Catering for education sector growth
Norse has been Norfolk’s biggest supplier of primary school meals for nearly three decades, and 2018 saw the group secure £3million worth of new and retained business in schools catering.
In discussion with Victoria Williams, Norse Catering’s Business Development Manager we look at the company’s success and future plans in the sector.
You don’t get to supply over 250 schools with meals every day without earning a reputation for service, quality and reliability.So, what is it that has enabled Norse to build and maintain a business that sees the company, across Norfolk, Suffolk and, increasingly, Cambridgeshire serve more than 28,000 meals a day into the region’s education establishments?
Victoria Williams: “It’s easy to say that service and food quality are paramount, all catering suppliers will claim that, but it is also about making sure that as a company you are continually looking at the sustainability of those deliverables,” she says.
“If you don’t continue to grow the business, you stand still and that means you lose touch with clients’ changing needs and expectations. Ensuring that we retain existing schools is vital of course, but winning new contacts helps keep us aware of what clients are looking for from their catering supplier.
“Cultural food preferences related to growing ethnic diversity in schools, allergy awareness and special dietary needs are all creating the demand for greater variations in menu planning and food provision.”
Williams says that Norse’s growth over the past year is partly down to doing more to promote its service offering in these areas.
“Over the last twelve months we have been much more active in contacting all our schools to discuss their ongoing needs. We are also talking with potential new clients well in advance of their contract renewal, making them aware of the full extent of Norse’s catering services,” she comments.
“A lot of those new potential clients we have been talking with have been really impressed with the quality of our menus. It’s not just the fact that all our meat products are fresh cuts and that we design meals around seasonal vegetables, it’s also about the variation in daily ingredients and the high nutritional value of all the meals. These considerations have played a huge part in winning new school contracts.”
Locally based, locally sourced
Norse has always been committed to using the local supply chain for its food supplies, a key factor, Williams believes, in schools’ evaluation of their catering services. “We have worked with a number of suppliers for many years, enabling us to build relationships that mean we can guarantee food quality and have the flexibility to meet changes.”
Working from a central Norfolk location, and with locally-based account managers, has also meant that Norse is in close touch with schools on a regular basis. “Our catering account managers each manage around only 15-20 schools,” Williams explains, “which enables them to support each site regularly. It’s all about the personal touch; not just being involved, but also being seen to be involved.”
Behind the scenes
Norse has a Head Development chef with a menu development team, and retains an NHS Dietician; they are constantly working with individual school leaders and parent groups, not only on dietary and nutritional balance, but also on ensuring that meals are visually appealing to the pupils.
At the beginning of 2017 the company also invested in specialist IT systems which provide additional support for on-site catering managers in terms of stock control, ordering and supply, and back-office management.
Adapting to changing review processes
Victoria Williams says that the review process for school catering contracts is changing, and over the past year she has taken Norse into closer relationship building with Framework Consultants and multi academy trust members.
“More and more schools, particularly those which are now part of Academy Trusts, are going out to tender when their catering contracts are up for renewal,” she says. “As a caterer Norse is becoming more customer-focused, which is reflected in the fact that we have been spending a lot more time building relationships with key people, making them aware of the wide range of catering services that Norse has to offer. We have also been targeting schools across the county with marketing campaigns using the latest technology; this has really helped to generate new business leads.”
A buoyant look to 2019
The coming year will see Norse launch a new catering brand and menu offer aimed at secondary schools and higher education establishments, with a further push into Cambridgeshire and Suffolk planned.
“2018 was a highly successful year for Norse in terms of growth in the counties immediately bordering our traditional base,” Williams says. “That trend will continue in 2019 as we continue to promote Norse’s catering offer.
“In the secondary and higher education arena, the appealing new brand will offer exciting opportunities to grow our market share, broaden our portfolio and ensure our services remain at the forefront of educational catering requirements.”