For exhibition specialist Freeman UK, on-site foodservice is a first. Janie Manzoori-Stamford goes behind the scenes of its Catermasters contract
It's fair to say that foodservice firms are more accustomed to taking over where others have left off. The excitement of mobilising a new contract is usually accompanied by the stress of ensuring as swift and smooth a transition as possible from the incumbent operator, be they in-house or outsourced. But now and then the chance to work with a client that has yet to pop its catering cherry comes along. In the case of Leamington-based Catermasters and its new client Freeman, it's an opportunity to relish.
Need to know
Freeman, a global exhibition and events business, had recently centralised its operations, having previously run offices across the UK. The decision to bring all the teams together under one roof at new headquarters on the outskirts of Coventry meant that the company would be ideally placed to deliver its services on a national scale while increasing its employee numbers. But feeding all those staff had the potential to be a problem.
"The new HQ is quite isolated, with no immediate shops, villages or towns close by," says Catermasters joint managing director Nigel Johnson. "In our discussions, Freeman really liked the idea of having a good catering offer on-site. They've invested well in the facilities and we've got a really nice staff restaurant environment. The uptake is very strong."
In fact, trade is surpassing all expectations. The Freeman staff that relocated to Coventry hadn't previously enjoyed catering facilities on-site and new starters have also embraced the all-day food and drink offer, which begins with breakfast and goes on to a bean-to-cup café-deli, hot and cold lunch options and hospitality.
Launching a new catering offer where none previously existed is a daunting prospect for any client company, not least because of the significant investment needed up front. While there was a need for reassurance from the caterer that it would deliver value for money and a quality food and drink offer, a promise to bring in footfall was crucial. Catermasters worked with Freeman to devise a space with maximum potential for all-day use.
Johnson explains: "We worked hard to make sure that a facility that takes up quite a lot of floor space is not just used for breakfast and lunch. We wanted to create an environment that it is comfortable for mealtime use, but also can be used for meetings."
The design incorporates multiple seating styles to offer versatility as well as comfort, and is proving a big hit, with the directors regularly having meetings with staff in the restaurant.
"It's exactly what you want, because while the tills are ringing, it's creating a return and reducing their subsidy," says Johnson. "That's what our job is: to make sure people want to come to that facility."
While there isn't much in the way of high-street competition, the Catermasters team are far from complacent. As Johnson is keen to point out, customers still have a vote and that vote may come in the form of a packed lunch.
"There will always be people who, given the opportunity, will bring their own sandwiches from home. We have to make sure the offer is of the right variety and priced correctly to fit everyone's budget," he says. "Otherwise, even though it's there, people will find reasons not to use it. The feedback and uptake we're experiencing suggests we've pitched it spot on."
Average spend is hovering around £3, with the two-woman team of chef-manager Kim Hughes and her deputy Toi Wilson beating their budgets thanks to higher than expected trading levels. And volume is set to grow as the Freeman headcount more than doubles over the next two years, from 170 to 400.
"We've been operational for six weeks and that's been sustained from the opening. The amount of spend is growing, which is helped by more people joining the firm," Johnson says.
Marketing and innovation
Catermasters encourages its managers to create and deliver site-specific campaigns, and Freeman is no different, but as the contract is in its infancy, Hughes and Wilson are participating in generic, company-wide initiatives, such as week-long campaigns devoted to spices or grains.
"We're very conscious that if you feed people in a work environment, you're potentially feeding them for five days a week, 48 weeks of the year," says Johnson. "To keep their interest you need to bring in new ideas, set up the counter differently, and offer new menus and promotional activity. At Freeman, obviously, we're still at the very early stages."
Spotlight on the team
The ethos of the Catermasters business is built on succession planning, according to Nigel Johnson, and the Freeman contract is a prime example of it working for employer and employee alike. Chef manager Kim Hughes and her assistant Toi Wilson were both promoted to their current roles from other local contracts, having been with the caterer for several years.
"We haven't had to train new staff in the Catermasters way, and we've got a strong track record of developing our contracts and our management team through internal promotions," says Johnson. "Kim and Toi are doing incredibly well and it won't be long before we appoint a third member of staff."
Until then, Hughes and Wilson will maintain what's clearly a passionate work ethic. They might be busy, but their priority is their customers, as Hughes explains:
"We like to come in early to get prepared because it's full-on from the word go.
The client's view
Justin Phillips, commercial director at Freeman, says: "When we were looking for an outsourced catering operation, our criteria were based around price and the style and quality of the food. We also wanted to work with a supplier whose staff and management were friendly.
"Catermasters was good to deal with from the contractual stage and gave us valuable help when choosing our kitchen. The Catermasters staff are excellent. They are very accommodating, polite and friendly. They never say no, and that's something I like. One thing that stood out is that the Catermasters staff are very like our Freeman staff. That has brought everyone closer together and created a great atmosphere."