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Brian’s Blog – The Floors are Clean and the Food is Delicious

Published: Wednesday, 17th August 2016

Welcome to Brian’s Blog; The first and quite possibly last, in an occasional series of business related and slightly tangential musings…..

Cityserve – the biggest (possibly) cooking (and cleaning) business you’ve never heard of!

I’ve been promising to write a blog for ages now, in fact ever since we launched our new website back in the Spring. I suppose I’ve been holding back because there’s just so much to talk about, with so little time to consign my thoughts to the page. However – the moment has arrived, the sun is high and most of my colleagues are on the beach; the office is blissfully quiet and I’m almost alone with my thoughts…..

So – where exactly do I start? This isn’t just Cityserve’s first Blog, it’s mine too; As someone who is generally more of a talker than a writer, I’m sure to be riddled with self-doubt until I’ve read it and re-read it, written it and rewritten it a dozen times and had several peer reviews….. either that, or you’re reading this as a first draft since nobody was around to take a second look, and as someone with a low-boredom threshold I got distracted half-way through. I’ll let you decide.
Anyway – about this biggest (possibly) food business you’ve never heard of. Unless you’re a child (or parent of said child) or work in a school it’s unlikely you’ve ever come across our fayre before. Likewise, unless you’re an accountant at Birmingham City Council, then the chances are also that you’ve never heard of us.

Well – time to put that straight!

What we do is very simple and extremely important:

Under our CITYKITCHEN brand, we feed 70,000 kids, every school day, with a 2 course meal, produced and served by around 2,000 team members across several hundred schools in Birmingham.

That’s right, 70,000 kids a day.
That’s almost 14 million meals a year.

What we don’t do is serve institutionalised ‘Grange Hill’ stodge. Those myths and memories of school dinners of the 80’s and 90’s can be well and truly banished to the ‘farmers-bin’. You’d also be forgiven for thinking this is a ‘fast-food-burger’ type set-up, especially since the service window typically lasts for 50 minutes.
The truth is that the vast majority of our meals are freshly cooked with high-quality, locally sourced, fresh and seasonal ingredients that are healthy and nutritionally balanced.

The words ‘Twizzler’ and ‘Turkey’ when used in tandem are henceforth banned from vocabulary.

The fact that we aren’t very well known is slowly changing as we continue to transform our service from that of a typical Local Authority school dinner provision into a modern, commercially branded high-quality and efficient catering organisation. Given the size of the tanker to turn, this task is nearly as challenging as starting up a new mass-catering business from scratch!

Just because we’re a Local Authority service, it doesn’t mean that we have an easy monopoly or that we don’t have competition; precisely the opposite exists. Birmingham’s schools are totally free to engage with whomever they feel will tick the most of their required boxes. The existence of competition means that our pencils have to be the sharpest and before I continue, it’s important to convey that although Cityserve is rival to other Contract Caterers on the basis of cost and quality, let’s assume that general food standards and pricing are all ‘givens’ in the sector; So, what does Cityserve do in this great City that is totally unique in a homogeneous marketplace? (Oh, did I not mention that we also clean and maintain many of the buildings too? Maybe we can save that one for another time then)

Well…..I like to think of us as ‘Municipal Entrepreneurs’. Whilst the words don’t necessarily roll-off the tongue, I reckon the phrase sums up quite nicely how we work.  Municipal and Civic as social descriptors seem to have disappeared from the lexicon of service and commerce during the last 20 years or so, as more and more services are being delivered by private businesses, rather than pure Civic or Public Services.  Furthermore, ‘Entrepreneurialism’ – that much lauded device of the Dragons’ Den, seems to be exclusively bound to the private sector……..

To me though, the word ‘entrepreneur’ shouldn’t be limited to trading positions or platforms. Nor should it be perceived as a born-with ‘talent’ with badges offered to a select gifted few – the Bransons, the Dysons, the Banatynes of this world, if you like.

My preferred definition is this:

‘The management and organisation of an enterprise or a business with initiative’

When I first set off to write this piece, my first ever ‘blog’ (I repeat this in a second clumsy attempt to request forgiveness and leniency, in the event that it isn’t very well received) – one that has neither plan nor structure (which I’m also pretty sure is completely meandering and needs to get back on track………) I knew I’d miserably fail to get anywhere near the literary and descriptive, metaphor creating talents of my go-to professional journalistic reference points – the likes of Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Moran, Stewart Lee and Robert Crampton . Instead, and semi-staying on corporate message, I decided to see how I could muster shoe-horning our bold City values and virtues (completely un-cynically on my part you’ll understand?) into the metaphor-testing mix. I personally think the next question works best, if you read it out loud in your best dulcet Jeremy Clarkson hyperbole.

Imagine…. that you were to capture the seemingly polar particles ‘Municipal’ and ‘Entrepreneur’ and then hurl them into the Large Hadron Collider and smash them together. Using Birmingham City Council’s 4 raisons d’être and Cityserve’s ethos here’s what happens……

We put Citizens First.  And do you know what – we genuinely do. In the dozens of ‘Board Meetings’ I’ve attended, many strategies and proposals are tested with the question ‘what does this mean for the kids?’  From obesity strategies, to meal pricing, to tackling food poverty and holiday hunger, the social agenda comes first. Then we work on the business aspect – the entrepreneurialism to ensure that everything we do is delivered creatively, in a sustainable, impactful and non-subsidised way;
Not one of us around the table is thinking about how it’ll make a nice juicy a bonus (because we don’t get one) or impact on our share-price (because the people of Birmingham are our stakeholders).

We are True to our Word. Now, I’d be lying if I said we were perfect. We’re far from that and any business which believes it is, possibly won’t be around in a couple of years to rue its complacency! A strive for continual improvement is in the DNA of every entrepreneurial business, service or organisation. So whilst we don’t always get it right – we do genuinely mean what we say, and exist to ‘do the right thing’.

We Act Courageously. We don’t often say no – and our clients will testify to this. Our first answer is hopefully a very instinctive YES, followed by an occasionally panicky ‘How do we make it happen???’ To properly evidence ‘courageousness’ – this Blog is my personal leap of faith; writing something like this is probably quite an unusual thing for a Council Officer. Certainly releasing it into the ‘wild’ with nothing more than a peer review for typos isn’t for the faint-hearted!

We Achieve Excellence. Well – we try to at least……..we are in the people business and none of us is perfect. However, learning from what doesn’t go to plan and in focussing on being better, faster and cheaper in all we do we have some solid behavioural expectations that are grounded in Civic values.

We absolutely know that we’re Municipal – because we’re part of the fabric of the City of Birmingham. We aren’t established to fill up the tanks of a fleet of BMW’s and we don’t take ‘fat-cat’ wages. In fact we take painfully-thin-cat wages. Everything we do is because we want to do the right thing and that’s why our motives and moral compasses can be trusted.

So, assuming you’re not one of those that skips to the last page of a book to find out what happens, I‘d like to say thanks for reading my ruminations. You’ve now heard of Cityserve without the need for a glossy advert. Whilst we don’t anticipate winning any Michelin stars, what we do, we do well and with the best of intentions. We’re a high-quality, value-for-money and well-meaning, well-ran service for the kids of Birmingham – the floors are clean and the food is delicious!

Brian Cape is Cityserve’s Business & Service Development Manager and leads on business growth, retention and continuous improvement including product (City Kitchen food innovation team), people development, marketing and branding.