A re-branding and training initiative has hit on the ideal ingredients for high-quality catering and customer care
It's been a long time since dinner ladies doled out lumpy custard, black potatoes and a clip round the ear if you complained about them. Even the job title has changed, says Helen Bacon, core skills lecturer at Dumfries and Galloway College.
"They're not dinner ladies now - they are Cafe DG staff," she says.
Training and re-branding have made the difference in secondaries around the authority, says Alan Mawson, Dumfries and Galloway's catering development manager.
"In response to the Hungry for Success initiative, we decided to do more than just take the chocolate and fizzy drinks away. We wanted to do something positive, so we created the Cafe DG brand."
Nutritionally balanced meals and good-value, meal-deal options are part of it, but ambience and atmosphere are just as important.
"We wanted to change the whole perception of school meals. We provided in-house training at first. But we soon realised that something more in-depth was needed," says Mr Mawson.
Discussions with Dumfries and Galloway College led to a one-day course to give canteen staff the confidence to contribute to cafe culture.
"I went out to the schools and delivered sessions to managers and staff from every secondary," says Ms Bacon. "I learned a lot. These people are very committed to what they're doing. It's not just about serving lunches and snacks to students. They also keep an eye on people they're worried about. They make sure everybody has something to eat. They take on this welfare role, which came as a surprise to me. They really enjoy what they do, especially being part of a team."
Culture change was the focus of the training, Mr Mawson explains, and the relationship with the consumer was at the heart of the move from dinner ladies to cafe staff.
"It's partly about how to sell the products and change the perception of healthy foods," he says.
"Just as important, though, is getting the idea across that they're not kids - they're customers."
Competing for customers is the key to any enterprise, so the training took a close look at the competition. "Why do students go elsewhere?" says Ms Bacon. What can we do that our competitors don't? We wanted to help staff reflect on how they work now, as individuals and teams, and identify what they could take back to their workplace. It had to be really practical - so that they got tips and techniques to take away."
Hazel Quinn, catering manager at Annan Academy, says: "I feel we always were customer-friendly and good with the kids. But it made us think that bit more about it.
"Sometimes it's just simple things like saying 'please' or 'thank you' - or making eye contact with the kids. The activities on the training day got us really looking at the people around us and thinking about them."
Staff were asked to consider how potential customers might be enticed away from the charms of the fast-food outlet, corner shop or supermarket, says Ms Bacon.
"We got them thinking about how we can persuade the kids to come to the cafe and eat healthy food instead," she says.
"It's about the whole experience of being in the cafe - socialising, having music on, talking with their mates. They don't have far to go. It's warm and dry. The staff can use all these things to persuade the pupils to come to the cafe, rather than going to the competition.
"It's about helping them recognise just how much they have to offer."
One thing school meals didn't traditionally offer was speed of service, with long and sometimes unruly lunchtime queues turning many pupils off. So cafe staff now have to be aware of the trade-off between friendliness and efficiency.
"We have some big schools in Dumfries and Galloway," Mr Mawson points out. "Stranraer Academy has 1,200 pupils, and it can be hectic with just 40 minutes to feed them. It's a real challenge to add that extra bit of ambience."
The cashless system helps, says Ms Quinn. "They all have a card which comes up with their name, so the person on the till can say, 'Hello James. How are you today?'
"We don't push them through as fast as we can - if we did that, they wouldn't come back. But if it's really busy, we'll maybe remind them what's on, ask what they fancy, try to keep it moving."
One aid to efficiency is a system that allows customers to pre-order takeaway items and collect them at lunchtime, says Scott Burn, a sixth-year student at Annan Academy. "That cuts down waiting time," he says. "Also, the menus go up a week in advance, which is useful. The whole place feels more relaxed now, less formal. It's visual and appealing."
Kate Suttie (S1) likes the new colour scheme. "It's a bright, vibrant purple that appeals to boys and girls," she says.
And the new name is a plus for Rachael Black, an S1 student. "'Cafe DG' is funky," she says.
But while ambience, atmosphere and good customer relations all add to the Cafe DG experience, the food is also important. The training would not have had much effect if staff were still trying to sell the same old custard and potatoes.
Scott's final verdict? "The food here is good. It's nutritious and it's appetising."
- Cafe DG menu is available at:www.dumgal.gov.ukDumgaldocuments.aspx?id=19114.