Still surprising at 21

Still surprising at 21
23/05/2017 - 07:00
Parents in Kent often raise an eyebrow at the food in their children’s schools. Served in a high street café environment, the quality is good enough to draw the teachers to dine in too. Angela Youngman finds out about the catering company behind it.

It comes as no surprise to Independent Catering Management (ICM), which this year celebrates 21 years of existence, when it hears from impressed parents and satisfied pupils.

Food quality has been at the heart of a company that has grown from nothing to having a turnover in excess of £12 million, and, today, serves 60 secondary and primary schools within Kent and Surrey.

Founded in 1996 by entrepreneurs Andrew Saunders and Peter Hine, last year ICM won new business worth £3 million, plus business retention of £5 million. Two of its schools (Langley Park and Dartford Grammar School) have remained clients throughout its 21 years of existence.

Asked the secret of their success, Saunders says: “Staying true to what we clearly set out to do, staying in tight geographical boundaries, providing good-quality local food and visiting schools as often as possible to see what is happening on the ground.”

The company has remained resolutely independent. “There have been no approaches, perhaps because I have not been looking to be acquired. If I had, it might have been different,” he says. The only major change in the company’s status over the years has been his decision to become sole owner – buying out his partner when Hine wanted to take a less active role in the business.

Most days, Saunders can be found at one of his client’s schools having lunch there. He eats what the children eat so is able to personally check the quality.

Menus provide hot and cold choices. At primary level, this can include chicken in barbecue sauce, filled jacket potatoes, cheese and tomato calzone, winter vegetable wholemeal pie or Moroccan spiced vegetable cous cous.

For secondary schools, the choice can include Spanish-style meatballs with potato bravas, beef massaman curry and sticky rice served with Oriental vegetables, red lentil and cheese loaf or sweet potato and butternut squash casserole. Street food is very popular, and there are also fresh sandwiches, pittas, wraps, soups and some sweet treats.

“The personal touch is important. You have to keep promises and provide what you said you would do. I ask everybody if they like the food, what they would like on the menu and they are very happy to give their comments,” says Saunders.

“Children go to restaurants and know about food and food types. The rise of programmes with celebrity chefs has created a lot of interest in food because chefs are in the spotlight. The children ask us ‘how do you cook that?’. We hold workshops and our chefs go into the primary schools to talk about the importance of a balanced diet.

“Presentation is also important,” he adds. “Kids are looking for food to be packed correctly. They are used to the packaging used on the high street and expect this elsewhere. School catering cannot be viewed as a canteen; it has to be viewed as a professional food establishment in each school.”

Use of local, high-quality produce is essential. “We achieved the Gold Soil Association Award status last year because we wanted to be recognised for providing quality ingredients. It means a lot to parents.”

This approach has been extremely successful. “Uptake of school meals has grown significantly and a lot of emphasis has been placed on making it easier for children to buy meals with more payment points so they do not wait in long queues,” Saunders adds.

No money exchanges hands. ICM was an early adopter of the Squid pre-payment system, providing an interactive cashless system within schools.

Good catering staff play a major role in ensuring the success of the business. Many of its chefs come from the commercial sector, such as Alston Harris, the chef manager in charge at St Olave’s Grammar School, Orpington, who was formerly employed by the Ritz Hotel.

“More and more of our chefs have a commercial background. They value a better life balance and the opportunities it presents for the future as they can grow through management roles in the business.”

Looking back over the past two decades, Saunders says: “The business has exceeded all its original aims. We have achieved what we wanted to achieve. We are well resourced, established in the market and it is a pleasure to be involved.

“There have been a lot of good memories – the first contract gained, the first new kitchen; then it rose to ten, 20 and 50 contracts. When you look back, it is all a blur as it has gone too quickly. We have a lot of experienced staff. One member of staff has been with us for 20 years, and a lot for 15-plus years.”

He approaches the next stage of the company’s development with confidence. “We have learned a lot over the years. It is very important to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. You have to keep focused on core values while bringing in new people with new ideas to keep the business moving forward.”

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