O brave new world of caffe latte and couscous 2

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

York University's Helen Matheson casts envious eyes at her Scottish counterpart's ice-cream maker and year-round employment, and gets a taste for haggis, tatties and grand titles in a visit to the scenic and sporting campus on Airthrey Loch

Stirling University is set in a delightfully picturesque campus two miles from the nearest town. The university was opened in 1967, just four years after York's campus. There is a heavy emphasis on sport at Stirling and the recently built swimming pool was pointed out to me with pride by my genial taxi driver. Unlike York, Stirling has a central catering unit, located in the Andrew Miller Building.

Haldane's, the main dining room, was part of a huge £6.3 million refurbishment. I was immediately impressed by its welcoming layout. Lizzie informed me that when the renovations were taking place, a wheelchair user, a deaf person and a blind person visited the site and gave feedback. As a result, the placement of fittings and fixtures, wheelchair access and sound levels are all as they should be.

My arrival at Haldane's coincided with preparations for lunch. On offer was a wide choice of meals, from sandwiches, salads and baked potatoes to good home-cooked food, with a choice of hot or cold dessert.

The menu runs on a three-week cycle and the delights on offer include butterfly sardines Provencale on a rosti potato and vegetable enchilada pie. And how could anyone resist traditional haggis, neeps and tatties for just £2? The salad bar and sandwich selection looked fresh and inviting and there appeared to be something for everyone. If this sort of cuisine had been on offer when I was a student 20 years ago, my peers and I would never have had the urge to investigate the gastronomic delights of Cup-a-Soup or Smash. I noticed with increasingly green eyes that Haldane's even has an ice-cream maker. I would take a cut in wages for one of those.

There is a seating area outside, where customers can enjoy their ices, drinks or simply imbibe the pleasant surroundings. The bulk of the campus is a no-smoking zone, so I imagine that this area is a favourite spot for a gasper.

Over a coffee, Lizzie told me about some of the deals on offer for students at Stirling, including an "electronic purse", the latest in smart-card technology. This is incorporated into student registration cards and can be used to pay for meals at catering outlets. Students can also save money by pre-paying for meals at the start of term.

We then moved on to the university's two fast-food outlets. The Stir.C@fé provides speciality coffees, sandwiches and various healthy options that can be eaten at the cafe or on the go. Finally, the Red Hot Cool and Blue cafe provides the ever-popular burgers, pizzas and jacket potatoes associated with a quick hot lunch.

I then watched as Lizzie supervised a lunch for a group of postgraduates in the private dining room. I found myself comparing Stirling and York. Many things are very similar: the staff, the menus, the management and the clientele. The whole feel of the campus and the buzz of lunchtime fever felt very familiar.

I hope, as I'm sure Lizzie does, that the recipients of campus catering sometimes take the time to appreciate the work and care that goes into producing high-quality food. We all want food to taste good, to be presented well and to be served efficiently. I'm not saying that things are perfect every day, but catering staff at York and Stirling certainly strive to maintain a high standard.

After lunch we returned to Haldane's for a coffee and further exchanges of information. Lizzie and I have similar opinions on certain aspects of university catering. We both feel, for example, that it would be beneficial if manual catering staff could be given the chance to have more influence on the decision-making processes within their own catering units. They are, after all, on the shop floor. They know what customers want. They know the most efficient and cost-effective way of doing things because they do it every day. Of course, we need people to manage, guide and support us, but we also need people to listen to suggestions for any improvements that can be made.

As I was leaving Stirling, I got the chance to chat to a few students about the university's catering facilities. The majority were very positive about the variety, presentation and good value on offer. All had at some time used the three main catering outlets and agreed that there was always something available for even the most discerning palate. One student gave me the impression that this was the type of standard he expected. Quite right too. Although meals and snacks are subsidised, students are paying customers.

I found shadowing Lizzie a valuable experience. I came away from Stirling with few, if any, negatives. It seems to me that both our universities offer a diverse range of eating options, catering for today's students who have grown up in a society where they are used to eating food from all over the world, where there is more choice than ever over what to eat and where we are encouraged to be more aware of the politics, ethics and health values of what we consume. York, since it is a larger campus and split into six colleges, has more outlets and, therefore, more variety, ranging from pizza takeaways to vegetarian options to traditional fish and chips.

Although catering at Stirling is provided from within a smaller unit, staff have managed to cater for students' different demands and preferences both adequately and efficiently. I was particularly impressed with their healthy food options and promotions.

There is still a demand for burgers, pizzas and jacket potatoes, and I think there always will be. But I have observed, in my six years at York, that students, staff and conference guests are inclining more towards healthier alternatives. Salad bars, a demand for vegetarian food (and more interesting vegetarian food, since non-meat eaters must get sick of pasta and tomatoes) and the huge awareness of the pros and cons of proteins and carbohydrates are becoming more prevalent.

I learnt that the jobs that Lizzie and I do are very similar, although I have to say, with a minor amount of petulance, that I like her job title more. When we first met, we discussed our titles. Mine is dining room supervisor, whereas Lizzie is known as the central area manager. Much grander, I feel. I shall have to have a word with those who must be obeyed! The main difference is our pay structure. Whereas Lizzie is salaried and works all year round, I am paid hourly and full-time work cannot be guaranteed out of term time. Although conference guests use my university during the vacations, working hours for catering staff tend to be more sporadic than during term time.

Both Lizzie and I supervise a similar number of staff and cater for a comparable range of customers. We both experience the same highs and lows: those days when staff shortages make you want to turn to drink and those days when everything runs so smoothly that you can't remember yesterday's lack of staff or your hangover.

I hope that things continue to improve in university catering establishments; they certainly have in the past 20 years. Who knows? Maybe one day soon, somebody will take me up on that idea for a champagne and oyster bar on campus.

Helen Matheson is dining room supervisor at York University.

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