One of the biggest issues of concern among the attendees was their workforce – including recruitment, retention, succession planning, training, and mental health.
Mark Meacham said that among HC-One’s responses to these issues, it had started to look internally at career progression to create a successful career path.
“We want to make sure that chefs can see progression from site managers, area chefs and development chefs and we’re trying to recruit internally as much as possible. When it comes to kitchen assistants, we are going into colleges and universities to find those looking for part-time work.
“We’ve also adopted flexible working on an area basis and appointed a whole new team to make that happen. It’s quite new and has got to be managed properly, but we’ve already seen some successes among carers and now we plan to expand it more to chefs.”
Mark Dale said Advinia Healthcare had done something similar. “We’ve also organised it regionally, tag-teamed staff to step in if someone is away or sick and it’s already brought agency costs right down. Within our group the teams are all in contract and if people are off on annual leave, they can say ‘I can pick up a shift for you there’.”
Again, the initial focus has been on housekeeping and care, but not chefs so much yet. Noel Finnegan said Anchor Trust was starting to focus on getting into colleges and promoting the work-life balance available in the care sector.
“We do a lot of cooking from fresh ingredients and that can be an attractive proposition for a chef. These chefs at college want to become hotel, restaurant chefs, but if they want to learn how to cook properly then social care catering can offer that, plus extra training in special diets and dysphagia on top of that.”
Terry Abbas said Ambinet Software had already designed an online training system for NHS trusts exactly to their requirements. “That’s been going for 18 months and the cost saving is large because the new chefs can sit their training before they start work.”
Mark Taylor said the wider issue was that the public sector employed many more chefs than work in restaurants and hotels.
“We need to get over the image problem, and get that out there to the students of today. We don’t publicise the amazing work that care chefs do. It’s highly specialised, but its culinary. It’s a lovely sector to work in with some great people.”
Noel added: “We can’t compete on pay, so we promote the fact that our chef managers meet the residents and talk to them – if you work in a restaurant the only feedback you get is on TripAdvisor.”
EF-group’s Stephen Gallagher pointed out the UK had an ageing population so needed more and more people working in the sector. “We need to be able to show young people career progression, but you’ve never see the sector showcased on television cooking programmes.”
CareTech’s Jonathan Freeman made the point: “We’re rubbish at shouting about the sector and building career paths, but there are highly specialised skills that are needed so there is a challenge. You can build relationships within the sector in a way that you can’t in a high-end restaurant.”
Mark Meacham said there already existed an informal lunch club that gathered together the heads of hospitality for a number of care groups with chefs from other groups to compare notes and share experience.
“There are no secrets and that works really well. We need a platform to shout. We know we’re doing a great job. There is the NACC, but they don’t promote care catering.”
Mark Meacham agreed, saying: “They are supplier-led and they need to be chef-led. They don’t do enough.”
Mark Taylor felt mainstream TV exposure for the sector would be a help in publicising the care sector as a potential workplace for young people.
Mark Meacham suggested getting all the top care chefs into a five-star hotel and cooking to show how good the sector is.
Noel Finnegan said that one of the biggest things in the Anchor Trust calendar was its chef of the year programme.
Mark Taylor said that although the NACC runs the Care Chef of the Year competition, ‘we don’t shout enough about it’.
“The NHS Chef of the Year, does it very well. They’ve done an amazing job, but we haven’t replicated it. We don’t follow-up on the Care Chef competition, not like the LACA School Chef of the Year where they have a programme mapped out for the year ahead with visits and demos. You should be publicly the champion of that sector, not just disappear afterwards.”
Mark Meacham said he had challenged his team at HC-One to get together and put a team into the HRC Salon Culinaire in 2024.
Noel Finnegan asked: “If we’ve got the ideas like this, who do we go to get help?”
Turning to training for catering staff, Mark Meacham said HC-One used area chefs to take some responsibility away from home managers to do inductions for new chefs.
“They spend two weeks with that area chef, learning how we do things before they are allowed to start work in their own home. If you’re talking about textures, you’ve got to do that on site, you can’t teach that online, for example.”
The round table was told there was no general IDSSI (the dysphagia diet standard) qualification that was recognised, but even if there were care homes would want to be ‘sure themselves’ even if a chef said they’d done the training.
Mark Taylor pointed out that two years of work had been done to get the NVQ in Health and Social Care Catering established, but there was almost no take-up for it from catering colleges.
“They weren’t engaged in running it because they said they wouldn’t be able to fill the places on the course.”
Jonathan Freeman said it needed care sector employers at the other end of the training process so that anyone taking the course knew there would be jobs at the end of it.
Turning to mental health, Mark Dale said: “We have to listen to our staff, and we do need to modernise. Cut your hours down if that’s what you need. We used to say ‘see you mate’ and let them go, but those days have gone and we’ve got to adapt.”
EF-group’s Rob Henry added: “We have kept sweeping the problem under the carpet, but sooner or later we’ll have to lift the carpet.”
Several attendees praised the work of the mental health charity the Burnt Chef Project for the help and support it can provide both employers and employees.
Mark Meacham said: “People hide it very well and we don’t talk enough to each other, so it can be difficult to spot.”
Stephen Gallagher said EF-group had appointed mental health first-aiders: “Everybody has anxiety at some point in their lives and we need to be able to talk about it.”
Tackling waste, in particular food waste, was another topic addressed by the round table, though many felt the nature of the care sector meant it was more difficult to achieve significant reductions than in other parts of the catering industry.
Mark Meacham said: “We‘re looking hard at food waste, it’s high on our agenda. We are already doing recycling and segregation and have got a good link from suppliers all the way through the food chain. In-house composting is the plan, we’ve got a working group on that. There’s a whole piece being done on sustainability.”
Jonathan Freeman, though, pointed out: “Big schools find it’s easy to cut food waste by simply changing menus and you can save thousands of pounds, but it’s tricky to do this in a small residential property with just a handful of residents.”
Noel Finnegan said food waste bins had been installed in 30 Anchor Trust sites, with more being sent out. “We’re weighing the food waste and looking at how we can minimise it, but we find plate waste is more of a problem than kitchen food waste.”
Martin Youds of Rational said equipment technology would help to reduce food waste. “We offer a lot of training to go with equipment and it amazes me how little this is taken up when new kit is bought. You can save yourself a lot of money from food waste and energy use if people are just educated about it.”
Noel Finnegan said that even now new care homes were being built with kitchens fitted out along traditional lines. “It’s always better to get in at the design stage to fit the right equipment,” he pointed out. Rob Henry asked about the possibility of incentivising care chef to help hit the targets set cut waste.
Jonathan Freeman picked up the point, adding: “If it helps us save money, then why not share that. It’s not necessarily a bonus, but perhaps discretionary spend on new kit.”
Martin Youds said: “Being sustainable is a good thing in its own right, there’s no downside, you just need somebody to take responsibility.”
Mark Meacham was worried about the cost: “At HC-One we’ve got a budget next year that runs into millions to invest in more energy-efficient equipment, but that is enough only to cover five of our homes.”
Martin Youds countered by saying returns on investment could be seen within 14 months and this was on a piece of kit that would last at least ten years. On sustainability, Stephen Gallagher reported on an initiative EF-group was working on with HC-One to help residents grow their own fruit and veg.
“We find more and more big clients are seeing ESG [Environmental, Social, Governance] as part of their roadmap to reaching Net Zero targets. It’s about growing food and reminding people about the British seasons.”
Moving onto the food price rises the care catering sector had had to contend with over the last year, Mark Dale said: “Gone are the days of changing menus twice a year. We’re having to be flexible and change ingredients on a regular basis now as prices on particular products suddenly jump.”
Mark Meacham pointed out that HC-One was now spending £6.20 per resident on food, while a year ago it was only £5. Stephen Gallagher said that food price rises were worse in the UK as a result of Brexit.
“The Netherlands has invested in technology to produce veg, but now for paperwork reasons the UK is at the back of the queue as an EU trading partner and it puts a lot more pressure on our clients in terms of price mitigation.
“And weather impacts on produce are becoming more common as a result of climate change, and that’s why all the things we’ve been talking about on sustainability are so important as they can help in the long term. We’ve seen so many small fruit and veg and meat companies disappear and they haven’t been replaced.”
Rob Henry added: “We’re finding it harder to get food from overseas, which is why we need to be trying to grow more at home. We’re creating an economy where we’re creating our own problems. We want to use smaller, UK suppliers but it is getting more challenging to find them.”
As prices rise, it is forcing care home operators to look at different catering models, with Noel Finnegan saying: “My worst case scenario is we go down the road of cook-freeze or cook-chill. If you’ve got a management that looks only at how to save money, they may well take this idea.”
Mark Taylor said: “It may work in some hospitals, but a hospital is not someone’s home and a care home is. The residents live there, they’re not in and out in 2-3 days.”
Steve McFall of EF-group said: “We’ve gone through this [switch to cook-freeze] already with one care home chain but the result was that food waste was higher, nutrition was less. We’ve actually done the exercise and ended up ditching it and doing even more cooking from fresh.”
Mark Taylor concluded: “If you’re choosing somewhere for your relative, are you really going to be happy with someone just serving a ready meal? Once you’ve gone to the trouble of scooping it out onto a plate to serve it then there’s your cost saving already gone.”