Carole Cole, from Letheby & Christopher's caterers

23 March 2006
Carole Cole, from Letheby & Christopher's caterers

Carole Cole has been running Letheby & Christopher's catering for the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse for the past 20 years. She talks to Emily Manson about the challenge of feeding more than a quarter of a million customers in four days

What does your average day consist of during the festival? I arrive at 5.45am and leave around 9.30pm. Initially, I liaise with the guys to make sure there've been no serious problems - like the fridge going down overnight last Monday and we suddenly had to re-prepare 6,000 fishcakes. I check everyone has all the information they need. Once staff and customers are on site it just becomes reactionary.

What's the biggest challenge? Getting the mix of staff right and dealing with the number of people who come who forget you are serving 10,000 covers a day. Everyone needs to be made to feel special for the day, and we try to do that - but if people change their party's main course at the last minute, it can get tricky. The danger is in being too accommodating. We want to exceed expectations but have to be realistic about the limitations.

What's the worst disaster that's ever happened? For the festival, it was foot-and-mouth. We were ready to go when it was finally cancelled at the last minute. Most of the time, disasters aren't as bad as you think they're going to be, but we've learnt to deal with things like motorway accidents which have left coaches of staff stuck in traffic, freezer breakdowns and power cuts.

How do you prepare? We start with a debrief soon after the event to establish what worked well and what we need to improve on while the whole thing is still fresh. Everyone has input, and we try to improve ideas and look for innovations. Then it's fairly ad hoc until September, when we start planning menus and tastings. The serious work starts from November, when we plan kitchens and staffing levels.

What's the key to a successful event? People are your greatest asset, and without them it doesn't matter how good the food is. They're the ones who greet clients as they come in, and a smile can make guests' days truly special. Also, communication and information - if you get that right, you've got a chance. You have to give people the information they need to do the job. Without that, it becomes impossible.

Are you a horse racing fan? Do you get to watch any races? Not while I'm at Cheltenham. I might just catch sight of one on a TV screen, but that's the only opportunity during the festival. I'm not a regular racegoer, but I do enjoy it as a nice day out every now and then.

How did it go this year? It seemed to go well. Most of the customer comments have been positive, but now we just have to see what comes out of the woodwork - if there were any problems.

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