With 132 days to go till the Games begin, head of catering Jan Matthews outlines the vision for London 2012, and the progress to date

The Olympic Games as a ‘celebration of British food’? Is Jan Matthews having a laugh? All the food and drink sponsors are American: Coca-Cola, McDonalds, General Mills, Procter & Gamble and now, of course, Cadbury. And with their diet of burgers, fizzy drinks, chocolate, ice cream and crisps, their foodie credentials are mostly, not to put too fine a point on it, of junk status.

It certainly doesn’t sound, on paper, like the “strong, sustainable legacy for London and the UK” that LOCOG outlined.

Yet the vision Matthews is set to deliver will make Jacques Chirac and all the other detractors and doubters eat their words, she promises. “With less than 150 days to go, we are on track to deliver the vision,” she says. “In fact, it’s far ahead of anything we expected. I am absolutely delighted at how the industry has responded.”

Developed in 2009 by LOCOG with the help of Sustain, Defra and the trade, the vision Matthews was brought in to deliver was extraordinarily ambitious.

As if it wasn’t enough to safely serve 14 million meals to millions of spectators across 37 venues over 77 dizzying days - while also looking after the very stringent yet varied nutritional needs of 14,700 highly tuned athletes - she was tasked with sourcing its produce in an ethical, inclusive, environmentally responsible manner, guaranteeing that it was healthy and fairly priced and ensuring that London 2012 was an advertisement for the quality and diversity of Britain’s cuisine, countering its much maligned and outdated reputation.

No pressure then.

Luckily for LOCOG, Matthews enjoys a challenge. With responsibility for the biggest peacetime catering operation ever mounted, it’s taken all her experience, not least as former operations director at NAAFI (the retail and leisure services support group of the British Army) to plan the operation. Her own team is relatively small: 130 full-time staff, with 600 volunteers assigned to catering, cleaning, waste, and environmental health. But the operation will bring together a 22,000-strong army of contract catering crew, comprising 11 tier one caterers and dozens of tier two concessions, while thousands of food producers and manufacturers will be working in the background.

The range of food on offer is staggering. With 833 concessions, plus a number of mobile concessions, London 2012 will feature over 100 types of food and drink outlet, with British classics including salt beef, juice and smoothie bars, afternoon tea, fish and chip shops, Yorkshire puddings, bacon butties, porridge, pasties, soups, curries, cupcakes.

“We’ve got a great offer, a really broad offer. If you want seafood and Champagne, you can have it. You can go to a deli, there are tasting plates, tapas, fruit stalls selling cherries. There’s something for everybody and every price. We want it to add to the festival feel, with contemporary as well as traditional British food, and for the visitor to feel as though they are down at Borough Market.”

That’s not to say there won’t be ‘American’ burgers and ‘French’ fries. Or ‘Italian’ pizzas. Or ‘Mexican’ burritos. The usual international fare. But there will also be olive stalls sushi paella, noodles, Continental sausages. And in the sheer diversity of food and drink available at the Games, the ‘menu’ reflects the multiracial society in Britain today, says Matthews.

“There are 205 nations represented at the Olympic Games. Of these, 195 are represented in the boroughs of the Olympic Park. That’s what’s so exciting. British food today is world food. We can pick and choose the best. And where we can we absolutely will.”

So what about the fact that the Olympic Park will feature the largest McDonald’s in the world? The importance of the American fast food chain in the big picture is overstated, says Matthews.

“We estimate that McDonald’s will feed 9.8% of all the food served at the Olympic Games. There’s a McDonald’s in the Olympics Park, the broadcast centre and the athletes village. But we’ve got a broad offer, with a lot of different stuff going on across all the venues.”

Of course, delivering the food vision while working with a global sponsor such as McDonald’s is not without its issues. LOCOG has come in for criticism, as only 10% of the poultry used by McDonald’s will be sourced from the UK. Matthews argues that the compromises work both ways.

“When we first started out on this journey, we said all meat and poultry needed to be Red Tractor. At the time, McDonald’s was already moving more of its procurement to Britain. It now sources all its beef from British and Irish stocks. Not a lot of people know that. Over 17,500 British farmers supply produce to McDonald’s.

“Second, we’re happy that the chicken they’re providing is equivalent to, if not better than, Red Tractor in terms of an assurance around its environmental standards. And it wouldn’t surprise me if more of its poultry will soon be sourced from the UK in the future.

“Finally, McDonald’s has allowed us the right to sell chips with the fish. Which is fantastic. As a tier one sponsor, McDonald’s owns the exclusive rights to all sales of fries. This shows they’ve really bought into helping us deliver the vision.”

She is similarly supportive of Coca-Cola. “We’ve enjoyed a great relationship with Coke.” And she counters concerns about the health credentials of London 2012 by pointing out that 75% of drinks served will be sugar-free. “Their biggest seller will be water. And Innocent smoothies and juices will be available at most of the concessions.” And access to free drinking water at all Games venues is another strand in the vision.

Red Tractor
As the countdown to the Games gathers pace, the first “test events” are taking place, with lots more till the beginning of May. Matthews and her 130-strong full-time team are also trying to make sure all parts of the country have been covered through a sourcing taxonomy. “We are currently going through a process to identify the regions where the food is coming from. The lamb is from Wales. Charcuterie is from Perthshire. Pork and ham are being sourced from Northamptonshire. And the Cornish pasties are from Cornwall, obviously. So I’m confident that we are covering the length and breadth of the UK.”

But already, one of the legacies of the Games is set to be the industry’s adoption of new food standards, she says. All the meat will meet the Red Tractor food assurance scheme. So will the bread rolls. And a new standard has even been developed by Food Partners to deliver Red Tractor sandwiches and salads on the Olympic Park and a number of other venues. “There’s never been a standard before, so that’s a fantastic achievement,” says Matthews.

Indeed, a lot of suppliers are changing or have changed their procurement as a result of the Olympics, Matthews claims. “We’ve had a doubling in the number of wholesalers applying for Red Tractor status. They say they’re going to change the way they do it, and put a lot more emphasis on provenance. And not just Red Tractor. The fish will be MSC-certified. Some have even adopted Freedom Food as a standard. It’s far ahead of anything we expected.”

Fairtrade has also been widely embraced. All the bananas (supplied by Sainsbury’s) and oranges will be Fairtrade, as well as the white and rosé wine (“the red is Brazilian. We tipped our hat to Brazil 2016”). And with the exception of the athletes’ facilities, all the coffee will be Fairtrade, too. “In the Olympic Village, we had a go with liquid coffee, in order to serve so many athletes in such a short period of time, but we’ve been unable to get Fairtrade liquid coffee,” Matthews explains.

Olympic Park consumption

14 million meals

25,000 loaves of bread

330 tonnes of fruit & veg

100 tonnes of meat

82 tonnes of seafood

31 tonnes of poultry

75,000 litres of milk

19 tonnes of eggs

21 tonnes of cheese

The sourcing process has also unearthed a number of small suppliers. “The other big win is for small food producers and manufacturers. In 2010, we did a meet the buyer day at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair in London, and some of the bigger exhibitions and shows around the country. And I’m delighted that caterers are now buying off lots of regional and smaller suppliers.”

One of the most exciting finds in the local procurement journey has been Frost & Snow, a cupcake shop set up to provide work for homeless people as part of a regeneration project in Birmingham. “They are supplying the most amazing cupcakes,” says Matthews. “And it’s taken their business to another level.

“We also found a bakery, the Sourdough company, in Tower Hamlets and a guy out of Wapping is now supplying smoked fish to one of the largest caterers in the country. These people have been writing and ringing and applying to the large firms for a long time, and normally don’t pass the receptionist. When the buyers taste the products, it’s a different story.”

Sustainable sourcing
Crucially, Matthews and her team have taken great care to ensure that sourcing and developing small suppliers doesn’t either drown them in the process, or leave them on the slagheap at the end of the Games. “For example, Café Mor, a tiny beach shack that won the right to feature its remarkable seafood as the winner of the British Street Food Awards, will be in the Olympic Village, and we’ve set it up with a back-end that we’ve specified, to ensure they can meet the demand.

“And we’ve sourced a marvellous biscuits and macaroon supplier from Dorset. But we didn’t want the procurement to be unsustainable. So we fixed the supplier up with the sailing in Weymouth, so they weren’t swamped,” she adds.

And talking of sustainability, Matthews is also set to deliver on London 2012’s sustainability pledges on waste. Again, the tasks are tough, including a 70% recycling or reuse target. Matthews has developed a turnkey approach to waste streaming.

“We have worked with caterers to ensure all our packaging is compostable. But it’s also been colour-coded, and we’ve developed different colour waste bins, so we’ve given ourselves the best chance of hitting our 70% target. International event owners have already expressed an interest in that as a future solution for their venues.”

And they haven’t even tasted the food yet.

Coca-Cola’s menu

As a Tier One sponsor, Coca-Cola Enterprises will be working closely with LOCOG to meet its side of the catering bargain, with a team of 500 to deliver 23m servings, servicing 2,000 kiosks or concessions, and stocking up 3,000 new coolers with 17 drinks, including water (35%), juices and smoothies (10-15%) and zero sugar carbonated soft drinks (20%), as well as Coke and Fanta.

The only energy drink will be Powerade. It’s a highly complex operation, says CCE venue operations director Malcolm Plows.

“We’ve been planning this for three years. We’ve needed to, with tight security from factories to the various locations, and most deliveries between midnight and 6am.”

There’s contingency to deliver 60% more stock than is forecast, with 2.5 days of surplus planned at any time “so we’re well covered in the event of a heatwave”.

Coca-Cola also designed, manufactured and paid for every menu board at London 2012. Made from plastic waste, the boards will be “the best ever at the Olympics, in terms of functionality, quality, and sustainability,” adds Plows.

Jan Matthews snapshot

How old are you? 50 years young

What do you do? As head of catering, cleaning and waste, LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) I am responsible for the biggest peacetime catering operation in the world.

How has your career prepared you for this role? I’m not sure anything can completely prepare you for a role like this, but I’ve worked in catering all my career (starting at Forte Hotels), so I know the challenges, and I’ve been responsible for leading ever-larger teams. I have also opened a number of hotels (for City Inn), so I know how to start with a fairly blank piece of paper and create something and make it work. And my time in Germany with the British Military (at NAAFI), where I was initially responsible for all the retail, catering and cleaning in barracks for the British Army, has helped not only from a scale perspective, but also in terms of stakeholder management

Likes: Being by the sea, socialising, great service, a challenge.

Dislikes: Pompous and negative people

Favourite meal? Fresh seafood and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc

What do you do when you’re not running around organising stuff? I am back in Worcestershire with my family and friends, watching my son play rugby, and doing as little organising as possible

Do you have any hobbies? I enjoy cooking for friends and family whenever I can, I also love eating out, and that has been one of the benefits of being in London. I love sport, I get to the gym three times a week, which helps keep me sane. Photography is also a hobby. I am determined to get lots of photos in the build-up and during the Games so when it’s all over I’ll know it wasn’t all a dream!

What will you do after the Games, career-wise? I would love to stay connected to the global events market. I am looking to set up a company that provides consultancy to other organisations like LOCOG who have to put on huge global sporting events, or help companies who are looking to refine their strategy in the marketplace

And you’ll surely need a holiday? My son will be in his first year of his GCSEs so half-term is going to be the only chance to get away. Somewhere hot and relaxing, that’s for sure

One of the most eye-catching features of the Olympic Village will surely be the colourful concession of Café Mor. A tiny beach shack based on the Pembrokeshire coast, specialising in combining seashore foraged ingredients with fresh local seafood, it’s run by Jonathan Williams. The café won a competition at the British Street Food Awards last year (above), with Matthews one of the judges, which will result in it being ‘transported’ to the Olympic Village, to serve up its hand-made flatbreads, laverbreads and other delicacies to the best athletes in the world. “I’m sure it’s something Jonathan and his family never would have dreamed of. And it brings the vision to life,” says Matthews.