Students want to have their cake and eat it (before it’s gone off!)

In Term 1, a survey of 300 respondents had been conducted about student satisfaction with food available on campus. The results were overwhelming: as many as 70% of the respondents were not happy with the warm meals served on campus, 68% did not approve of the cold food and a total of 85% would expect to get more for the money they spend. After reviewing the results of my survey, I realized that I am not the only one who is unsatisfied with the food outlets in Warwick.

A total of 77% stated that they would wish for more variety and higher standards. While comments included a wish for healthier and tastier food, the need of respecting special dietary requirements such as halal meat, vegetarian and gluten free dishes were also mentioned numerous times. “As someone who cannot eat gluten there is virtually nothing on campus that I can eat,” one of the respondents admitted.
At the same time, price, too, turns out to be crucial for students. The cost of living in the UK is high, which means that many students face a tight budget. “We are students living on a budget and there need to be more options that reflect this,” was a comment for improvement found in the survey responses. Warwick has made an effort to decrease meal prices, as can be seen in the Dirty Duck, where you can get a meal for £4.95 when you pay with your “Eating at Warwick” card. Nevertheless, 65% of the respondents cook in their campus accommodation or bring their own food to campus because they are still unsatisfied with the prices. Quality, taste and getting your money’s worth do not necessarily tie in with lowering prices. This is demonstrated by the 85% of questioned students that would expect to get more out of their money. As one of the anonymous respondents of the survey stated: “Make the food cheaper or at least worth the money we spend on it.”

It is important to understand the businesses that provide us with our food. There is an important distinction to be made between Warwick Retail and the Students Union. While the former is a profit driven business and responsible for outlets such as the Library Café, Le Gusta and Bar Fusion, the latter is a non-profit business that manages Bread Oven, Curiositea, the Dirty Duck and Xananas. Warwick Retail will invest its profit back into the University in order to improve its facilities and services, while the SU will do the same to finance societies, sport clubs and other student activities.
In an interview with Ben Sundell, the SU President and Cosmo March, the Democracy and Development Officer, I found out that it is part of a consortium purchasing group. This means that it buys its ingredients together with other Student Unions across the UK. Their supplier is the NUS which offers only one kind of each product, which means that there is only one type of lettuce to choose from, for example. SUs do not have set meals, however they do have set ingredients they buy with group deals. Ultimately, it is up to the cooks and what they make out of the provided ingredients, since their budget is limited to this form of supply. It is also important to consider that the SU has an almost non-existent profit margin, due to fixed costs such as maintenance, and only aims to keep them running, not, however, expanding.
What about student satisfaction and their feedback? This is provided by small surveys that are conducted now and again, as well as feedback cards which can be found in SU outlets. Another laudable initiative by the SU is the fact that students can make suggestions for meals they would like to see introduced in one of the restaurants and can also provide the cooks with a specific recipe. However, with all these efforts being made, the survey has shown that while Bread Oven and Curiositea are very popular outlets, others such as Xananas and the Dirty Duck still leave room for improvement in terms of food quality. From a member of staff, which worked in both outlets, I found out that quite a lot of the food is microwaved and frozen. Rice, for instance, is microwaved from frozen and potato mash is made from pellets. Furthermore, the sauces which are made freshly every day, rest there till the evening and are preheated when needed. It is bizarre, that both outlets do not differ in terms of quality, according to this member of staff and the survey results, while they do differ in terms of price.

I also got in touch with Peter Dunn, the Head of Communications for the University. When asking why the Rootes Restaurant, which is used as a canteen during Orientation Week, is not being used as a student canteen during the year, I was told that it used to cater only to students accommodated in Rootes, as part of the housing offer. However, it became unpopular when the number of eating outlets on campus increased in number and did not continue to bring in sufficient customers in order to be viable. Rootes Restaurant seems to have had elements of a monopoly which faded away as competition entered the market and customer loyalty declined. From a business point of view, it seems plausible that the competition either had better products or prices to offer, otherwise it would not have lost its customers to its competition. Interestingly enough, as stated in the survey results, there is a wish for the introduction of a cafeteria.
In the meantime, Warwick Retail has introduced new outlets, which, according to the survey do not completely satisfy the students’ needs. Bar Fusion, which has been heavily criticized, seems to be infrequently visited compared to other outlets. “Bar Fusion only has a few good dishes (Thai Green Curry), even which has dropped in quality significantly over the last two years. This is not only my opinion, but also of other people I know. The curry has little sauce, rice quality varies depending on the day and the taste isn’t perfect. Burgers were always poor over the past 3 years, so there is no surprise there – the bun is cold, the meat is oily, there is very little extra taste in the burger. The other dishes are not that great either, often one very similar to the other in spite of being a different dish,” was a comment made by another respondent. Nevertheless, it is evident that this outlet has potential to become a more popular, frequented restaurant if the food matched the customer’s expectations more closely. Asian food has become hugely popular not only in the UK but across the whole world. An authentic Asian restaurant would not only bring in customers from the substantial Asian group in Warwick, but also many other students who have come to appreciate the East-Asian cuisine. “Not everyone can handle cold sandwiches every day. Like us Asians, we need our rice. Improve our value for money. Put more soul into the cooking. We can taste it,” one of the survey respondents commented on the quality of food on campus.
Le Gusta and Bread Oven have been criticized by survey respondents for slow service. In the Library Café other problems have been encountered and there is still room for improvement in terms of quality and service too. The menu seems to repeat itself very frequently and portions have been criticized for their small size. Sarah Cooper, a student at Warwick University, was sold a yoghurt with an expiration date that was three days over, in the Library Cafe: “Really, I think that there are lots of potentially great places to eat on campus. It’s a shame that sometimes standards can be a bit sloppy. In my experience, this occurs due to moments of disorganization and overlooking details- such as use-by dates- that let the customer down and mark the experience of eating at Warwick.” This was not the only time she has been disappointed by the service of that particular outlet: “Today is the third time over the last couple of weeks that I’ve asked for a soya hot chocolate in the library, mentioning ‘soya’ more than once, and have had to stop them/ask for a new one as they use regular milk. Luckily it’s not too significant for me health-wise, but it could be bad news for someone who is badly lactose intolerant!”
Furthermore, there are some ingredients, which according to various health specialist and researchers, have been classified as problematic, that can be found when looking at some of the cold food products in the Library Café. This includes the sandwiches, packaged muffins and other sweets, as well as the yoghurts and crisps. When taking a closer look, preservatives, colors, flavors as well as emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilizers can be traced in most of these products. One basic rule, promoted by Jamie
Oliver, the renowned British chef and activist, is the following: the longer the list of ingredients and weird chemical names, the more advisable it is to avoid these kinds of products. Cancer, allergies, asthma, mood swings, depression and heart damage are only a few of the effects these additives can have on you and your health, scientists have proven.

Sam TracyIf unsatisfied with the outlets offered by the University, there should always be space for self-sufficiency, in other words, Costcutter. Still, even a brought in chain has led to disappointment amongst students. Nicknames such as “Costkiller” or “Costupper” have come about to voice frustration. Again, it is not just a question of price, but rather what you get for your money. The fruit and vegetables on display for instance have, according to the survey results and personal experience, frequently gone rotten or spoilt before even being purchased: “The Costcutters is my main problem. The fruit and veg in the Costcutter is always about to go out of date and more than once I’ve bought something only to find it’s actually moldy already,” another survey respondent commented. According to the SU, students are not expected to eat out every day, but rather to eat in their campus accommodations or to take their lunch with them. It is also pushing for more facilities to accommodate off-campus students’ needs, meaning the provision of microwaves.

What purpose do the current outlets on campus fulfill if not to live up to the expectations of its customers? What impact will all of this have on the future of on-campus dining and where does all this leave us students? Room for thought is what is left and hopefully initiative will follow. What students have come to accept as a dead-end and something to be taken for granted, is quite frankly just one possible outcome, if you think about it. If plenty of other universities have managed to provide good and affordable food for their students, why should Warwick not be able to do the same? “Having spent time seeing friends at Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, and even London, the food there seems to be much cheaper (from the unions/unis) and certainly of much higher quality,” someone filling out the survey commented. If the state still refuses to subsidize food after tripling tuition fees, then maybe Warwick could add in a little extra, to ensure that its students remain not only mentally but also physically healthy. “You are what you eat”, this applies in particular to young people whose bodies are still developing. Diet, along with your lifestyle choices, have a major impact on how you perform in your everyday life. Considering the amount of work, effort and high level of performance that are expected from Warwick students, it seems a reasonable request to improve not only the quality and taste of the food we are offered, but also to be more thorough and attentive concerning issues like the use-by dates and special dietary requirements.

Survey respondents proved to be open towards change and proposed bringing in commercial chains. Costa has already been introduced, why not add in further chains such as Pret-a-Manger? Also, a few times each term, usually on Wednesdays, food-stands from the surrounding towns come to the Piazza, around lunch time, to serve hot as well as cold food, deserts and even ordinary groceries like cheese and jams. These could present an additional form of income for the University and get students excited about something new happening on campus. Of course any kind of reform, especially on this level, requires hard work, logistics, money and time, but it should be possible to work on improving the food we consume each day.

Survey Results

1) On average how often do you purchase hot food a week on campus?
– once a week: 36%
– about 3x a week: 31%
– almost every day: 18%
– I only have cold food: 15%

2) Are you satisfied with the hot food on campus?
– Yes: 23%
– No: 71%
– I only have cold food: 7%

3) How much are you willing to pay for a hot meal?
– 3-5 pounds: 74%
– 6-8 pounds: 26%

4) on average how often do you purchase cold food a week?
– Once a week: 35.69%
– About 3x a week: 37.37%
– Almost every day: 19.87%
– I only have hot food: 7.07%

5) Are you satisfied with the cold food on campus?
– Yes: 33%
– No: 68%

6) Are you satisfied with what you get for your money?
– Yes: 15%
– No: 85%

7) If you cook in your campus accommodation or bring your own food is it because:
– You are unsatisfied with the current food outlets on campus: 61%
– You are unsatisfied with the prices: 65%
– You are trying to save money: 52%

8) Are you satisfied with the variety and standards of food?
– Yes: 23%
– No 77%

9) What is your occupation on campus:
– Undergraduate: 88%
– Postgrad: 11%
– Staff:1%

Comments (2)

  • Kudos for the article, finally someone talking sense and a great expansion and improvement on a feature I did almost exactly a year ago:

    Tell the editors to start crediting photos too, the top one’s mine as well!! 😉

    But yeah, top job!

  • I feel that whilst I agree with many others that the quality of food throughout campus has a lot more to be desired, we do sometimes have to think more about both sides of the argument. I must admit, I would rather eat at Bar Fusion than the Duck or Xananas and take advantage of the 2 meals with soft drinks for £9 paying with my Eating@Warwick card, equating to £4.50 each. The consistency, cleanliness and speed of service is considerably faster than the SU outlets. The University House buffet, which began from Term 1, allows you to fill your plate once (make sure you grab the deep ones and think tactically if you want to fill your plate to the max!) and get a large fizzy drink for £6 (+10%) with E@W. The quality can vary depending on the selection but I’m still able to fill myself up. As it’s one plate and visit only it’s not unusual seeing people with towers of food on their plates. For the price I think you get what you pay for and it’s quite good value.

    When my parents came to visit me I decided to take them to campus for lunch before giving them a tour. I pointed out Varsity on the bus but we got off at the Arts Centre and wanted some lunch before walking around. As my mum took me to campus last year she remembered the Dirty Duck and asked to go there, when I proposed to go to Varsity, but this meant another walk back and surely the Duck couldn’t be that bad! I was wrong. Slow service while empty, food that was clearly frozen before and a bill between three totaling just under £24 even with my E@W discount and with room for more food in our stomachs. I wish we got off the bus at Varsity or even visited Bar Fusion (although being from a family that runs a Chinese restaurant that might not have been a good idea!) I’d rather pay a couple quid more for quicker service and a more filling dish.

    You might think that I’m supporting the eateries from Warwick Retail but no, I don’t. But coming from a family who runs a Chinese restaurant before, I must stress that apart from the price of ingredients there are many other factors to consider such as utility costs, maintenance and staffing and after taking that into consideration I can say that whilst improvements can still be made, Bar Fusion and Uni House Buffet seem to be acceptable in terms of value for money. I feel that value for money cannot go to the SU outlets unless they bring their standards up to at least that of Warwick Retail.

    However, I have yet to mention the other outlets: Library Cafe and Bread Oven. Firstly, the Library Cafe. Breakfast is acceptable, palatable and for less than £2.75 with a Tea/Coffee, I won’t complain. Lunch isn’t great. Undersized, dry and overcooked portions and mediocre quality for around £4 and £5 with a drink and a few puny onion rings or a slice of garlic bread. After 5pm for the main dishes only, you get 10% off plus another 10% using the E@W card, so getting your tea for around £3.30 isn’t too bad (if there’s any palatable dishes left). So in general the food is OK (palatable), but still a lot to be desired. Bread oven quality is fine, but the queues are enough to put me off waiting and perhaps one could argue by using less ‘sustainably/ethically’ sourced ingredients the final price could be lower? (But oh wait, they are limited to sourcing from the NUS…) I wonder how the 99p baguette is possible in Birmingham? (I know SU profits go towards the supporting students etc but I’m just adding some food for thought – no pun intended!)

    What annoys me badly (around the entire campus) is the slow service resulting from the excessive amount of people paying by card. I mean, for transactions over £10, fine but for a few pounds you’ve got to be joking me! Although contactless cards exist to help alleviate this issue, barely anyone uses them and there aren’t many tills that accept contactless on campus. Understandably there are times when even I forget to have enough cash at hand but choosing to pay by card and hold up the queue is just irritating and time-wasting.

    So all-in-all, I do feel that there is room for improvement across all food outlets on campus and value for money should be increase, otherwise charge us less. But on the other hand, I do acknowledge that it’s not just the ingredients we’re paying for.

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