University

How the new caterer got it wrong

‘The mistake was ours’

Ever since a commercial company took over catering at the RUG canteens, staff and students have been complaining. They hate the prices, the soup is no good, the coffee cups suck. Catering company Beijk owns it all. ‘It took us too long to get the hang of things.’
By Zander Lamme / Photos Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Van der Velde and De Boer

Owner Fokko van der velde (1965, Bakkeveen) and manager Marcel de Boer (1973, Delfzijl) have worked together since 2005, when Van der Velde and his brother and sister-in-law took over Beijk Catering from Patrick Beijk. De Boer had been working there for five years, after a career in the hospitality business.

Earlier, the brothers Van der Velde took over their father’s wholesale business in Bakkeveen, which they later sold to Sligro. In the late nineties they opened Yankee Doodle restaurant in Drachten, which they have since sold as well.

Beijk, which employs more than 220 people, has been catering events at the RUG on a daily basis since 2006.

Owner Fokko van der Velde and manager Marcel de Boer meet in a meeting room they call ‘the pub’ in their office building in Leek. On a rack against the wall, large pieces of prime rib wait to be picked up for an event they are preparing for later that evening.

The pair was not prepared for the intense criticism they received from RUG customers, starting on day one. ‘I was most shocked that everyone just said it sucked’, Van der Velde recalls. ‘It was so harsh.’ He points out that none of the unhappy customers ever contacted Beijk directly. ‘But we’re just a phone call away. And we’re always open to ideas.’

Ouwe taart

Although, there is one criticism that De Boer isn’t open to: complaints about Beijk’s ‘Ouwe Taart’ campaign. Several RUG canteens briefly offered special apple pies advertised with a photo of an elderly lady, holding a pie. De Boer says the term ‘ouwe taart’ (loosely translated to ‘old hag’) was actually a reference to the fact that the recipe for the pies dated back to grandmother’s time. The pies were part of the ‘Week against loneliness’ campaign that aims to combat loneliness among the elderly.

But people did not like the advertising. Students and staff didn’t interpret ‘old hag’ charitably. De Boer: ‘I was like, what the fuck is this nonsense? I quit.’

It’s not like we’re destitute, but if we screw up one month we’ve lost our profit for the whole year

But first, people about the coffee cups. While De Boer admits the cups got smaller, he swears they continue to pour the same amount of coffee into them as before. Beijk hurried to replace the cups, but the damage was done. ‘We were made out to be these bad guys out to steal from everyone’, says Van der Velde.

People were also unhappy with the increased prices of many products. There was a second price hike in January, in part due to the national VAT increase, but also because purchasing costs had risen.

Van der Velde: ‘Prices rise every year. It’s the same for tuition fees, public transport, rent. We don’t want to charge people more, but our costs have increased as well.’

No moneymaker

The prices should be raised even higher, says Van der Velde. ‘We lost so much money to the RUG in the last year.’ The idea that Beijk is ripping off poor students to get rich is a misconception, he says.

‘This kind of catering is never much of a money maker’, says Van der Velde. ‘If we do absolutely everything right, we only have a two- or three-percent profit.’ De Boer: ‘It’s not like we’re destitute, but if we screw up one month we’ve lost our profit for the whole year.’ The pair never thought they’d get rich catering for the RUG.

But they participated in the tender process anyway. The contract is for five years and can be extended with another five years. Catering for the canteens at the RUG can contribute to the company’s ‘continuity’. The larger Beijk grows, the better their negotiation position on the purchasing market.

Official

It was hardest at the beginning, De Boer and Van der Velde recall. At the same time they were getting their bearings at the RUG, Van der Velde was opening the first Dutch branch of TGI Fridays, an American restaurant chain. ‘It took a lot out of both of us, much more than we thought’, he says. ‘It didn’t slow down around here until October.’

It took us too long to get the hang of things. The mistake was ours

The RUG commission was based on the principle of best value procurement, which means the RUG basically leaves it to Beijk to do as they see fit.

‘We’re the experts’, De Boer explains. ‘But the RUG had been doing everything itself for years, so we had to discuss every little thing. Everything was very official.’ Van der Velde interrupts his colleague: ‘We came up with a lot of fail-safes to prevent mistakes. But that does mean that things take longer.’ Beijk would have liked to have been able to intervene sooner in some cases.

When people started complaining en masse on Facebook, Van der Velde was eager to reply to every single message, but he wasn’t allowed to do that. ‘We wanted to introduce menus but before we could even get started there were all these people that wanted a say in what we did.’ They ran into more obstacles when they tried to move one of the twenty-five employees to a different canteen: ‘It was so difficult. It felt like it was us against them sometimes.’

Departments

The guys say a lot of difficulty is due to all the different departments at the RUG. ‘There’s communications, facility management, the service desk, building management. Before you know it, you have to discuss things with another department.’ In other words, the culture of RUG bureaucracy wasn’t something they were used to dealing with.

Van der Velde says it’s a typical university culture: ‘There are a lot of opinions, and educated people always have to voice their opinions. That’s a good thing; after all, they’re the future of this country.’

The pair don’t want to blame the RUG, and keep saying that Beijk simply wasn’t prepared for the new culture and the different way of working. ‘It took us too long to get the hang of things. The mistake was ours.’

Feedback machine

But that raises the question: how was such an experienced company so easily overwhelmed? According to the guys, it’s because the RUG never had an external caterer before, which meant the transition was different to what they’d experienced before. ‘Most clients know what it’s like to collaborate with a catering company.’

We can’t change the prices, but we can improve the products

Given the choice, would they end the tender process again? ‘With what we know now, definitely’, Van der Velde says, laughing. He feels the relationship between the RUG and Beijk has improved, and they have established mutual trust. ‘We like to enter into long-term contracts. We’d love to still be catering the RUG in fifty years.’

Beijk will conduct customer satisfaction research by setting up feedback machines that rotate through the canteens. This should lead to customers appreciating Beijk more. ‘And’, Van der Velde emphasises, ‘if there are people or whole groups who want to say something, they can contact us. Then we can look at it together and perhaps try out new things. We can’t change our prices, but we can improve the products.’

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