Contract catering is hospitality's best-kept secret, with sociable hours, excellent development opportunities and a choice of work venues that will make your head spin. Rosalind Mullen reports
It's tricky to explain to a layman exactly what contract catering is. A good starting point is that it covers all types of food, from fast to fine-dining - and it's everywhere. Check out City firm dining rooms, staff restaurants, airports, train stations, oil rigs, race courses, museums, hospitals, universities, schools and the MoD - they are all served by contract caterers.
So, who are these companies? Well, there are the multinationals such as Sodexo, Compass, Elior and Aramark; the large independents, such as BaxterStorey and Charlton House; smaller players, such as Harrison Catering, Graysons and Bartlett Mitchell; niche party caterers such as Rhubarb or Zafferano; and, last but not least, there are inhouse caterers, too.
The great thing is that each type of caterer offers different opportunities - for instance, the big boys provide structured career development, while the independents may allow you more creative input. Certainly as a career choice, contract catering grants something for everyone. Roles include chef, waiter and F&B manager through to operations, marketing, area managers and directors. And bear in mind that few other sectors of hospitality allow you to start your career back of house and end up in head office.
As for getting started, Emma Kelleher, managing director at recruitment consultant Caterek, advises those with ambition to get grassroots training and work their way up. The benefit of starting in a basic role means you gain a good foundation in hospitality from which to progress - and it also means that when you become a manager you gain respect from your team.
Kelleher also notes that although there has been a trend for on-the-job-training, in the current competitive climate employers are looking for candidates with qualifications. "I'd advise people to go to college," she says. "Five to 10 years ago we used to see a large number of candidates with NVQs, BTEC and HNDs in catering and hospitality, but candidates in recent years have preferred on-the-job training. Now, however, candidates with qualifications have the edge."
Kelleher also reckons that candidates stand more chance of attracting an employer's attention if they get their CV done professionally, or if they research what needs to be included.
"You need to be aware of what relevant bullet points to include and set it out very clearly as the average CV is only glanced at for around 30 seconds," Kelleher says.
Looking ahead, if you are serious about your career, plan each job move carefully and make sure you stay in the role for at least two years as that level of commitment will persuade a blue-chip employer that you are worth developing.
Who? Andy Langford, 31
Which company? Charlton House
Where? Airwave Communications, Rugby
Tell us about your recent achievement Well, I still can't believe it, but I won gold at the Salon Culinaire International de Londres competition, held at Hotelympia. I competed against nine other chefs in the Figgjo Masterclass category and had just 45 minutes to produce a two-course meal.
What were your winning dishes? I prepared spiced fillet of halibut with a butternut squash purée, poached quails' egg and sauce vierge, followed by Clonakilty black pudding, stuffed saddle of wild rabbit with smoked pommes purée, baby carrots, confit of young leek and a red wine, juniper and lemon thyme reduction.
Your menu reveals a lot about the culinary standards at contract caterers nowadays Yes, it is in their interest to hone chefs' skills because it helps them to win contracts so I had plenty of encouragement. The company runs in-house competitions and I go to the Twilight training sessions, set up by director of food David Cavalier, where we look at issues such as food trends.
Where did your career begin?
I did a day-release course at college while I worked at a hotel and obtained City & Guild 706 1&2. I feel personally that combining practical experience with theory makes you a better chef. It's no good just being good on paper.
But you didn't go straight into contract catering?
No. I went on to work for Whitbread's Brewers Fayre brand and then became chef de partie at De Vere Belfry's Atrium restaurant, where I trained under executive chef Eric Bruce. He became my mentor and inspired me to progress. I went on to become head chef at Portobello Italian Restaurant in Tamworth, built up the business there for about six years and then moved to Charlton House two years ago.
What prompted you to leave the high street?
Well, the hours attracted me to contract catering. I am now married with kids and so I have other priorities. There are four chefs in the brigade and we cook for about 250 staff on site. I work from 7am to 4pm Monday to Friday, plus I get to cook fresh food in an innovative way. So, I can be creative and have a good work-life balance.
But will you consider going back? Yes, I guess down the line I would like to open my own restaurant. In the meantime, the next step for me is catering manager and then operations manager at Charlton House, although I would rather do the executive chef route and teach other chefs what I have learnt.
Any advice for those starting out in the kitchen?
Stick with it. The training can be hard for a young kid and some head chefs can be harsh so you need passion and drive.
THE NITTY GRITTY ON CHARLTON HOUSE
• One of the largest independently run contract caterers
• The company has 120 contracts, annual turnover of £75m and employs about 2,000 staff
• Note that director of food David Cavalier moved from a Michelin-starred restaurant career to contract catering and hasn't looked back…
Who? Dawn Whitworth
What? Area manager
Which company? Catering Academy
Tell us about your job The company was launched in 2004 by three owner-directors and it has grown fast. I'm based at the University of Bolton because it is one of our bigger contracts, but I look after the north region, reporting to the regional director. It's challenging because there's a lot of driving and we are opening contract after contract. At the moment I am also developing systems to train our staff.
Did you kick-start your career by training on the job or going to college?
I took an OND in catering & hotel management and joined one of the biggest contract caterers at the time, Gardner Merchant, (now Sodexo), when I was 18 as a junior management trainee and they developed my career for the next 15-and-a-half years. I progressed through from catering manager to district manager.
But you chose to move on to smaller companies?
Yes, I took a huge leap of faith by moving from a multinational contract caterer to Catering Alliance, which was an independent, but I loved working there. It was subsequently bought by Aramark, so I found myself in the same position of working for a big conglomerate again.
So presumably you jumped at this offer?
Absolutely. The founders of Catering Academy approached me to be their first area manager about five years ago. It was quite a big decision for me, though, because at that time the company only had two contracts and I was a single parent with two children to support. But I was also excited because I felt I was part of something that was going to be a success.
What are your hours like?
I work a five-day week and the hours are fairly flexible, but long, which goes with the job. I work 8.30am to 6pm, but I might not come home until 7pm. If we have functions I work at weekends, too.
What's hot about contract catering? Well, it's different from hotels and restaurants, but the standards of service are moving more to the high street. We recruit staff from high street outlets, for instance.
What should an ambitious job-seeker consider? I think you need to gain basic hospitality qualifications, such as an OND or HND and then ideally join a management training programme with a caterer. Being a good manager is more about attitude in our industry, so people who have enthusiasm and passion have as much opportunity to thrive in our industry.
THE NITTY GRITTY ON CATERING ACADEMY
• Started in 2004 by Louise Wymer and two partners
• In 2009 turnover was £20m and there were more than 85 contracts
• In the same year the company was named 10th in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list of companies, secured with sales growth of 156% year-on-year…
FOCUS ON CHEFS IN CONTRACT CATERING: SODEXO
It's no secret that today culinary standards in contract catering can compete with fine-dining restaurants. That's because contract caterers need to drive up standards to win contracts, so it is in their interest to develop their chefs.
Sodexo is one such company, as craft and food development director David Mulcahy explains. He says his company offers chefs the opportunity to pursue apprenticeships and NVQs as well as providing a robust in-house training programme that covers everything from butchery to pâtisserie, to nutrition and cooking for people with food allergies such as coeliac disease. Chefs are also taken on trips to discover the provenance of ingredients and they learn about sustainable purchasing.
Mulcahy, who started his career in hotels and restaurants, believes that while the high street provides a good experience, contract catering can offer more. He explains that the different sectors - education, B&I and so on - suit different people. "For example, cooking in the education sector means longer holidays and shorter hours, which suits people with other commitments. Alternatively, the events division gets busy at specific periods and suits people with more sense of adventure, and B&I offers fine-dining, staff restaurants and deli counter experience," Mulcahy says.
The bottom line is that as a chef, contract catering allows you to explore your potential within one company. "People can get a range of experience and decide which sector suits them best," Mulcahy says. "The benefit of contract catering is that we have the capacity to fulfil people who want to develop."