The meal deal

The meal deal

Dan Curtis is a man with a particularly direct way of running a company. His high standards have allowed his school catering company to became a particular success. Peter Baber reports.

Dan Curtis is chief executive of Dolce, a York-based contractor that focuses mainly on providing meals for primary school children. The company has won success in recent months from the introduction of an IT system that, uniquely in the country, allows parents to pay for their children’s meals by direct debit. Curtis says such cashless systems can make a big difference in a low-margin industry like school catering, and where many schools still expect the dinner ladies to take care of cash collection themselves.

“You can get a 4% increase in revenue just by stopping the money dribbling through the cracks,” he says. “For a lot of companies, that 4% would be their profit margin.” The IT system, created by Curtis’ son Dougal, is also designed to make dinner time an enjoyable experience for the children. When they come into their classroom each morning, those children who have signed up to the scheme tap their names into a personalised pre-order screen which comes up with a list of the day’s choices. What each child chooses is then fed to the kitchen by internet for a production list so the cook knows exactly what to cook. If only three children have chosen one of the options, for example, then the computer will produce the recipe for that option tailored to make three portions. That means the cook can avoid waste without having to do complicated calculations.

“Cooks aren’t there for their numeracy skills,” says Curtis. Furthermore, when the child comes to the counter to collect the meal, they tap their name in again so the dinner lady can see it on her screen. “The child is instantly recognised, which is nice for the child,” says Curtis. “The cook can say, ‘I made that piece for you’. The child is not going to get to the hotplate and be faced with what everybody else didn’t want.” Such improvements in recent months have led to a large uptake in the number of children opting for school dinners in the areas Dolce covers.

In some cases that has even meant Dolce has been able to offer school meals without having to rely on a subsidy – something of a holy grail for caterers. Curtis insists that as far as possible the meals that are cooked are healthy and of restaurant-standard, too. That, he says, was the main reason he set up the business after he thought standards were dropping, thanks in part to the onset of compulsory competitive tendering (CCT).

“It got down to the stage where a fish finger was being offered for 2p,” he says. “At that price it will be mostly glue and rusk. I thought there has to be a better way.” But if this makes you think that Curtis must be an ardent admirer of Jamie Oliver, you would be wrong. Curtis says everbody’s favourite Essex boy TV chef did nobody any favours.

“The numbers taking school dinners have declined,” he says. “Jamie Oliver would probably say they have declined justifiably, but he should have asked the local authority why they were wanting turkey twizzlers rather than pure fibre meat. Up north, nobody paid much attention to him anyway.” In fact, in the wake of Jamie Oliver’s intervention, Dolce went down the road of trying to prove its credentials to parents – a policy that Curtis now thinks was misguided and nearly sunk the company. It was only when he appointed a marketing director who carried out school gate surveys that he realised just how far removed from reality the likes of Oliver and other health campaigners were.

“These surveys showed that most parents had already accepted that school meals were clean, honest and decent,” he says. Crucially, by trying to remedy a situation that didn’t actually exist he says he lost sight of who the customer was – the child, not the parent.

“I had forgotten that society had moved on and parents are deferential to their children,” he says. Such a wrong turn couldn’t have come at a worse time, because the onset of the recession meant fewer parents were paying for their children’s school dinners anyway. Curtis realised that he would have to put prices up.

“And if I was going to do that, we would have to be more customer focused because I had been focusing on the wrong customer,” he says. “So Chicken Cacciatore went back to being Italian Chicken Casserole, and I gave more leeway to individual managers. To my surprise, everybody took the price increases, the numbers kept creeping up, and that was the big turnaround. I realised that failing to do your market research and instead going by what you believe to be right isn’t necessarily a good thing to do.” Now, thanks also in part to a fair bit of slimming down staff at head office in York, the £5m company, which still has 500 on its payroll, is on an even keel again. The balance sheet, which had gone more than £300,000 into the red, is now debt-free.

“It’s a harder market,” he says, “but I see us doubling our turnover in the next three years.” Still, such an experience of finding his presumptions proved wrong certainly hasn’t stopped Curtis remaining forthright on other issues, particularly about the standards he comes across on the client side at local authorities. Curtis may have been motivated by disgust at what was happening with CCT, for example, but he has no argument with the principle of CCT itself.

“CCT was perfect,” he says, “but only if people specified what they wanted. They didn’t; they just had this idea that cheapest is best. Contractors just gave them what they asked for. After Jamie Oliver started spouting forth everyone talked about nasty contractors, but it wasn’t the contractors; we were delivering what we were asked for. It didn’t say that the food had to taste nice. It just said: ‘Show us the menus and let’s hope its cheap’.” He is ready with plenty of examples. The city authority that said Dolce’s bid didn’t have the necessary quality because Curtis didn’t include an endless list of consultants he was going to use, as the winning bid had done.

The official who approached him about the cashless system, but then neglected to inform him when the prequalification stage for her contract was expiring. And the official at a council Dolce hadn’t worked for before who absolutely refused to see him to discuss even the contents of a likely tender. He denies thatthis last case has anything to do with avoiding cronyism.

“They do have a requirement to consult the marketplace,” he says. “I wasn’t asking for a contract, and I accepted I might not get it.” It may or may not surprise you to discover that Curtis has developed these views after working in a local authority himself. He took a job running schools catering and cleaning in Dumfries and Galloway after many years working in the private sector in the industry. He worked there for four years before the private sector beckoned him back.

“I got fed up working within a local authority,” he says. “The commercial ethos disintegrates into financial bickering, whereas with a commercial organisation everything originates at the board. And you can never go bust, so not matter how inefficient local authority services are – and some of them are hugely inefficient.” He thinks such an anti-commercial world view still persists within the public sector, and masks some inequalities, particularly when it comes to the recent rash of equal pay claims dating back more than a decade.

“It’s a fundamental injustice,” he says. “I am all for good pay, and we always pay above everyone else, so we are not attracting people who just accept the lowest wage. But I’ve heard that the cost per hour for a catering authority worker is now £13.50, whereas at the Dog & Duck it’s probably minimum wage.” He believes many in the local authority sector have “engrandised themselves” and the results, in these chastened times, are only too plain to see. He says: “I have been to see a cascade of schools who have been told that if they continue with the local authority caterer they will have to find money out of teaching budgets to pay for subsidy.

Needless to say, they all want me to do their catering.” Although he doesn’t necessarily welcome the coalition’s plans for free schools – and thanks to a harsh experience at boarding school, will have nothing to do with private schools – he hopes for a future where schools will have much more control over their budgets.

“They should be able to pick a contractor and decide if they like them,” he says, “and not have to go through a central contract. Where is the relevance in local authorities now?” Fortunately, there was one part of the country which, while not perfect, was more in accord with his way of thinking, and that is one of the reasons why Dolce is based in York.

“In Yorkshire you didn’t blame anybody,” he says. “You just got on with it. I was at a secondary school in Grassington and told the dinner ladies there that I would have to cut some hours in this kitchen because they were losing money.

‘Not making a profit?’ they said. ‘That can’t be right.’ I thought I was going to get the ‘Oh I see, you want to sack some of us so you can have a bigger company car’ type of comment. But no. They sat down there and then and started working out how they might cut back in an effective way. My area manager was still getting calls from them at 6pm. You wouldn’t have found that anywhere else.” The company car comment would, in fact, be well wide of the mark. When Curtis’s marriage collapsed some years ago, he spent four years running Dolce while living in a caravan – and not a large static home either – an Ace Diplomat tourer, located in a caravan site near Knaresborough. He says his upbringing in rural Kenya prepared him for that.

“You should see where my grandparents had to live when they first went to East Africa,” he says. “It was much harsher.” The Kenyan experience, he admits, has made him something of an “interloper” on the British business scene. “I personally don’t take a lot of salary or possessions,” he says. “I still have a net worth of zero. Janis Joplin said that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. What she meant was having no possessions left to lose. You can lose your marbles and that’s not so good. But I haven’t done that.” He does, however, appear to have freedom to lead his company in an unusual, albeit successful, way.