Jamie Oliver may have brought the debate around healthy school dinners to centre stage, but you could argue Derick Martin made even bigger strides in the campaign. The co-founder of school catering company Innovate has managed what the TV chef struggled to do – to make healthy food appealing to kids. And despite turnover reaching £18m in just three years, he’s still tinkering with his recipe for success.
Innovate not only provides tasty, healthy and most importantly, tempting school dinners it encompasses the entire school dining experience – from reimagined menus to redesigned cafeteria space. Despite its short lifespan, (Innovate only officially launched in 2008) the company has already secured an impressive array of catering, environmental and business accolades as well as praise from educational board OFSTED, which no doubt has contributed to the fast take-up of the service by UK schools.
Derick and co-founder Geoff Peppiatt were no strangers to the catering industry before setting up Innovate. Derick was involved in a management buy-out of the Three Cooks Bakery chain from RHM in 2004 and the idea for the school catering business was conceived while they were running the 250-strong chain of bakery shops throughout the UK. Derick explains: “A school teacher called us and said ‘I am fed-up with dragging our kids out of your shops everyday – have you ever thought about opening up in a school?’”.
Sensing the teacher may be on to something, the pair started to research the school catering industry, reading every single document they could lay their hands on, in addition to looking at what the government and school food trust was saying about healthy eating. It wasn’t long before they realised school catering hadn’t changed that much since they themselves were students several decades earlier.
After some initial research the pair went on to visit a school in Maidenhead and met with the head teacher and business manager to discuss the proposal of setting up a pilot in the school. “The conversation was very strange as we were a bakery business and selling everything that wasn’t healthy, quite probably, but it’s what the kids wanted to buy.” According to Derick, the main reason school catering fails is because the students, or customers, aren’t served the type of food people want to eat, or given a particularly pleasant environment to eat in – remember those long rows of tables in a noisy dining hall?
Within the next couple of years, Derick and Geoff moved the bakery chain into the education sector where they led a management buy-out of a school catering focused business, and co-founded Innovate.
Shortly before Innovate’s pilot scheme launched, TV chef Jamie Oliver had publically gone to war against unhealthy school food with his campaign ‘Feed Me Better’.
However, according to Derick this did little to actually incentivise school children to eat school meals, and many continued to bring unhealthy packed lunches or go out at lunch if they were allowed.
“What Jamie Oliver’s school meal campaign did was create a huge challenge for us at the time we entered the market as he caused a lot of upset within school catering.”
Jamie’s, arguably dictatorial and somewhat bulldozer, approach to school catering is radically different to Innovate’s, which places great emphasis on listening to what the customer, i.e. the school, students and parents actually want.
According to Derick, the Jamie Oliver effect in real terms caused the popularity of eating school meals to plummet at secondary school level while in primary schools it started a long transition towards healthy eating.
Deciding at the outset that first and foremost Innovate would be run as a business, not a healthy eating reform, the pair drew on their experience from their retail background and applied it to the education system in a way that hadn’t been done before. Although, the food sold by Innovate is healthy, it is packaged and presented in a way that is attractive to students and the secret of their commercial success is that the food “actually tastes good and is set in an environment students enjoy hanging out in”.
Today, walking into any school that has been ‘Innovated’ you are more likely to be faced with a tasty looking selection of freshly prepared paninis, wraps, pasta salads and even freshly brewed coffee in a funky or atmospheric setting that is comparable to many high street chains. And the results speak for themselves; all Innovate schools have seen a dramatic increase in students eating a school lunch. Positive word-of-mouth has helped boost business for Innovate, which tends to rely on this rather than more formal means of advertising.
In its three years of trading Innovate has worked with 65 schools across the country, bringing on around 20 new schools a year, which Derick says has helped the company grow at around 60% a year. Turnover last year was an impressive £18m and the company has projected £24m for 2011 as it continues its organic growth.
Derick’s goal now is to continue to grow the business and work with more schools up and down the country. “We want to become the Pret A Manger of school catering,” he says.