Last month former Missing Ingredients managing director Sean Valentine moved from contract catering into the restaurant business with the £2m purchase of the New Mill restaurant in Eversley, Hampshire. One month on, he talks to Tom Bill
Why the move?
A big difference is that in a staff restaurant people go for lunch more for sustenance than to be wowed by the food. Although everyone talks about the increasing influence of the high street in contract catering, the reality is that you're up against a lot of restrictions, particularly on price.
So was the food a key factor?
Absolutely. You can be much more experimental and exciting in a restaurant. I can also create the atmosphere I want, which you can't do as a client on someone else's premises when you're there merely as a service provider.
How do you see the market you left behind?
The contract catering market has never been tougher than it is now. I feel genuinely sorry for caterers because it's hard to do sensible deals when clients demand the best possible quality but want it at the cheapest price.
What will the contract catering market look like in five years' time?
I think clients will realise that the move to fixed-price contracts means they have lost some control over the service. I think some form of cost-plus model will start to creep back into fashion. Some of the smaller players may also exit the market because it's tough when clients want so much investment up front and the small-large divide will widen as a result.
What skills have you brought to the restaurant game?
It's a cliché, but I trained for 10 years in the kitchen and I'm passionate about the food. I look at someone like David Cavalier at Charlton House with his Michelin-starred background and I struggle to see how he can get excited about developing a new range of panini.
What do you make of the UK restaurant scene at the moment?
There's this whole fuss around Michelin stars. But restaurants can struggle more to work commercially with a star because of the cash spent on staff and other costs trying to keep it.
Why not a London restaurant?
The competition there is very tough because you have to fight to find an identity. But it's even harder in the countryside in other ways. You have to create a destination, which very simply is all about great food and service.
How does it feel to be your own boss?
Being able to dedicate my time and passion to one business gives me a real personal buzz. I also have a more rewarding relationship with clients because when we're planning a wedding, for example, we're there from start to finish.
Is there anything else in the pipeline?
We're potentially looking at another property or developing another restaurant concept that we could use in the events/outside catering market.