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In this article, Colin Robson, Catering Manager for the Carmel Education, shares his experience of how switching back to in-house catering and centralising the management of the catering function has delivered significant benefits to the entire Trust as a whole


The Carmel Education Trust has overarching accountability and governance of a number of Academies in and around Darlington and Stockton on Tees. It includes seven schools altogether consisting of Carmel College, Holy Family and St Augustine’s Primary Schools in Darlington; Our Lady and St Bede, St Gregory’s Primary School, and St Bede in Stockton; and St Michael’s Catholic Academy in Billingham.

All members of the Trust benefit from the strong ethos, quality governance in addition to providing all members with a formalised collaboration, where each school shares a vision to provide the very best possible outcomes for its children 

The collaboration between all schools in the Trust also provides a number of operational and financial benefits.

We interviewed Colin Robson, Catering Manager for the Carmel Education Trust who discussed how switching back to in-house catering and centralising the management of the catering function has delivered significant benefits to the group as a whole:

“We have around 4,000 students across the Trust and serve approximately 2,500 meals every day and organising everything behind the scenes to make that happen involves a great deal of planning and coordination.

I have been involved with the Trust for around ten years, although originally I started as a contract caterer at Carmel College before I was promoted to the Trust’s Catering Manager last 2014.   Back then, the contract caterer was managing one site and the rest were run by the local authorities.

At that time, Directors and Heads took the decision to bring the catering back in-house. We felt we could do it better ourselves, would have greater flexibility, and also provide better choice to students.

Steps we took to switch to in-house catering

1. Supplier and Price Management 

To get the ball rolling and start the transition from contract caterer to in-house, a local consultant was at first hired to guide us through the initial changes. It was quite a big shift, having previously worked with a contractor, but it was great to start identifying ways of making improvements in all aspects of service delivery.

When reviewing how we manage suppliers and in particular the purchasing of all our food and beverage products, we decided that we should go to tender, however as we were so large, we were over the EU tender limit, and felt that we needed help in managing this process.  We turned to Pelican Procurement Services, who I had heard great things about, for support in this process and in doing so, we have since formed a long-term partnership where they support us in a number of different ways.

For the tender, Pelican worked with us to explain the process, what to do, and how to set the categories for the different suppliers.  They then managed the whole tender for us, which saved us all a huge amount of work.  I had spent the previous year working with suppliers to negotiate product pricing and it is a huge task, so to have Pelican managing this for me was invaluable.

A real driver for us doing the tender was the need to streamline suppliers and to make finance a lot easier.  We were receiving around 30 or 40 invoices every day and the administration of dealing with this had become really cumbersome.

Also, we had multiple suppliers across each site and in some cases, we had the same suppliers covering more than one school yet they were working on different pricing structures and terms!   The tender was vital in consolidating suppliers, buying lists and prices to streamline the overall management of our catering function, and also deliver cost savings.

The great thing with the tender process was that we still have flexibility to work with local suppliers.  Pelican split chilled, frozen and non-food and that was put out to national suppliers. Then categories include meat, dairy, fresh produce was sent to local suppliers within a 30-mileradius of the schools.

This was important for us as a school to support local suppliers and it was reassuring to know that our hands wouldn’t be tied to just national suppliers as part of the tender.  I think many people assume that you lose some control when going to tender, but you really don’t.

Following the tender, we selected the suppliers to suit and are very pleased with how it’s going.  While we have an agreed buying list across all sites, it’s not set in stone so our chefs still have an opportunity to create new menu options, yet I can now monitor or advise on product selection, working with Pelican at my side.

2. Centralised Automated Management System

I now use a centralised system – Pelican Pi – to track purchases, costs, stock and more.  A major benefit has been the change in invoicing.  Everything is managed by Pelican so instead of receiving individual invoices from suppliers we receive one single statement each month – the centralised invoicing is such a huge time-saver. It’s reduced our administration considerably.

On top of this, we use Pelican’s stock management system Pitstop, which is brilliant. It’s saved a huge amount of time for stocktaking as it automatically does this for each site based on what’s been ordered and used. It’s a fantastic tool which just gives us so much time back every month.

As part of this, we’ve also transitioned to online ordering too – everything is ordered online, providing complete transparency of who has ordered what, and when.

I’m now also blessed with as much reporting as I can muster!  I have my single monthly statement, and each month I have to report to the financial manager on profit and loss. This is now so simple. I used to have to trawl invoices and find individual items and costs, and now it’s all there on Pi.  The compliance reporting is a very useful tool; I can see what people are purchasing, analyse trends, see supplier spend, category spend and more.

I can also log issues at any time, which Pelican is able to deal with for me straight away.

Our next step is looking at menu planning and analysis, which will enables myself and our chefs to analyse menus from a nutritional and allergen perspective. This is again all within the Pelican system and is so useful to us.

Summary of Key Benefits 

When I look back at the transition from contract caterer to in-house catering, it could have been quite a daunting affair, however having linked up with Pelican, there’s been so many aspects that they have really supported us with.   They are more than just procurement.   In fact, when I mentioned to some local school contacts what we were doing, they said ‘couldn’t you do that yourselves?’ – however I explain that it’s not just about purchasing products; Pelican has managed the whole tender, they work with our suppliers to actively monitor prices, they manage and resolve any issues and provide also guidance on menu analysis, development as well as provide marketing support.

For the kitchen, we’ve streamlined the number of suppliers coming through the door. Agreed lists have made it easier to purchase the right products for the right prices. Plus, we now have confidence in deliveries and that they will be made at the right time, due to the KPIs put in place as part of the contract negotiations. Our chefs know that they will receive their delivery at a set time with less stress – they can plan their day far better.

Our chefs are not restricted and have the freedom to deliver the food and menus that they want, so quality and choice is key.  When we were operating under the local authorities and via the contract caterer, we could see both being compromised due to costs.  Now, this isn’t the case and we feel far more in control of the service we are able to deliver to our students.

The biggest benefit to the finance team is that the paperwork relating to catering have dramatically reduced; you’d think that moving from contract catering to in-house you would see an increase, however with Pelican this hasn’t been the case.  It has saved us a lot of time and labour. 

The one year contract is coming up from renewal with Pelican and we will most certainly be extending it. We’ve received direct financial savings of around 9%, as well as stripping out a layer of financial administration and reporting. The time we have saved has just been incredible and we are today in a far richer place, in terms of service provision, quality and choice, than before.   Moving back to in-house catering has been a very positive journey for us all.”

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