For any school, gathering over food is key to student life. At Columbia International College, with students arriving from all corners of the globe, that’s true in ways, and at level that is unmatched in the world of private and independent schooling. Partnering with Chartwells has helped CIC students access healthy options and new experiences, while also granting a sense of home away from home.
“For the students so far away from home, home is food,” says Helene Taylor, Homestay Coordinator at Columbia International College. “That’s comfort for them.” With a student population in excess of 1700, it’s easily the largest boarding school in Canada. It’s also far and away the most diverse, with students arriving from literally every continent excepting Antarctica. Given those attributes, CIC provides a challenging profile for any food service provider. That it operates three campuses, with students ranging in age from 10 to 18, only complicates that profile further. In terms of delivering a comprehensive food service offering, there may not be a bigger challenge in the country.
When Raymond Lee, Assistant General Manager at CIC, turned to Chartwells in 2018 he was looking for a provider that could meet and exceed the demands that the school population presents. To offer a varied, health conscious menu was the baseline. “Being flexible,” he says, topped the list. “With us, there’s constant changes. We draw students from more than 65 different countries. The demand can shift with the demographic from term to term.” They would need to appeal to a range of palettes, maturities, and to present world cuisines authentically. “There is also a diversity of needs within the cultures,” says Taylor. “There are students who need halal, students who are vegetarian, or prefer a certain type of Asian food. It’s not as simple as saying, you know, ‘let’s have some rice and stir fry.’”
Fulfilling the mandate
At times, admits Taylor, it can be a hard audience. “I’m thinking of some of the feedback we get from students. You know, if I’m from Russia there’s too much Asian food; if I’m from Hong Kong I think we have too much mainland food. I think there’s always going to be that complication. But if we have an issue with the students, they are right on it, and meeting that need.”
Lee needed a provider that would be responsive to all of that, and answerable to the entire school population, from the administration and staff, to the students themselves. “That degree of reactiveness is certainly superior to our previous suppliers” something that carried on throughout the duration of the pandemic. “The on-site team has been working very hard and diligently throughout, which of course is key for us. We haven’t closed, we haven’t stopped.”
Going over and above
But Lee also wanted the program to run itself in the day to day. “We hired an international company precisely for the experience and expertise that they bring.” He wanted a solution, not a second career, and from day one, Chartwells clearly understood the brief and ran with it. The majority of the menu is designed by Chartwells staff, who are dedicated, on-site, and who know the student population, and their tastes, is some ways better than the school staff and administration. They also contributed to the culture and the programs of the school through close interactions with staff and students, and even, through cooking classes and workshops, providing activities and instruction. “They’re willing to do things that maybe you wouldn’t expect,” says Taylor. That includes cooking classes run by the chef within a teaching kitchen designed for the purpose. They also present regional nights, where they focus on a specific region of the world that is represented in residence. From the beginning, Chartwells became a part of the school, not simply a vendor.
At the end of the day, there is no school like Columbia, and, appropriately, there is no food program like the one that Chartwells has developed here. Gathering over food is an essential part of who we are, and a key aspect of so many milestones in our lives. In the case of Columbia, it’s an essential aspect of the life of the school, and a deceptive support of student success; the cafeteria is where kids, thousands of kilometers away from home, go to find connection with their culture, and to share aspects of it with others. Chartwells Canada has demonstrated a profound commitment to offering social dining experiences, and the CIC program is a prime exemplar of the depth of that commitment. (Where some providers might choose to present Russian food, the distinctions at CIC are a bit more gracile. Says Taylor, “are you from Ukraine, are you from Russia, are you from Khazakstan?” The menu offerings include those kinds of regional distinctions.)
It’s a relationship, says Lee, not a buy. “Outsourcing fails when the two partners aren’t working together, or the institution chooses a hands-off approach.” It’s successful, he says, when each party is responsive and attentive to the other. And, he says, that’s precisely what Chartwells has consistently offered.