The Caterer interview: Paul Jackson, managing director, Searcys

28 October 2021 by

Caroline Baldwin speaks to the managing director of Searcys about the business's plans to deliver a sparkling Christmas for clients while battling staffing and supply chain challenges

How has it been getting the business on track for the busy Christmas trading period?

In terms of number of events, we're up to around 60%-70% of normal booking levels, but the biggest challenge seems to be getting the number of people attending events up to pre-pandemic levels, which I think is a potential byproduct of people not wanting to travel as much as they used to, to attend events and conferences. There's also definitely an undercurrent of some people's view that there might be some form of restrictions taking place in the winter. But the big thing for us is reflected in the short lead time of confirmations. We're getting a huge number of enquiries, but they're not quite ready to confirm and pay a deposit yet.

How are you planning to cope with this last-minute demand?

It's important to be flexible and adaptable with the client, and confident we can support them. Three-quarters of the business is events, and it's amazing that it's starting to ramp up again, but enquiries with a short lead time are difficult. Some clients want an event in two days, others commit to minimum numbers and then ramp up the numbers three days before.

We're fortunate that we have wonderful people that can help in different locations. We have a real team mentality, and our staff are working long hours to support the business. But recruitment is extremely difficult. It's disheartening. We've gone through a whole pandemic thinking that we can't wait to open up and do events, and now the challenge is getting the right number of people working for us and the resource sitting there is depleted.

Everyone is having the same challenge across the industry, and we can see that the reality is some people have lost the passion for the industry, or reskilled. Others aren't ready to return to hospitality until they're confident it's a stable industry, perhaps in the middle of next year. As we sit here today, we haven't had to turn away any business due to staffing, but can I confidently say that's going to be OK until the end of the year? No, I can't. And staffing aside, hopefully we'll be able to get the produce [to the events] too.

Indeed. Tell us how you are dealing with all the supply chain challenges

We're focused on communication with our clients. While we're in a good place right now and supply is OK, the reality may be that we have to come back and tweak menus, so we need to talk to them about what that could look like. Supply chain issues are an industry challenge, so it shouldn't come to anyone as a surprise, and we have a good number of suppliers, so we can jump from one to another. But there may be something that isn't able to be delivered and we need to be ready for that with different dishes or wines.

St Pancras Brasserie and Champagne Bar by Searcys
St Pancras Brasserie and Champagne Bar by Searcys

Are you struggling to get hold of any important products currently?

Champagne has been a big challenge, which is an interesting first-world problem to have. While we're very confident of delivering a sparkly Christmas, we may need to be flexible with specific Champagnes as some of the houses are struggling to get theirs into the UK. Our own house label – around 700 cases, about a month's supply – was stuck at the port for a couple of weeks.

It's a new challenge, but something we will solve. I think the pandemic has hidden the realities of Brexit and this is us catching up with the issue of trying to get products into the UK. Clients are accepting and supportive. The biggest challenge is if you haven't communicated it properly. You need to communicate with clients as soon as possible and provide another option.

How have you seen consumer attitudes and behaviour change in the past year or so?

Don't get me wrong, there are some people that haven't fared so well throughout the pandemic, but in the main, people are better off after not having to pay for travel – the majority of people have more money to spend. There's an element of treating themselves to start with, but also an element of a few more opportunities to spend some money. When customers do travel, they'll go somewhere special or be happy to spend a little bit more on a cocktail, some Champagne, or have a nice dinner.

This has given us an opportunity to market some of our locations that were heavy on corporate business, like the Gherkin. Corporate spend hasn't come back to pre-pandemic levels, but that's been replaced with people coming to treat themselves – families, loved ones and friends finally getting together again.

Royal College of Surgeons
Royal College of Surgeons

How have you responded to this?

We've adapted our afternoon tea offering. This was a growing side of the business before, as afternoon tea had started to reinvent itself a little bit, and obviously Champagne is a big feature. When we first put up our £75 afternoon tea with a flight of Champagne, we put it on as we mostly thought it would be good PR, but we're actually selling quite a few.

How important has the consumer-facing brand of Searcys been over the past year?

It's been absolutely phenomenal for us to have the retail spaces during the pandemic. Last summer, when people stayed in the UK, our spaces like Blenheim Palace traded throughout and were popular with customers educating themselves on historic spaces in the UK instead of going abroad. At the time, the Gherkin was an absolute ghost town in the City, but our marketing team did an amazing job and we flipped the offering to afternoon tea, dinner service seated at a table within regulations; it really hit off and we got some great volume. It surprises me that people still don't know they can go to the Gherkin, despite it being numerous years since it's been open to the public, so that's something I constantly have to challenge.

Will retail remain important going forward?

I think our retail offering – the Champagne Bar at St Pancras and the like – is, dare I say it, a bit of a shop window to allow people to enjoy that experience at those locations; and then they're kept in mind when considering other celebrations like weddings. But the principles of retail catering and events catering are very different; operating a restaurant requires very different skills from running events.

We also developed our e-commerce platform during the pandemic, offering prepay packages, but also selling Champagne and chocolates online, which is something we haven't done before. We saw restaurant groups creating at-home meal kits and thought it might be a way to generate a bit of revenue, which it did, and that's definitely here to stay now. We're even in the process of developing signature afternoon tea cakes, which will provide great value on the e-commerce platform, as well as offering our own bespoke afternoon tea china online, which is being made into boxsets in time for Christmas gifting.

It will be Searcys' 175th anniversary in 2022. How will the business celebrate?

I can't possibly reveal, but there are no end of activities we've been planning which will last the year, as opposed to a singular event. It's such a landmark birthday to be 175 and to still be doing events that John Searcy did when he started the business in 1847. It's quite a special year for us. It's scary, but a privilege at the same time to be leading the business and making sure it continues to operate in the way John wanted it to. You're there for a moment in time until the next person comes along, in a way. But it's quite a responsibility, I have to say.

Searcys at the Gherkin
Searcys at the Gherkin

What's your one wish for 2022?

It's a pretty amazing industry when you think of it, coming off the back of the pandemic, having furlough and having a people-resource issue, and now a supply chain issue, and then the problems with fuel. But we'll still come out fighting and still survive. But I want to get to a place where everyone has more of a work-life balance. Everyone in the business at every level is working considerable hours, and it's a very challenging time with everything the industry has thrown at us, and what we're doing now in terms of resource and people, I just want to get to a place where people get a bit more balance because it's been a bit of a crazy 18 months, to be honest. And with the difficulties of going on holiday, some of our staff have thought ‘if I can't go abroad, I may as well stay on in work'. I'm going to try to push a bit more ‘me time' for the team.

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