering.

My first glimpse of Café Fiesta made me smile; a familiar picture of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's , along with other movie luminaries, hung above the bar. We too have a bar in one of our restaurants and guess what adorns its walls? On meeting the down-to-earth Helen, I was instantly put at my ease.

We sat down for a coffee and found we had similar views on catering. We are both very loyal to our staff and appreciative of their work in what can be a thankless industry. We agreed that they could provide a wealth of information and ideas, but that these were often dismissed by managers outside our departments.

A major difference between York and Stirling is York's college structure.

Six of its colleges have catering outlets. Helen is the dining room supervisor of Derwent College, which has its own bar, Cafe Fiesta and a main restaurant. Stirling is made up of two main areas separated by a loch.

I work in the Andrew Miller Building, the hub of the university. The catering unit has one main dining room, Haldane's, and two smaller but no less busy satellite units, Stir. C@fé, which provides sandwiches, paninis and tapas, and Red Hot Cool and Blue, which caters for the burger and pizza brigade.

At Stirling, we have to provide a wide variety of dishes to suit all tastes, from traditional steak pies to curries, whereas all the food at Derwent's restaurant is based on a Mediterranean theme. Each of York's college restaurants has a theme, so everybody has a wide variety of food to choose from. Moreover, Cafe Fiesta provides Mexican snack food, a reflection of the extent to which student tastes have become more cosmopolitan.

At Stirling, we are attempting to recognise this shift in tastes by introducing a new system that allows us to promote a different country's food every day. Customers are also able to choose three different items to accompany a carbohydrate-based dish - almost like a hot tapas bar. This reflects the way the market has changed, with people preferring lighter bites to heavy lunches.

I found it quite surprising that Helen sold only about 70 sandwiches a day in comparison with the 600 we sell. This may be because Stirling is very much a sports-based university: the Scottish Sports Academy has moved its base to our grounds and we have an Olympic-sized pool. The demand for healthy takeaways has leapt as a result.

Food at York is a bit more expensive than at Stirling: Moroccan lamb with couscous, for example, costs £2.85. Helen was cashier over lunchtime and people paid up without flinching, although this may have had more to do with Helen's excellent customer relations than the price. If I were to charge such prices at Stirling, I know I would be met by lots of moaning.

Our most expensive item costs £2.25 and you would think we were asking for pieces of gold to go by some people's reactions.

But higher prices are linked to higher living costs and wage differences, and then there is that famous (but completely untrue) saying about the Scots and their pockets. Most of those who complain tend to be university staff, as there is a two-tier price system, whereby staff are charged VAT and students are not.

Another surprising difference I noted was that York becomes quiet over the summer months and working hours are sporadic, which must be difficult for staff to budget for. By contrast, summer at Stirling has been our most hectic time. In recent years we have hosted a six-week Open University course and had to employ up to 35 extra staff to cater for their needs - so there have been no holidays for me between June and August. Last summer was the OU's final summer school at Stirling, but I know our conference team has already got other ways of ensuring we don't see the summer sunshine. We also do a lot more function work than York, whether it be formal lunches or coffee trolleys for meeting rooms.

After my visit, I tried to weigh up the pros and cons of York and Stirling.

York has a number of outlets situated in different buildings, each running autonomously, while Stirling's Haldane's dining room has to act as a central distribution unit. If people are off sick, the implications are felt not just at Haldane's but also in Stir and Red Hot. But being centrally organised has advantages: everyone feels part of the same flexible working team, so there is less room for them-and-us divisions.

The catering department at York also seems to have limited competition. We have two main competitors in the form of the student union and the MacRobert Arts Centre. Both are based within the central area and both offer competitively priced food and are fully licensed. This means we have to work hard to provide a better service within the limitations placed on us by the university.

Being central and providing a service based more on takeaways than York, we enable friends to enjoy meals together even if they have differing tastes - and we don't lose any money. I wonder if York feels it has lost sales by having all its units themed and in different locations.

Moreover, although York and Stirling serve the same number of lunchtime customers in their two main restaurants, I felt that York could increase its evening sales. We do about 200 evening meals for first-year students, to whom we offer a range of meals-package choices. Parents can pay for their children to eat at the restaurant either once or twice a day at discounted rates. Part of the reason we can offer this service is because our department is smaller than York's.

We are quite a young team in terms of time spent at the university. I think that this, along with the gradual expansion of the catering department, has helped us to achieve many goals that bigger universities or those with multiple units cannot. When I first arrived at Stirling, six years ago, I couldn't believe what a throwback to the Sixties the restaurant was. But, in 2002, with the help of our team across the loch, we were able to do a massive refit and it is now bang up-to-date. Then came the Stir.C@fé, and more recently the old burger bar was transformed into a place that puts McDonald's to shame. Derwent's main restaurant is functional and very much in keeping both with the time it was built and with the majority of institutional dining rooms. However, their decor is much nicer than ours has ever been. Helen told me that one of the other college's catering units was having a refit done, so things may change there soon.

Although York and Stirling have many differences, their catering teams are very much alike: we both strive to provide a product that meets high standards and changing needs in an efficient and friendly manner in an industry that is determined to see how far it can push any sane person.

Lizzie Anderson is central area manager of Stirling University's catering department.

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