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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Revolutionizing School Catering for a Healthy Future With FOOD NATION CATERING SERVICES – Vishal Kapadia

We got a chance to interview Vishal Kapadia, the Chief Process Officer at Food Nation Catering Services. With a wealth of experience and expertise in the food industry, Vishal plays a vital role in driving the success and growth of the company.

As a highly accomplished professional, Vishal brings a strategic approach and a deep understanding of operational processes to his role. His dedication and commitment to excellence have been instrumental in shaping Food Nation’s reputation as a premier school catering provider in the UAE. Learn more about Vishal Kapadia and Food Nation Catering Services through our interview below.

Could you give us a brief about your company and the idea behind it.

Food Nation Catering Services has been the premier school catering provider in the UAE since 2016. Currently, we manage a highly successful Food Program in over 40 schools, including private and government schools, nurseries, and parents cafes. We were recently honored with the Arabian Best of the Best Award – School Catering’ for 2022. We take pride in being a homegrown company and strive to contribute to the local community through our services.

FN operates within the networks of Aldar Education and Taaleem and standalone and government schools. We produce between 25,000 to 30,000 products per day, catering to approximately 70,000 students from nursery to Grade 12 across three Emirates: Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, and Dubai.

Chef Magnus Mumby is the founder and managing director of Food Nation. He relocated to the UAE in 2014 to establish and oversee a new restaurant startup. Within his first year, he received multiple awards from Time Out Dubai, which led to an opportunity to consult for a high-end school catering company in Dubai. His expertise in food nutrition, keto diet nutrition, gut-brain relationship, and mindful nutrition allowed him to identify the missing quality in school catering at that time. Consequently, the first Food Nation Café was launched in Foremark School, and the rest, as they say, is history!

How did you embark on your career journey, and what keeps you driven?

My family and I moved to the UAE in 1994, and we have witnessed the country’s remarkable growth from its humble beginnings to the global phenomenon it is today. After completing my schooling at the Indian High School in 2004, I was fortunate to relocate to London to pursue my undergraduate and higher studies. I graduated from Middlesex University- London, in 2007, and that marked the beginning of my professional career in the field of hospitality.

I started my career in one of Central London’s vibrant areas, Bayswater, conveniently located just five minutes from Hyde Park. I worked my way up the ranks at Radnor Hotel, a modest two-star property, and over the course of three years, we successfully transformed it into a three-star hotel. During this time, I also managed to complete my MBA. In 2009, I returned to Dubai to be with my family.

The summer of 2009 was a significant milestone in my career as I was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing one of India’s largest fast-food chains, Tibbs Frankie, to the UAE. I underwent training at their factory in Mumbai and even had the opportunity to serve at Wankhede Stadium during one of the IPL games. After much hard work and perseverance, we opened our first retail store in July 2010, located in the bustling heart of Bur Dubai. As our reputation grew, we expanded our presence by opening stores in DIFC, JLT, and Karamah.

In August 2017, I joined Food Nation after a fulfilling seven-year journey with Tibbs. I was appointed as their Food Program Manager, and throughout the years, I have contributed to the company’s growth and success, achieving significant milestones. I now oversee the company’s overall operations, which expanded from two schools in 2017 to 40 schools in 2023. We have achieved an annual turnover of approximately AED 30 million and have collaborated with government entities to transform the landscape of school catering in the country.

My late father, Mr. Rajendra Kapadia, used to emphasize that people remember your failures, and no one cares about your achievements or what you have done for them. This quote has profoundly influenced my career, as it reminds me that no matter the personal or company milestones we reach if we do not uphold the basic principles of hard work and dedication, we will not succeed. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to receive guidance from like-minded leaders, and I make sure to instill these same principles in my colleagues and team members.

Understanding the school catering industry in UAE and the benefits of healthy eating

As a parent or end user, I believe having a deeper understanding of our industry is important. We face some of the most challenging Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and are restricted to generating revenue only on school working days (which was further affected in 2022 when Fridays were declared half days). To put it simply, we have to work even harder for eight months to earn a salary for twelve months! I won’t delve into the pricing policies at each school canteen, as that is an internal decision between the catering provider and the school. However, from Food Nation’s perspective, I can proudly say that we have not increased or changed our canteen prices since we began operations in 2017.

There is a common misconception that healthy food is expensive, and we are a prime example of how untrue this saying is. Children deserve to consume nutritious foods that are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and essential minerals, not only for their overall health but also to enhance their concentration levels and ultimately improve their academic performance. Numerous studies have shown that eating nutritious foods improves cognitive ability and behavior in children. That is why Food Nation developed the ‘Eat Bright’ program for schools.

Through clever food combining, sourcing raw ingredients, and using natural, readily available alternatives to processed products, Food Nation can create delicious and nutritious products at affordable prices. Our EAT BRIGHT FOOD PROGRAMME is the only catering service that incorporates CLEAN EATING practices, unique food combining techniques, and ‘Hidden Goodness’ to ensure that our students exceed their minimum daily requirement of plant-based micro-nutrients, often without even realizing it. By cooking from scratch and avoiding processed food, we ensure that we know exactly what goes into our food and make it more cost-effective, a benefit we pass on to our satisfied customers. Our kitchens are filled with fresh produce that is carefully chopped and diced to form the key ingredients in all of our dishes. We take pride in our taglines, ‘We cut vegetables, not corners’ and ‘If we don’t make it, we don’t serve it!’

Could you tell us about the Impact of Covid on Food Nation and how you got out of It.

On March 5th, 2020, the UAE government announced that all schools would transition to distance learning. This news came as a significant blow, as the tourism and education industries were considered stable in the world of business. School service providers, including us, were severely impacted. During this challenging time, some difficult decisions had to be made, and I had to, unfortunately, let go of 140 employees overnight. Fortunately, due to our positive relationships and good karma, all the staff members returned safely to their respective countries once flights resumed.

With hope in our hearts, we kept a few key personnel and anticipated the reopening of schools in September 2020. However, the situation remained the same until September 2021, when a handful of our existing schools reopened their canteens. Despite the setbacks, we persevered and secured new contracts while renewing existing ones, ensuring the future of our company.

Finally, in September 2022, Food Nation was free from school restrictions, and all schools were set to reopen their canteens. We rebuilt our team from scratch, and in a remarkable achievement, we opened 32 school canteens together during the summer. Currently, we have a workforce of 209 employees, and over the course of the last two years, those who were previously let go in 2020 have happily returned to our company.

How important are employees for the success of Your Company?

Chef Magnus and I have dedicated ourselves to building a family culture within our company. In an industry with a wide range of employee designations, such as chefs, service crew, stewards, and drivers, we have ensured everyone feels equally important.

Our service model demands extreme discipline and dedication, especially when dealing with children. We must set aside our personal issues and struggles to ensure that every child receiving their meal in the canteen is greeted with a positive attitude. Unlike a restaurant or café, we interact with the same children on a daily basis and strive to create an environment where they are happy and feel safe. These small but crucial aspects of our industry are often overlooked by the outside world.

At Food Nation, we recognize and appreciate the sacrifices our staff members make, and we are grateful for their efforts in shaping Food Nation into what it is today. There are instances where our staff have to start their workday before the sun rises and continue until after it sets, yet they always greet the world with beaming smiles ready to welcome it into the canteen. Our foundation is built upon their hard work!

With this in mind, the next time you visit your child’s school canteen, take a moment to greet the staff on duty. A simple hello or thank you can make a significant difference to them!

What keeps Your Company moving forward, even in the face of challenges?

Unlike many other food industry sectors, we face constant challenges from various entities regarding our products and services. However, instead of being discouraged, these challenges excite us and push us to continuously develop and improve our offerings to align with regulations. One significant example of this is our collaboration with ‘Sehhi’ in association with Abu Dhabi Health Services (ADPHC), a premium program focused on increasing access to healthy food.

Food Nation Catering Services proudly shares the vision of ‘Sehhi,’ and our ‘Eat Bright’ clean eating program reflects our commitment to providing the highest quality food options for students in schools. We tailor our offerings to meet their nutritional needs, ensuring a balanced combination of healthy carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Our food program aims to maximize each child’s educational potential while promoting fitness and overall well-being among the future generation.

In your opinion, how is technology driving changes in businesses, and do you believe it is aiding the growth of Your Company?

Technology plays a key role in our success as a school caterer. We face the challenge of serving approximately 300-400 students within a short window of 15-20 minutes per break. This task would not be feasible without our own in-house cashless system called PayMint.

In 2018, we were the first school catering company to successfully introduce this type of system. Our platform enables cashless payments, reducing waiting times and enhancing food safety by preventing cross-contamination between money and food. Parents can utilize this platform to monitor their child’s spending and food choices and implement limits on certain food groups. They have the flexibility to choose the desired quantity of meals through Meal Bundles. Additionally, parents can easily check the remaining balance for each child and conveniently top up as needed.

We consider ourselves pioneers in this sector and have continuously worked smartly to develop various features. These include one-off payment links for theme days, QR codes for product knowledge, and automated ordering systems to minimize manual errors.

How have you been earning the trust of your schools and parents over the last 8 years?

As with any industry, the goal is not just to achieve the number one position but to maintain it consistently over time. We have successfully renewed our existing school contract agreements multiple times, and we have also recently signed contracts with five new schools and a reputable nursery group for a September 2023 launch. Our reputation and name are highly regarded and synonymous with school catering in the UAE. As a forward-thinking and health-conscious company, we are committed to ensuring the longevity of our EAT BRIGHT Food Programme for the foreseeable future.

What the future holds for Food Nation, and how can you reach us?

We have been leading the way in school catering for nearly 8 years and have ambitious plans to expand our reach to every Emirate within the next two years. In addition to our collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Public Health Center (ADPHC), we have also initiated work with the Emirates School Establishment (ESE) to establish standardized catering practices across all schools. Our expertise and knowledge in developing robust food programs within schools have enabled us to secure contracts that will transform the UAE’s school catering landscape.

Recently, we introduced a premium meal plan, known as FoodNationGO, designed for teachers, parents, and students in our schools. This plan offers incredibly tasty, diverse, and nutritious meals with a daily selection of authentic global cuisines. The meals are conveniently collected from designated collection points at the schools on a daily basis. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner combos, these instant ready-to-heat-and-eat options are hassle-free, eliminating the stress of weekly meal planning. Furthermore, since the meals are delivered to our existing schools, there are no additional delivery fees.

In addition to our school catering services, we have ventured into catering for corporate offices, offering trolley and permanent kiosk options. We specialize in event catering and banquet setups, and our dedicated team of catering managers is always ready to support any occasion.

Connect with Vishal Kapadia on LinkedIn.

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