Tante Marie is the UK’s oldest independent culinary academy, offering cookery lessons ranging from one-day workshops to a year-long full-time Cordon Bleu Level 4 Diploma. Established in 1954 and now based in Woking, Surrey, it celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014. In addition to professional tuition, students working on a Level 5 Diploma showcase their skills at the academy’s multi-award winning dining establishment, The Restaurant at Tante Marie.
The academy provides instruction to everyone from gap year students and home enthusiasts to professional chefs and caterers. Graduates have gone on to become Masterchef finalists, chocolatiers, food stylists, journalists, recipe developers and MDs of catering and hospitality companies, with a generous handful of Michelin stars and many awards attached to their establishments.
In order to continue offering world-class cookery tuition, Tante Marie had to tackle the problem of its failing software, which had become slow, labour-intensive and prone to crashing. Andrew Maxwell, Director and Principal of Tante Marie, explains: “The database was created in 1997 or thereabouts, and was a very old system. A couple of years ago, I learned that Microsoft was ending support for that particular version of Access, so if the database crashed, we would be back to doing our ordering with a pencil, a bit of paper, and a calculator.”
Passionate about their commitment to teaching but needing new tools for the job, Tante Marie looked at what their old system had been able to deliver as well as what new capabilities would be desirable. One requirement of the old database was the ability to plug in the number of students performing one of 2,000 recipes and produce an ordering list of the ingredients and materials needed from suppliers.
But a new database would have to go further than creating order sheets. It would need to handle everything from the planning stages of students’ tuition to the completion of all the recipes on a particular course. According to Maxwell, the system would need to be able to “automatically produce all of our educational management materials. So, it would provide the students’ timetables and recipe schedules, along with lists of what recipes they were cooking and when they needed their [cooking] supplies and [learning] materials.”
Effectively, what we asked One Beyond to create was a complete operations management system for our business.
Tante Marie required intuitive software for users whose primary skills lay in cooking and instruction rather than IT. “I’m a chef by trade, and what I wanted One Beyond to create was a system that is completely user-friendly, so that I could bring a new member onto my team who has no computer training, and he or she could easily grasp how to use the database,” says Maxwell.
Working together, One Beyond and Tante Marie spent several weeks exploring the old database and what functions the new system would need to replicate. The final product had to embody a number of essentials including ease of use, improved functionality and the ability to evolve with Tante Marie’s growing business. It was a dynamic, collaborative development.
“One Beyond came down here and spent about two or three weeks with us. They looked at our existing Access database, how we used it and what its various functionalities were. We also gave them the basic requirements, we showed them the recipes, and we showed them what we wanted the end product to look like. They figured out how best to get us from A to Z using the most efficient route possible.”
The revamped database was built using the latest technology and the software was up and running in several months. The old system, created with Microsoft Access, resided within an on-premises server and forms the ordering software part of the system. The students’ Diploma File was a manually created and edited Microsoft Word document. Recipe data was double-entered on the Diploma file (and its variants) and the ordering software, resulting in errors and additional work in a laborious and time-consuming process.
The new database provides access to the system from the Internet, as well as reducing data input and simplifying key day to day tasks. The two requirements for the system – an ordering module with the ability to output the correct quantities for the ordering of ingredients based on the timetable of student lessons and demonstrations, and the creation of a Diploma File for students – were successfully and entirely met.
The system harnesses Microsoft SQL Server 2012 to store and process the relational data. One Beyond also has a significant infrastructure set up with Rackspace, one of the world leaders in managing cloud and hybrid hosting. The system is highly resilient to failure, as well as scalable to peaks of usage. The technology stack is based on Microsoft’s ASP.NET MVC 5, together with Telerik components and Entity Framework to provide the most modern, flexible and highly intuitive user interface possible.
The finished database has become part of the company’s indispensable tools. One Beyond are committed to providing after-care following the launch of the new system and they continue to manage the software while Tante Marie undergoes an exciting period of growth. “I think this new software is going to save people an awful lot of time in not having to push bits of paper around desks, so I’m thinking 50% improvement in productivity,” says Maxwell.
While the complexity of the project meant that it took several months to deliver from start to finish, Tante Marie were very satisfied with the results, especially seeing that the new software worked immediately. “One Beyond has been much easier to deal with [than some other suppliers],” Maxwell states. “They got it right the first time around” – unlike other projects which have “needed a lot of attention and maintenance” since going live.
Over the years Tante Marie has expanded its teaching capabilities to include children and amateur cooks while still offering the highest levels of professional training sought by chefs and industry professionals. “What we wanted One Beyond to do was create a piece of web-based software that they can manage in time, so as the technology evolves the software can grow with our company,” says Maxwell. The company’s Level 4 Diploma will carry on setting the standard for professional qualifications and the software that supports it is set to evolve with and strengthen the company in the years ahead.
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