Similar to what’s been seen in so many catering sectors, the school meal industry has had to react to the changing requirements of an increasingly demanding customer base, as pupils become ever more discerning in their tastes. This is something that Norfolk-based Norse Catering has taken proactive steps with following the creation of its Fresssh brand, which has been specifically tailored for the secondary school market. FMCG recently caught up with Andrew Lipscomb, Catering Director, to see what the process entailed.
Norse Catering is part of the much larger Norse Group, having originally been the catering operation of Norfolk County Council before splitting off to effectively become a contractor. This involved the transfer of all staff and virtually all of the schools that the operation had been catering for previously. Today, around 1,000 staff, which include cooks, managers, catering assistants and account managers; support its activities, enabling the operation to provide over 25,000 primary school meals, as well as meeting the catering needs of a number of secondary schools and colleges. It also provides catering for the International Aviation Academy in Norwich and County Hall, amongst others; as well as catering for NorseCare and its various care homes.
“When I joined Norse Catering two years ago I quickly recognised that we had a really good brand for the primary schools,” explains Mr Lipscomb. “It works really well and it’s synonymous with what we do. In contrast, we never had anything similar for our secondary schools, so I tasked the team with the objective of creating a modern brand that would fit with the needs of older children. In preparation, an extensive marketing exercise was carried out and we spoke to large number of students across a number of schools. This research was then utilised to develop a brand that we could take to the schools, who happily loved the concept.”
A key element of the Fresssh brand is based around the idea that students want to have their meals in a place that doesn’t look like a traditional school canteen. As a result, having decided to trial the concept at Dereham Neatherd High School, Norse Catering went in and completely decked out the dining area in new colours and changed the entire imagery to make it much more vibrant and fresh.
“As well as overhauling the dining area, we also modernised the menus,” adds Mr Lipscomb. “We can now offer menu concepts such as Plated, which are more traditional; Bowl, which takes inspiration from the Bento Box and Poke Bowl trends; and Street Food, which has tapped into the growing popularity of wraps and other handheld products that can be eaten on the go. We’ve therefore not only revamped the look and feel, but have also been able to develop a much more modern concept.
“The aim was to move away from the traditional idea of secondary school catering and more towards an exciting but nutritious High Street offering, while we have also incorporated vegan and vegetarian options to satisfy increasing demand in these areas too. It was a long journey that involved speaking to literally hundreds of students, but having introduced the brand into Dereham Neatherd High School in February, the initial reaction has been amazing. We’ve had lots of meetings with the school and they’re really happy, particularly as we’ve seen an increase in meal numbers. The fact that the food offering and the overall dining concept is so different to the traditional school meal experience is proving extremely popular.”
Despite the encouraging initial feedback, Norse Catering is aware that Fresssh is still very much in its infancy and that there hasn’t been time to collate enough meaningful data to compare and contrast the sales uplift. However, it is hoped that in February of next year it will have a much better understanding of the brand’s impact. It will then be able to put together a detailed case study that can be used to demonstrate the benefits of the brand to other secondary schools and further education facilities.
“School kids, like all consumers, are becoming much more discerning in their tastes and requirements, so it’s vital that we’re able to reflect this in our offering and provide something that bears comparison with the High Street,” adds Mr Lipscomb. “This is a trend we’ve even seen at primary school level, as children go out to eat a lot more than previous generations. They therefore have an increased understanding of food and have a broader range of experience and tastes.
“What was apparent when we spoke to the schoolchildren, regardless of age, is that they all know what they want. It was therefore vital that we took this information on-board and tailored our offering accordingly. Ultimately it’s all about listening and acting on the feedback to come up with something the students enjoy.”
This groundwork certainly seems to have paid off if the initial reaction at Dereham Neatherd High School is anything to go by. Mr Lipscomb and his team are now keen to ensure that this promising beginning is built on.
“Our time starts now, as we’re already looking at our plans for next year. We have new menus going into our primary schools and are developing menus for our secondary schools. Thankfully we have number of really good suppliers on our doorstep. We’re particularly proud of the fact that around 80-90% of our meal ingredients are purchased within Norfolk. This helps with reducing food miles, which dovetails with our eco-friendly approach, as we look to reduce waste and recycle as much as we can. Again this fits in with our student feedback, as minimising damage to the environment is very important to them. For example, we have reduced our use of single-use plastics by around 80% and we’re keen to improve on that further.”
There’s no doubt that Norse Catering has its finger firmly on the pulse of what modern students are looking for from their school meal experience, whether it’s in terms of the menu, the dining area or even sustainability. That being the case, take up of the Fresssh concept will surely continue to increase in the future.