This guest blog is part of a series put together by Oxford University ECI-funded intern Aaron Hanson, exploring the value of sustainable business to the catering trade.
The Vaults & Garden café, situated in the University Church just off High Street, was established with the aim of showcasing sustainable, local food procurement in the context of a successful commercial venture. Over a decade later, it is a thriving business in the city centre, offering fresh, locally sourced food, in addition to catering for a variety of private events such as the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference. V&G get most of their vegetables from Worton Organic Gardens, a seven-acre market garden five miles north-west of Oxford where Anneke and David have been growing certified organic fruit and vegetables since the mid-2000s, expanding their operations to the point of employing two additional full-time staff as well as several part-time workers.
This local source of employment has been supported by V&G for over a decade in a mutually beneficial relationship, whereby David and Anneke sell them any produce from their farm shop which they have not sold by the end of each weekend, and V&G get local, healthy food at an affordable rate. This in turn means that V&G’s menu is constantly changing according to the season and what is currently growing – a deluge of pumpkins in October, for example, is the cue for weeks’ worth of pumpkin-based soups on V&G’s menu.
V&G are committed to high standards in other respects, in accordance with their ethos of sustainable and ethical food; for example, they have recently begun to try out using pasture-fed meat, which equates (among other things) to animals eating natural, healthy diets rather than high-energy, often environmentally damaging animal feed. They work hard to reduce waste and the unnecessary use of resources by offering tap water as standard, and boxes for customers to take away any leftovers from their meals. And in addition to offering high-quality meat, they ensure that meat- or animal-free options are treated as an integral part of the menu and cuisine rather than a secondary, last-minute add-on given little attention. All this, and V&G remain a highly successful company. It is for all of these reasons that the café was named the 2016 ‘Most Sustainable Restaurant in Oxfordshire’ in a competition judged by Good Food Oxford; it shows that good food can be sold in a way which contributes to the local economy, respects the natural environment, and promotes healthy lifestyles – all the while remaining tasty and affordable.
Some recommendations to caterers wanting to do the same:
• Batch cooking
• Simple seasonal menu
• Vegetarian first
• Be led by your supply rather than a fixed menu
• Tap water prominently available