CASE STUDY - Going the extra mile at West London University
Whitco’s mantra: "From kitchen to restaurant and beyond" was clearly demonstrated on a flagship project that called for creativity, innovation, speed and budgetary control.
Coffee Union - 51 days from start to finish
An initial phone call asking for help in the development of an invitation to tender led to more than £200,000 of work that delivered a turnkey solution for a busy London university.
West London University (WLU) was building a swish new sports facility and wanted to convert the old gym into a coffee bar and restaurant at its Ealing campus. WLU is modern, go-ahead organisation. It’s rocketed up the national university rankings and invested £150 million in campus facilities to improve students’ learning and social experiences. It’s also been recognised for London’s best Student Union.
Beyond a desire to go from gym to café, WLU had a blank canvas. It was agreed that the finished facility had to appeal to students, add value to the campus – and deliver a return on investment.
The constraints were cost, time and the physical limitations of the site. After winning a competitive tender, Whitco had just 51 days to
- design the facility,
- specify the fixture and fittings,
- source the materials – including custom manufacturing,
- comply with health and safety requirements,
- create the concept for the café,
- design the menu and
- train the staff
Along the way, the project became larger, more complicated and increasingly difficult. The only thing that didn’t change was the handover deadline of August 23. And by then, one project had become three…
Today, Coffee Union is a thriving operation. Its menu offering is simple. You choose from one protein, one carb and one salad – all at one price, just £4.50. Diners fill the place but probably don’t notice the powder-coated roller-shutter that was delivered in record time, when the manufacturer recoiled in horror at the proposed delivery date. They might notice the metal-grille ceiling (a very last-minute change). The manufacturer wanted 12-weeks to deliver so the team bought the metal, cut it to shape and had it powder-coated by another firm.
The counter manufacturer proved to be unable to deliver on its promises, so the Whitco team manufactured the counter themselves and fitted upcycled fridges.
It has an urban feel. The small touches from Whitco’s Vita Whitaker are all there from the oblong plates, gun-metal cutlery, and recovered pine tables to the living wall of sedums and the hand-painted chairs (work done at great speed, 135 miles away up the A1).
You’re only as strong as your weakest supplier but everyone in the supply chain bought into this project. When they didn’t or failed to deliver, the Whitco team took on the job themselves.
And then the project grew: first came the removal of a service desk and the design and construction of a stylish combined retail desk and bar.
Then the team was asked to complete the new gym project and take over from the existing contractor. They supplied and fitted checker plates, huge mirrors, rails for yoga mats, lockers and benches in the changing rooms, and shower screens. And then they had to rip up the floor in the showers, fix a problem with the drains, and then re-lay the flooring.
Rob Haslam, Capital Projects Manager WLU, worked closely with Vita Whitaker and Student Union CEO Tye McMahon on the project.
“I’ve known Whitco for several years and have enormous time and respect for their whole team’s design skills and delivery capability. They are practical, keep their feet on the ground and deliver great ideas.
“Reliability and creative insight are a rare combination. As an architect and project manager, I have worked all over the world and to find a company that can deliver both in terms of creativity and delivering the job on site is a very rare thing. To coin a phrase, they rise to the challenge.
“People don’t believe how good they can be, if they are given that opportunity to demonstrate that without worrying about the everyday logistics. If you can get a team of great people, and I have found this with Whitco, you can do some amazing things.
“The café project went extremely well once it was on site. And I was so thankful for that, because I was trying to sort out other major projects. I didn’t need another big problem on my hands. Once we got the thing going and it was in their control, they went away with it and it really just happened.
“Vita likes to do a good job – the best that she can possibly do – always, and that’s rare. I thrive more with people who have a passion for what they do. And Vita and her team are the same. We have a natural level of trust between us. And that only acts as a positive on a project.
“Occasionally you work on something special and I think that the Student Union café was one of those, where you had an opportunity to really make an impact. When you look at it now you think: ‘Why wasn’t that done years ago?’ It’s so good.”
Outstanding customer service was the key to the successful delivery of a complex and challenging project that exceeded expectations.
The brief called for a unique, real-time combination of creative insight, technical design and on-site construction under highly challenging conditions - all three aspects took place at once. We took a former gymnasium and designed, developed and implemented a new café concept (including staff training) in just seven weeks. Design changes were accommodated during manufacture and construction.
Our work was completed to the client’s extreme satisfaction, against constraints of time, cost, logistics and a shifting brief from the client. We delivered on time, on budget and added value throughout.
‘Innovation and creativity against a tight timescale and a limited budget…’
All this was due to a close level of on-site co-operation between Whitco’s Vita Whitaker, project manager Rob Haslam and Tye McMahon of the Students Union. The project called for an innovative and creative approach to product sourcing and construction.
Our ‘can do’ attitude caused us to be asked to complete two additional projects on the campus – while the original project was still in progress. We designed and built a multi-purpose retail feature and carried out extensive remedial work and restyling and fitting-out for changing rooms for a new gym area.
Where manufacturers were unable to meet our timescales, we innovated, outsourced and generally got our hands dirty. There were times during the project when off-site manufacture was being completed around the clock. The result was a just-in-time approach that delivered a stunning new asset to this vibrant university environment.
WLU - EXCELLENCE IN PRACTICE
WLU is an expanding modern university with a fast-growing reputation for the distinction of its courses and the high quality of the facilities and services available to students. It looks for excellence in all that it does – and from the suppliers with which it works.
It is a dynamic university and such organisations only want to be associated with dynamic suppliers. It’s great to work with them. However, the speed at which we’ve worked is immense.
This project was characterised by the constraints that the team faced, cost (inevitably), time, the need to limit the impact of our work on the running of the university and the need to design and deliver a café concept that would add value to the campus and enrich the students’ experience.
There is an expectation upon us, and trust is the key to delivering outstanding service. Says Whitco’s Vita Whitaker: “If they say: ‘Can you do it in two days?’ and we say no, that’s because no one could do it in two days. But if we say we can, they know they can leave us to it, and it will be done.
“Our commitment has been to position ourselves as a reliable contractor with a long-term relationship, that delivers on time – and exceeds expectations.”
Food may be at the centre of our offering but it’s the ability to think outside the box and work closely with customers that distinguish us a service provider. We happen to be serving customers who work in food and drink. Our remit stretches well beyond the kitchen and the restaurant.
This is a primary example of customer service exceeding what was expected. We start off with hospitality – either catering for pleasure or necessity. But understanding and delivering on what the client needs is the hub and the focus of our work.
The client's view: Results exceding our expectations
Tye McMahon the CEO at West London University’s Student Union recalls the project.
“We were looking to ultimately improve the student experience by increasing the seating capacity at the existing café. We were also looking to diversify the menu and enable the students to have a broader range of food choices including more vegetarian, vegan and healthy options. We wanted to reduce our reliance on packaged foods and bring in more healthy options.
“The next thing we wanted to do was to increase the working space for our staff because they had been very cramped. And obviously we wanted to increase our turnover.”
The students’ union employs students as staff and the money that customers spend in the café creates profits that go back into student activities. Adjacent to the original café was a small gym that the SU operated. With a new larger gym being built elsewhere on campus, the plan was to knock through between the café and the old gym and create a bigger space.
Says Tye: “We increased seating capacity by about 35 per cent and sales by 28 per cent against a target of 20 per cent, so that’s been really positive. The feedback from students has been unbelievably positive. Staff are highly engaged. They have more hours to work, because we are busier and they are enjoying being at work because of the environment they are operating in. The speed with at which we can serve customers has increased significantly so while we are still getting queues at the busiest times, the queues are moving really quickly, because of the new layout of the space.”
Coffee Union is always busy. The café opens for 11 hours a day during the week with limited opening on Saturdays. But the space is also being used out of hours and away from peak times for student groups and meetings.
To improve the social mix, the café features a variety of tables seating between two and ten people. Customers can meet as groups and others can sit alone if they prefer.
Because of constraints on time and money, design and construction were carried out in parallel with Tye, Rob Haslam and Whitco’s Vita Whitaker working in real-time to realise their shared vision. Says Tye: “Through the tender process we set out a loose expectation of what we were trying to achieve in the space available. But our thinking evolved. For example, we only discovered after the tendering process that we couldn’t remove one wall, because it was load-bearing. Our ideas around menu changed as we went along too. It was a collaborative process and Vita would expose us to best practice, innovations in the sector, ideas around functionality. I knew what the students wanted, and Rob Haslam, as project manager understood what could be achieved in the space available.
“We knew we could trust Vita because she had worked on projects at the university before. We knew she was really experienced in the field and she was concentrating on the best outcomes. Her approach wasn’t focussed on trying to sell us more stuff. There were features we added and things we cut. It wasn’t about spiralling costs, it was about trying to achieve the best possible experience.
Her approach was to spend money where we had to and avoid costs wherever possible. We also looked at wherever we could reuse. At Vita’s suggestion we kept a lot of our chairs and repainted them. We kept some of our fridges, and we also utilised an oven that was left over from another project.
“We’d worked with Whitco in the past and they had achieved good results and we had built a rapport where we trusted each other. As a result, Vita didn’t think we were trying to manipulate her on price and we didn’t feel like we were being ripped off. This meant that we could always have an intelligent conversation to decide on the best way forward.
“Whitco did a really good job of striking a balance between keeping to the university’s corporate colours and making it look professional. It probably looks better than we expected even though we didn’t spend a lot of money on a designer. The budget was quite tight, so it was a very functional brief. Creativity and design came together collaboratively between Vita and us. She brought things to the design that she was seeing outside in the market. There was a good approach to re-use and recycle which reduced waste and cut costs. The planters, for example, were made from repainted off-cuts from the counter,
“The only learning point we took away from it was that we didn’t anticipate the growth in hot sandwich sales. That’s something we can look to retrofit later, and the bottom line is that it is working really well. Students have a place that they really enjoy. It’s a comfortable space for students and it’s busy all the time.”