Jo Wotton is the Catering and Visitor Experience Manager at Wild Planet Trust, based at Newquay Zoo. Her job entails looking after both the Catering and the Visitor Experience teams.
Q. What does a normal day look like?
A. Each day is different, and includes everything from sourcing ingredients, meeting suppliers and planning and costing menus, as well as ensuring that people at the zoo have the best visit possible. We aim to make sure that people learn all about the work our parent charity <Wild Planet Trust> does, as well as finding out lots of interesting facts about our animals.
Q. What did you do before working at Newquay Zoo?
A. I was a stylist and food stylist, but fell back into catering when my children’s small village hall was at risk of closure. One off-the-cuff conversation with the head teacher led to me setting up an independent catering company to run the school catering. Within three months, I had taken on the catering for other schools and also started providing meals for people to buy within the village.
I used the same ethos that I use at the zoo – working with local suppliers and choosing high-quality ingredients. Within a year, we were winning awards for our service, and in 2016, I was a finalist in the BBC Food & Farming Awards.
Based on the success of this scheme, I became a contributor for the School Food Standards and an advisor for the Government’s Universal Infant Free School Meals grant. I’ve also been lucky enough to appear on the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme several times, and have been able to share my experiences with catering professionals around the world.
Q. What led you to take a role at the zoo instead?
A. I spent around eight years working in and around primary school catering, but with issues around funding, it became increasingly difficult. When the opportunity to work at Newquay Zoo came up, it felt like the right time to go in a slightly different direction. I wanted to take the same principles I’d applied to creating school food and feed whole families instead.
Q. How do you manage to weave the principles of sustainability and conservation into the food served at the zoo?
A. I’ve followed the principles of providing good quality food made from seasonal ingredients from local suppliers. Knowing all of our suppliers means that we can be sure that both quality and welfare standards are high.
We ask all of our suppliers to make deliveries using the least packaging possible and to use recyclable or compostable options. It’s really inspiring working with suppliers that share the same principles as us, as I get to learn about their own journey towards sustainability. One of our suppliers even make their biscuits using water from their own well!
In our own kitchen, we only use sustainable palm oil, as well as compostable containers that get turned into electric once finished with. Our team are also brilliant at talking to our customers about our ethos and our local suppliers.
Q. Have you made any big changes since you’ve been at the zoo?
A. The menu has totally changed since I arrived and we offer a good selection of food that caters to all types of diets. We even make our own zoo-per tomato sauce that contains zero salt and sugar, and offer a huge range of plant-based products.
Q. How have you been involved with the Sustainable Palm Oil Communities project?
A. When I first joined the zoo, I did an audit of our ingredients and made the move to only use sustainable palm oil in all of our cooking and products. Palm oil is a really well used and useful oil, so by using oil that is grown sustainably, we are helping to prevent further deforestation and to support ethical land use. Plus, it isn’t any more expensive than non-sustainably grown palm oil, so there is no reason not to use it.
Lots of our suppliers have opted to use sustainable palm oil for the same reasons as we do, which is brilliant. Having those conversations means that we now have a wealth of experience about great products containing sustainable palm oil that other caters can benefit from too.
Q. What do you love most about working at a zoo?
A. My favourite part of working here is the people and, of course, the animals. It’s so fulfilling working with people who are so passionate about the zoo. Everyone loves working here, and we all have the same vision.
Sometimes I walk around before we open to the public, and feel really blessed. Where else can you have a (one way) conversation with a sloth or watch squirrel monkeys jump around like a child on a swing, before 9am? It’s amazing to be surrounded by so many fantastic animals – there’s so much joy and positivity.
Working here really makes you realise that the decisions we make as purchasers can, and do, have an effect on the future of many of these animals. Making small changes like using sustainable palm oil, reducing food miles or cooking with seasonal ingredients can really make a difference.