Bournemouth University signed private contractors to run its canteen. Elaine Carlton reports on the results
The centrepiece of the tour for any prospective student is not the library, lecture theatres or student union but a Pounds 400,000 state-of-the-art refectory that would look more at home in a shopping centre.
Transformed from a dark dining hall to a cool cafe, the new refectory is a symbol of Bournemouth University's pride.
"The old refectory was running a Pounds 80,000 deficit a year. We brought in a catering expert to try to turn it around but that didn't work," said Dave Lifford, the university's purchasing manager. "We decided that our expertise lay in academic operations rather than catering, so we put our contract out to tender.
"Some companies proposed to give the old dining hall a coat of paint and improve the quality of food but we didn't think that was sufficient. We were looking for a more innovative approach. Although one could argue that the increased cost has been passed on to students, the new catering contract has allowed us to balance the books."
Catering group Sutcliffe won its bid to run the student canteen for seven years and promised to make a Pounds 400,000 investment in redesigning it. It created an upmarket dining hall with food served from themed counters including pizzas, baguettes and jacket potatoes. Coloured signs scream out special offers while tiny tables with metallic chairs offer students some repose.
Sutcliffe took the financial risk, promising to hand over a percentage of the profit if sales hit more than Pounds 750,000 a year. So far this goal has eluded the company. In more than two years since it took on the contract, the catering company has struggled to break even despite an increase in sales of 38 per cent coupled with an increase in food prices.
"Sutcliffe was quite bullish in its financial projections for the canteen and too optimistic in its forecast. So far they haven't made a profit but now in the third year they are starting to recover the situation," said Mr Lifford.
To ensure it turns the loss into profit, the catering group is planning to move its pizza stall into the university's atrium and create a mobile food cart with new food ranges, including Mexican.
"We are constantly asking students what they would like to see in the canteen. When they indicated they preferred a custom-made sandwich to a pre-packaged one we created the baguette offer," said Ricky King, catering manager.
Much of the basic range of food has protected prices agreed between the university and the catering company but any new lines of food can be priced according to the market.
Prices rose by 1.5 per cent last year but Sutcliffe believes they are reasonable and give students value for money. A jacket potato with coleslaw costs Pounds 1.45 while filled baguettes start at Pounds 1.68. Chicken breasts in a chasseur sauce are priced at Pounds 2.00.
One of Sutcliffe's original offers to students was a salad bar but sales were so poor it was changed into a sandwich bar. The burger bar suffered from the BSE scare and the caterer turned to fried chicken.
The university says it has had only 20 complaints from students since the new contract, began compared with many more previously. It is pleased with the way the 400-seat restaurant is filled to capacity at peak time and believes students now enjoy spending time there.
Students do have complaints, principally over-crowding and lack of variety in the food.
Student Simon Rolfe said: "There is quite a good selection of food but I think it could be more imaginative such as Indian or Chinese food."
Matt Hammond, 19, eats his sandwiches in the refectory every day. He said: "I'm a vegetarian but most of the food has meat in it so I end up bringing my own food in with me." The caterers say there is a vegetarian option at every counter.
Bournemouth is negotiating a contract with Sutcliffe for the next seven years.