Catering for the future

William Brogan researches the future of foodservice

As Catering and Conference Manager at St John’s College, Cambridge, William Brogan knows the importance of planning ahead in order to cater for the bright minds of the future


Recently St John’s College, Cambridge, underwent a master planning exercise, which was undertaking research into the College’s requirements for the next five, ten, 50 and 100 years and getting the College finely positioned for its future requirements, including the increase in graduates that Cambridge University is undertaking, some of whom may have families. The plan moving ahead will impact on all aspects of the College, however, it did get us thinking in particular about what the food offer might be looking like this far ahead.

This is, of course, quite hard to predict. If we look at what we have now – local, international, organic, sustainable, food from across the planet – trends become vogue and then disappear a few months later. The rise of the coffee shop: will it continue, or will tea take over, or will some as yet unknown exotic juice firm flourish?

Looking at it, one of the main thoughts is that our lifestyle will certainly change during this time. We will require food that is healthy, nutritious and sustaining and good for the brain. Food that will also help in the fight against obesity. This in turn raises questions about customer service in its current form, such as, are we getting this right? Are we serving what customers want? How far do we go?

We had a very inspirational talk about customer service at the College by the former Front-of-house Manager from Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray about what they delivered in the restaurant. It is a totally a different style of training and service, anticipating the customer’s needs. The staff at St John’s really enjoyed this type of forward-thinking and intuitive training.

When serving in coffee shops, do we check if the customer is left- or right-handed? Do we ensure to use the appropriate cup for coffee type, and is the coffee prepared in the correct way to create the crema?

Recently, I visited Clover Food Lab in Boston, Massachusetts, to see their new foodservice concept. It was very fast but healthy food for students attending Harvard. This concept started as a food truck but has expanded to three retail units, which are busy servicing very different customer groups, using superfoods and locally sourced ingredients providing healthy fast food and receiving great reviews, with its large Twitter feed screen on the wall for all to see. There is nothing like it in the UK.

We have introduced a children’s menu at St John’s in the main Buttery Dining Room as of October this year. This is to encourage graduates to eat Sunday lunch with their children. Also, within the same vein, we are holding an insect tasting for the students in January 2017 – I have already had some of my Heads of Department tasting insects earlier in the year as an alternative form of protein. Two universities in the UK are also reviewing serving insects, while some restaurants have started offering insects.

It is not only the food offered that we need to look ahead to. There is also the workforce and the equipment that will be used in the kitchen and associated areas. Will it be labour saving? We still, of course, do not know how Brexit will affect us in the future. Will foodservice involve robots, for example the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, plan to use robots as meeters and greeters – the current exhibition on robots at MIT in Boston is fascinating, as is the book Technology vs. Humanity by Gerd Leonhard. Is there anything that we can learn about our food from trips to space? Will we have time to eat? How will mobile technology evolve?

In September 2015, I led a team from The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) to look at catering in Chinese universities and also Tencent in Shenzhen, which is the owner of the products ‘QQ’ and ‘We Chat’ (similar to Twitter and Facebook) boasting massive numbers of users, and now gaining ground in the West. Some comments from the Chinese students, especially those that have been to or studied in the UK, was how far behind the UK is with mobile technology. The Chinese do everything on their mobiles, from ordering food and paying for it at their universities, to booking seminar rooms, their college bedroom, etc. We need to move quickly with this in order to keep up.

I believe going forward we have to be more responsive to change; have fully trained professional staff who can deliver; be ahead of the game and offer food of a high quality with exceptional service in an ever-changing environment. This means training our staff, liaising with our customers, and ensuring that we are providing for their needs and ensuring that our suppliers can provide us with the products customers want.