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Consultancy focus: AAG, The Netherlands

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The team at leading Netherland-based consultancy AAG tells Jon Horsley about keeping abreast of trends, instigating change and having “service in their veins” 

While AAG consultancy has made its name providing world-leading catering facilities for healthcare, they refuse to be limited by their sector. The company, based in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, feels that food is vital in every scenario, and its lead consultant Remko van der Graaff FCSI believes in finding inspiration everywhere, keeping things simple and focussing on the basics.

“When you go out to eat,” he explains. “I don’t care where it is, in whatever country, wherever on earth. If people are friendly, if the place is clean and the food is lovely then you will have a great time.

“It’s exactly the same for healthcare. We have to deliver that, in any way we can. There are two forms that AAG mainly deals with. “Cure”, which is food in hospitals or places where people have been injured and “care”, which are homes, mainly for the elderly or disabled, where people are residing,” he says.

“And in both places food is vital. Food is all about connecting people, young or old. It’s about stories about the day. When food is well-prepared and nutritious, it’s proven that people need less care.

“Good food means fewer nurses needed around the bed. The more you entertain people, the less you need care.”

Finding solutions

Care homes in The Netherlands where AAG do most of their work, are mainly structured into small apartments, with shared dining halls and social areas. This means there are different challenges and methods needed to provide the best possible care.

“We try to work with the care providers from the very start so we can work out exactly what they want and the best way to provide it,” explains van der Graaff. “It’s the same as designing a number of restaurants.”

And although they’re working on a brief that seems everyday and functional, he insists that they must attempt to find the very best solutions.

“We take our customers outside on ‘inspiration tours’,” he says. “We’ve been to London, where they can see the fundamentals done really well in places such as Borough Market. We show them what’s happening in the world. Trends start in New York and London and then move onto Amsterdam and then they filter outwards.

“The market I am in is not the sexiest – no one thinks, ‘let’s go to a care home and have good food’. So I want to inspire them and show that we can do much more than we have been doing for so many years,” says van der Graaff.

While he is open minded to improvements from anywhere, he is particularly inspired by high-end chef Sergio Herman, who once had three Michelin stars at Oud Sluis, a fine dining restaurant in Sluis, Netherlands, that closed in 2013.

“He burned himself out and he closed it down. He went to Antwerp and built a restaurant, Sergio, in an old church, which only serves one menu – it’s all balanced and brings focus to the whole team. All they ask is how many people and whether you have any allergies and they provide you with a great experience.

“It was less pressure and yet he ended up getting two Michelin stars. Sergio, was quickly named the world’s most beautiful restaurant. It taught me that if you keep it simple and focus on the things you do well you can deliver quality.”

Change agents

His mission is to simplify and van der Graaff believes this has been the biggest challenge. “We work in a sector where in the past people have been asked to choose their meal two weeks in advance by ticking a box,” he says. “It has historically been about system rather than quality. So people have been working on this system for 20-25 years. I try to persuade them to change and there is often resistance.

“In the end it is better for everyone. Whether it is a traiteur bringing in 100 warm meals or someone on site making them, it doesn’t matter, so long as the set up is right and the experience and quality is good. Whichever way, you need to simplify.

“This is where FCSI really helps. After you have decided what works best for the customer, they come in with the bricks and design for the right kind of kitchen – and they are the best.”

One of van der Graaff’s team members, Stijn Creemers FCSI, who has a background in hospitality, agrees. “I’ve been with AAG for six and a half years and it has been really fascinating to watch how the sector has changed and started to strive more to help people, treating them differently. They can eat what they want to eat now,” he says.

“When it comes to design, we add value from the front kitchen, so they have to be adaptable. I’m particularly proud of a project in Rotterdam, where we were under time pressure as the food didn’t meet the required standards.

“We got everyone involved from nurses to management to clients and family members. Our solution was one menu from the chef, so in theory all clients eat the same meal but there is always room for customising. We found out that offering a daily menu from the chef offers less agitation with clients and more satisfaction ate the same thing.
We managed to cut costs but improve the quality significantly.”

It’s important for van der Graaff that his team of 15 consultants, aged 25-55, focus on different elements of projects. He believes he has the right team who cares about their job.

“They have service in their veins and that is important. They are all different ages and at different stages in their career, so they can learn from each other and they’re all developing,” he says.

One of them, consultant Irene van Looy, thrives in the fast moving sector. “The challenges of working in health are outweighed by the feeling that you’re making a difference to people’s lives.”

As van der Graaff concludes, “The team has passion and that’s the most important thing.”

Jon Horsley