It has just gone 11am on a damp Monday morning and Stuart Flint, Electrolux Professional’s foodservice training guru, emerges from the demonstration kitchen at the manufacturer’s UK Innovation Centre to greet the large group of school caterers now assembled outside.
They haven’t travelled too far: all work for schools that fall under the remit of Luton Borough Council, which has recently invested in dozens of new combination ovens as part of a wider programme to upgrade school kitchens.
The council is a customer of Northamptonshire-based catering equipment distributor Whitco, which has arranged for the training to be carried out before the new school term starts and the ladies have to begin producing meals using their new equipment for real.
“It is not the biggest kitchen in the world so it might be a little bit of a squeeze, but I am sure we can accommodate you all,” Flint tells the cooks, although he is possibly being a bit modest about the size of the facility — the real reason it might be a tight fit is that the group consists of 20 people, which really edges towards the upper limit of what is practical for learning.
Demo work is normally carried out in smaller groups but in this instance it makes sense to put the cooks through a crash course in combis, especially as Electrolux has already developed the menus that will be used by each school.
Flint continues: “Now, as we go through the session, please ask as many questions as you want. There are no silly questions — you are going to need to know how to use the equipment when you go back to school, so today is your day to be able to do that.
“We will make sure we cover everything off so that you are completely comfortable with the use of the oven. Is everybody happy with that? There’ll be a few little bits and pieces as we go along as well, so you won’t starve! So, if we all move into the kitchen we’ll do a little bit of an introduction to the equipment and then we’ll go through some processes.”
The team at Luton Borough Council responsible for improving the standard of school kitchens is led by catering services advisor, Judith Chiswell. Until now, only about 10 of the 70-plus schools it serves have had combination ovens in their kitchens. But the intention is to rapidly change that.
“We need the combis to alter what we are currently doing with steamers and stoves,” she explains. “It is far more practical for them to have and more cost-effective over a longer period of time. My overall strategic plan for the next umpteen years is to get a combi in every single school within Luton. Because of the size of the schools in Luton, we are even having to put two combis and 20-grids in some, it’s crazy.”
The Electrolux Air-o-Steam Level B combis specified by Whitco should be more than sufficient for the requirements of each school. Chiswell says: “I find that some of the programmes within other ovens are not required whereas with the Level B oven you select the temperature, select the steam or whatever you want it to do, and it will do it. Essentially, we don’t need to go round all the kitchens programming it with a memory stick. It is very difficult for us to achieve that, what with menus changing and everything else. It is far easier to send out a list of dishes and what to cook on.”
Isabella Anello, regional sales manager at Whitco, who looks after the Luton Borough Council account, has also recently brought members of Northamptonshire County Council through the training centre and she says it is an important element of the whole sales and support process.
“The training centre is a very good, hands-on type operation and it is an easy part of the world to get to for most of our clients because they are in the right area for it,” comments Anello.
“For Luton Borough Council and for us it has been extremely useful and as they take on more schools in the next few years we expect to be involved with more training courses here.”
With so many people in this particular session, the demonstration is deliberately less hands-on than might ordinarily be the case. Flint has even carried out all the prep work in advance to ensure attendees can make the most of the available demo time.
However, after taking the chefs through all of the dishes that can be produced using the combi’s different features — from things like pizzas, chicken and bread to old favourites such as fish fingers, jacket potatoes and sponge cakes — each person is invited up one at a time to complete a programing exercise and get a feel for the ovens themselves.
“We are very lucky to have this facility on our doorstep otherwise our ladies would have had to have had an oven installed into one of the kitchens and a trainer come out,” says Chiswell. “It is far nicer for them to come here and I think they learn more from this sort of training. I also know in the future that I can get the next block of training here and if anybody needs refresher training we can come here as well.”
For Electrolux, the creation of the Innovation Centre has proved to be one of the biggest plus points to emerge from the foodservice division’s move to Luton. At its old Birmingham head office, the demo kitchen consisted of little more than two combi ovens, a blast chiller and an undercounter dishwasher.
“This facility offers us so many more possibilities because of the range of equipment that we have got in here,” Flint tells Catering Insight during a break in the training session. “If you compare it to the old facility, we wouldn’t have been able to carry out training on Level B combis, for example, because we only ever had Touchline combis.
"Now it opens things up to more equipment lines, so if there is something specific that we want to show, such as a convection oven, then we can look at doing that. Overall, it gives us the option of doing a wider range of training and accommodating more people.”
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As a full working kitchen, the facility can cater for anybody using the centre for a networking event or business meeting. It has even done a gala dinner for 90 people.
The type of customers to have come through the doors over the past 12 months reflects the breadth of the manufacturer’s customer base. High-street chain accounts, pub groups, full-service restaurants and independent cafes and coffee shops, not to mention primary schools buying kit for UIFSM, have all made use of the facilities.
“Dealers are bringing people in, area sales managers are bringing people in, national accounts team are bringing people — we’re very happy for the facility to be utilised as much as possible,” says Flint, who is one of three development and training chefs that Electrolux employs in the UK.
One of Electrolux’s main philosophies is that training shouldn’t be based around a set demonstration. Flint believes it is far more effective to gear each demo to the individual end-user and the items on their menus, while encouraging them to explore how various features and accessories can be used to enhance their offerings.
“If you train people in the right way to use the equipment they become much more relaxed with the use of it and familiar with how it works,” he insists. “And if they use it in the correct way, they will get far more out of it.”
Stepping up the activity
With Electrolux Professional’s Innovation Centre now a year old, the manufacturer has had time to evaluate what has worked for the facility and what needs to be improved.
Moving forward, regional training and demonstration manager, Stuart Flint, says one of the main priorities is making sure that it can deliver access to the equipment that customers want to experience firsthand.
“We will probably just add little bits and pieces to it,” he says. “I think the next plan is for a rack-type dishwasher [to go in the showroom area adjacent to the kitchen]. We had a hood machine there originally, but rack dishwashers are an area where I think we’ll need to train on because it’s something that people are not overly familiar with.
“I am pushing for a pressure bratt pan in here as well and, of course, if equipment is upgraded then we’ll upgrade to the newest model, too. In terms of changes to the set-up, it is an ongoing process.”
The major focus for the next 12 months is to increase the level of activity within the centre and, in that respect, Flint urges distributor partners to make use of the facility whenever they can, be it for training their own staff or their customers.
“There will be much more going on in terms of demonstrations,” he says. “I’m now category manager for cook/chill as well, so I’m obviously keen to push this side of things and use it as an opportunity to introduce more demos. We will have set-date demonstrations in here and we’ll also look at some themed days, maybe things like sustainability, bakery and ethnic. The idea is to step up the activity over the next year.”