Why bother with college restaurants? What function do they serve?

Like all commercial activities in colleges they should be there to enhance the students’ learning and experience.  Their income generation purpose might be valuable but it is really secondary to the experience derived and learning that should be taking place.

Do College Restaurants Really Benefit Students?

A well-known TV chef told me that “practice makes perfect”.  So those colleges that open to the public five days a week (some do five lunch and two dinner services each week) are probably providing their students a wider breadth, as well as quantity, of experience than those that only open once a week for a single service.

Over the last few months, at College and Trainer Marketing, we’ve surveyed over 20 English college restaurants.  The majority only open during term time. But college restaurants like Shrewsbury College’s Origins are open over the summer and, as well as serving lunches and dinners, they serve breakfast, morning coffee and afternoon tea. And when we phoned them on a Sunday afternoon we were promptly answered by a person and not an answerphone!

Other college restaurants we called have answerphones and haven’t returned our calls despite several weeks having passed.

Clearly some colleges provide excellent opportunities for students to gain meaningful, commercial experience.  However, my worry is for those students where the college restaurant is only open for one service a week. Those that don’t act commercially. It may be that they encourage their students to work in commercial cafes, pubs or restaurants in their own time; but in these environments will they get the depth of support they need in their first months of work? Or will they pick up bad habits that are harder to correct at a later stage?

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What Industry Support Does the College Obtain?

Our survey demonstrated a great spread of industry support for colleges in many parts of the country  .. and a notable lack of it in others.

Exeter College has Michelin starred chef, Michael Caines, on their governing body.  The Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College and @34, the related restaurant, is a big draw for local students wishing to enter the sector. The teaching staff have recent experience of working in Michelin starred restaurants as well as gastropubs and other eateries.

Other colleges we examined have established strong hospitality and catering industry groups.  This is to be commended.

Sadly however, too many colleges appear not to have any industry support.  I find this strange, and sad, at a time when the sector is crying out for well trained staff. The opportunities are there for colleges to establish industry groups if they wish.  So why do some fail to do this even at an informal level?

Beyond Cooking and Serving Food

Catering is about more than preparing and serving food. It is about running a viable commercial business.

That being so why do so many colleges fail to expose the students to good commercial practices? One argument I was given was that of the syllabus. Staff claim the syllabus restricts what they can do in the time available.

That argument doesn’t work in the real world.  Restaurant owners can’t claim they are busy and therefore don’t have time to update their website.  If they don’t update the website, market effectively and run a tight ship they soon go to the wall.

Clearly making a profit is secondary to providing students with good experience. But surely a well-run restaurant will make money, and even if these commercial practices are not formally taught, good students, encouraged by good staff, will to a greater or lesser extent, soak up good practice by osmosis. 

So why do so many college restaurant websites fail to point out when they are closed for the summer?  Why do so many totally fail to serve locally sourced produce and fail to address the dining needs of the local community?

And Why, Oh Why, is the Food in College Restaurants So Cheap?

The argument I’m often given for low prices is that the local clientele will not pay more than £x.  After years of serving food only at times when pensioners are able to dine then we shouldn’t be surprised if the local clientele have become accustomed to cheaper menus and refuse to pay more.

And if we insist on all diners having to trek across a large campus on a wet winter’s night to dine in a restaurant, where the toilets are on the next floor, then don’t be surprised if the clientele is limited to those of a certain age and budget.

If colleges want to attract a varied clientele, willing to pay good money, then they must emulate the best restaurants. That means focusing on location, location, location ….. even if it means it is in the town centre and not on-campus. Catering should be customer focused and not proprietor (college) focused. And that also means the opening hours must match the customers’ needs.

So, in most cases, we need to forget a single sitting at 6pm and deliver a commercial service.  And for those staff that protest about the hours, perhaps they should recall that this is the nature of the industry they choose to work in! Having said that, several Michelin starred restaurants recognise the issue of staff hours and have introduced a five-day week so that all staff get two full days a week off. They report better staff retention and no drop in profits. So although opening hours need to be realistic they needn’t be draconian.

Close Ineffective College Restaurants?

There are about two dozen colleges that have been awarded the AA College Rosette.  Of course this isn’t to say the others aren’t up to the mark, especially when colleges that are supported by Michelin starred chefs haven’t sought this recognition. The nearest college with this recognition to my home is two hours away, and London only has one college with this accolade. So it is rare.

I don’t personally feel that this accolade is the be all or end all when it comes to defining a college restaurant where quality learning can take place.

But I do feel that college restaurants that fail to recognise good practice, and fail to open sufficient hours for the students to really gain the experience they need, should examine the reason their rationale. If colleges can’t provide what our students deserve they should consider closing their restaurants and sending their students to a commercial restaurant for their practical experience. Some people I spoke to went a step further, they argued that colleges that can’t provide a good level of practical training in-house should close their catering courses!

Street Food

Street food used to be a stepping stone that many catering businesses took before buying premises.  Today many restaurants have moved back to street food as an addition to their offer.  They use it to entice people to book into their restaurants as well as fulfil a need that the public demonstrate is booming.

So maybe all the colleges that don’t open more than once a week have thriving street food businesses where the students get their experience.  If so they are to be commended. But so far I’ve failed to find any examples of college street food outlets.

What about Floristry and Hair & Beauty Salons?

If the above arguments apply to Restaurants, then surely they also apply to college based Floristry workshops and Hair & Beauty salons.

And if that is true what of other vocational areas.  Should we not consider our construction students being involved in offering a commercial service to the community? Maybe to housing associations and disadvantaged group or charities? 

After all, practice makes perfect!    

About Stefan Drew

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US - visit: www.StefanDrew.com and http://www.providermastermind.com

LinkedIn    http://uk.linkedin.com/in/stefandrew

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