Signature Dining's Paul Robottom on catering during Covid: ‘I have the most amazing staff'

24 March 2022 by

Signature Dining has reached its fifth birthday, despite two years in the hard-hit senior living sector. Rosalind Mullen speaks to founder, owner-director Paul Robottom about the dedication required to cater for the elderly

Within just three years of starting his niche care home catering company Signature Dining, Paul Robottom found himself facing down a pandemic that, as we all know, particularly wreaked havoc and tragedy in the senior living sector.

"It was like pushing water up a hill with a rake during Covid. In my 30 years of working in the trade I don't think I've experienced two years like it," he says. "[The care sector was] getting a battering from all sides. Some 25,000 care homes nationally shut because of Covid."

Despite this, Signature added 25 contracts in the past two years and operated throughout the pandemic to ensure elderly and infirm residents were nourished. It now has 50 contracts across the UK and an annual turnover of more than £9m. In fact, not only did Signature weather this storm, but it emerged with better process and procurement systems, a good staff retention rate and a Foodservice Catey to boot.

"We served 1.9 million meals last year. Nobody went short and we didn't miss a service. It was all hands to the pump on a daily basis, 17 hours a day, seven days a week," says Robottom.

The cornerstone of Robottom's strategy for survival was to ensure all 230 staff were kept safe and engaged. As well as issuing staff with PPE, communication channels were set up to check on their mental wellbeing. This was supported by the launch of Signature's "It's OK not to be OK" initiative, which still provides expert advice to those who are struggling and offers links with charities such as Chill Panda, Mind and Hospitality Action.

"We had daily conversations with staff who, for instance, didn't want to catch Covid and take it home," says Robottom. "It was a daily battle to get them into work and make sure they felt safe. [The management team] couldn't physically get into care homes as they were Red Zones. We still went out to see staff but talked to them in the car park. It was massively important to make sure staff were happy."

With care homes in full lockdown, some staff slept over to protect both residents and their own families. "We had chefs sleeping in corridors and general assistants sleeping in bunkbeds because of their dedication and to make sure they wouldn't pass Covid on to their families if they caught it. I have the most amazing staff. It's a job, but also a way of life."

To make sure staff felt recognised and rewarded, he started an Employee of the Month Award, giving team members nominated by their peers £100 vouchers. He also wrote personalised letters to thank staff for going above and beyond, and approached Eat My Logo to deliver mini cakes iced with messages such as ‘thank you' or ‘you are doing a brilliant job'. "We gave them constant praise and recognition," says Robottom. "Little touches to say: ‘I know it's tough out there'. It was us saying thank you – and we still do that."

The company also created an open-forum WhatsApp group where individuals could find information or air their worries. This has also been permanently adopted.

"Communication was the biggest thing. My phone was never turned off. I haven't had a holiday for two years. Our business operates seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our staff were going to work every day knowing they could catch Covid and take it home to a young family or vulnerable relatives. It was a huge challenge," says Robottom.

Troubling times

Unlike most other industries, the catering staff had to deal with death when residents started succumbing to Covid.

"One care home lost 17 residents," says Robottom. "When you are a catering manager you have a rapport with them, so when anybody passed away [it was difficult]. We gave them support on bereavement as well as access to a confidential bereavement helpline, which was invaluable."

At the worst point, some 30% of Signature staff had Covid, which added the extra burden of coping with absenteeism. Meanwhile, Robottom was dealing with worsening logistical problems, including operating costs and managing the supply chain.

We had chefs sleeping in corridors and general assistants sleeping in bunkbeds because of their dedication

"While most businesses were closing or going on furlough, we were working. Operating in that environment was a nightmare," says Robottom.

One of his first headaches was sourcing PPE. "In March 2020, we spent night and day looking for suppliers and in the early days we were charged a premium. I remember buying 2,000 pairs of Marigold gloves, but it was all we could get. Everybody was scrambling around."

But more pressing than anything in those first months was sourcing food. "Residents can't go anywhere, so we have a duty of care to feed them," he says. "Getting supplies was hard and the logistics were hard. Some suppliers were closing because they lost business in other sectors, so food costs were going up."

As soon as Robottom had steadied his supply chain, he went on to launch an online procurement-only service to help staff at smaller care homes who had to queue for food at supermarkets.

"We had the security of being able to source things like pasta that were difficult to find in early 2020. For small care homes doing their own catering, food buying was a huge headache. We linked into 15 care homes where we did the procurement and delivery so the carers could do the caring."

The team created their own dry store depot in one of the sites and Robottom rolled up his sleeves. "We would bulk-buy and chuck it in the back of cars and get it delivered. I went out on Christmas Eve with flour, for instance."

Dining with dignity

Throughout the challenge of Covid, Signature has also been fine-tuning its systems to provide a better service to people living with dysphagia and dementia. Encouraging and helping these residents to eat and stay nourished and hydrated is important both ethically and financially. According to an Alzheimer's Association report, 48% of nursing home residents live with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, and up to 45% of them experience clinically significant weight loss over one year. Signature points out on its website that caring for a malnourished patient will cost more than three times more at £1,645 for social care, compared with a non-malnourished patient.

Dysphagia is where the resident has a problem swallowing, so the risk of choking means they can only eat liquidised food. Signature trained its teams in the International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative (IDDSI) matrix, which states the different levels of thickness in food or liquid required for each person's needs… and then it went one step further.

Signature DIning2
Signature DIning2

"In the old days, caterers would just serve food that had been whizzed in a food-processer until it was a mush. If you were a recipient of mush, you would feel second-class and it would affect your sense of wellbeing and self-esteem – especially if you were sitting next to somebody who was getting proper food," says Robottom.

Signature's response has been to create Dine with Dignity, an initiative to serve residents living with dysphagia food that is puréed to the right level of thickness and then made more appealing by piping it onto the plate. For instance, puréed carrot is piped into a carrot shape.

"People eat with their eyes, so we deconstruct a cottage pie and pipe it on. We can deconstruct and mould an open sandwich, or even a birthday cake," he says. "For afternoon tea we create a scone that is piped, so the person living with dysphagia can retain their dignity if they are sitting next to somebody who is eating a regular afternoon tea."

Robottom adds: "It is becoming big in the industry now, but we started [using] it three years ago because more people were coming into care with dysphagia. We've enhanced it, not invented it."

Signature is also enhancing the dining experience for people living with dementia. Staff are, for instance, trained so they know how to approach the resident, and pictorial menus have been developed with simplified choices. More unusually, as part of its six Signature Wellbeing initiatives, the team devises sensory events to make mealtimes more fun for those living with dementia. Dementia often means a person forgets things in the short-term, but can recall long-term memories. To jog old holiday memories, for instance, the team will transform a room to recreate a day at the seaside, playing DVDs of seagull calls, serving fish and chips out of newspaper, and even using a vinegar spray to evoke seaside smells.

We have had to deal with the no-jab, no-job scenario [last November]. We lost 11 people because they didn't want to have the vaccine. The care industry as a whole lost 30,000 workers

Other events include a day on the train where they create a train carriage and perhaps ‘go' to York for the day. Or a wartime event with items such as homity pie and wartime carrot cake on the menu, while Vera Lynn is playing in the background.

"It's a fun way to incorporate food and memories. It's good fun and breaks the week up for the carers and the guests. It was very popular in lockdown when people couldn't even go out for a walk," says Robottom. While the carers monitor the medical side, Signature takes responsibility for nutrition and hydration, giving residents with dementia or Alzheimer's visual reminders to drink. "We may serve watermelon on hot days and we have put in hydration stations," he says.

The pandemic has eased, but the challenges continue. "We have had to deal with the no-jab, no-job scenario [last November]. We lost 11 people because they didn't want to have the vaccine. The care industry as a whole lost 30,000 workers. It's even more heart-breaking that the ruling has been reversed. It was a kick in the teeth."

He adds: "Looking to the future, care homes have been devastated. There has been a shortage of staff anyway in the care market and it is worse now. The price of staffing has gone up with people demanding more and Brexit on top of that. Every which way it has been battered."

Nevertheless, Signature has battled through, thanks to its people. The team's hard work and dedication during Covid was recognised when Signature was awarded the Healthcare Caterer of the Year Catey 2021. And a survey for The Caterer and Purple Cubed's Best Companies to Work 2021 revealed an average of 93% of staff felt happy and engaged and had good communication from managers.

"I was so proud at the comments saying management were brilliant and that we were there to support them 24/7," says Robottom. "The biggest thing was that nobody in the team left us [during the pandemic], but they have been battered just like NHS staff and care staff."

The launch of Signature Dining

As the former managing director of CaterPlus, Paul Robottom already had experience in the care sector, taking the caterer's annual turnover from £6m to £26m over seven years.

When parent company Waterfall Catering Group was bought by Elior in 2016, however, he spotted an opportunity for an independent caterer with specialist knowledge in the market "I knew the sector had a bad image and I knew we could make a difference," he says.

Robottom approached Chris Mitchell, managing director of Group Genuine, with a proposal and, as a result, Signature Dining launched in February 2017 as a separate limited company under Group Genuine, thus benefiting from shared back-of-house capabilities such as purchasing.

"I piggyback on their systems, which is gold dust when starting a business from scratch," says Robottom. "Our worlds don't clash because Genuine deals with business and industry, but we share a belief that good food and good people make good money."

Signature entered the market with no contracts and for seven months Robottom hit the phones to explain to care homes his ethos of fresh food served with a personal approach. It was perfect timing. The care market was attracting more discerning residents who were savvy about good food. Meanwhile, care costs meant residents' rates were increasing.

"The food had to change to match what [care homes] were charging," says Robottom. "We offer quality food, cooked fresh on-site, using professionally trained chefs. The only frozen food is chips and peas."

Signature Dining

  • Founder and owner-director Paul Robottom
  • Established February 2017
  • Turnover £9m
  • Number of contracts 50
  • Number of staff 230

Diversifying into education

Signature Dining expanded into education last September, and now has contracts at 20 Jewish schools – 17 primary and three secondary – in north London.

It was a natural progression, says Robottom: "We run Jewish care homes in north London and had an opportunity to look at Jewish schools. We already have a kosher food supply chain and there was a link because a lot of the pupils' grandparents who use the care homes knew us."

Robottom sets out to provide each child with about 30% of their daily energy and nutritional requirement. He has also managed to pass on average savings of 50% to schools by creating a local production kitchen that delivers hot food daily, thus reducing school overheads from producing food on-site.

"Schools have had to buy PPE and look at different classroom rules, so this is an easy win. If their labour and food bill is £100,000, I can get them the same for £50,000," he says.

Robottom is now talking to non-Jewish schools that are happy to take kosher food.

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