Clinching the contract at the Gherkin in 2004 was a feather in the cap of Searcy in its quest to cater for the most prestigious venues. Gaby Huddart charts the company's impressive list of contract wins
At the end of February, 30 St Mary Axe, more commonly labelled the Gherkin, made history by becoming the most expensive office block in UK history. The building, which was designed by Lord Foster of Thames Bank and opened in 2004, changed hands for £600m, reinsurance giant Swiss Re selling it to a joint venture of German investment firm IVG Asticus and private bank Evans Randall.
The sale has served to further cement the Gherkin's status as an icon of the UK capital and, as such, it fits perfectly with its caterer's aims. Searcy, which has run the building's food and beverage operations since it opened, has no less a goal than running the catering for the country's most prestigious and iconic venues.
"Whenever there's an interesting scenario that requires logistical thinking and real belief in high food standards, we're in the running," asserts Searcy chief executive John Nugent. "30 St Mary Axe is an example of that, as is our contract at the Royal Opera House and the contract we've recently won at St Pancras International."
Nugent explains that clinching the contract at the Gherkin, as with similar landmark sites, was extremely tough. "There was very fierce competition for the contract, with about five companies in the running," he says. "The protocol was very precise and it was all about proving the quality we could achieve in every area: food, service, staff and even the crockery that we'd provide."
Initially, however, the contract merely involved a restaurant, but since Searcy started work there, it has evolved out of all recognition. Nugent continues: "When we arrived, the building had a single tenant, Swiss Re, and the contract was set up with a pure restaurant approach. But we soon realised we were sitting on a huge asset and it was a faux pas not to exploit the opportunities it offered for event catering, private dining, parties and so on."
These days, as well as the restaurant, Searcy operates five private dining rooms on the 38th floor of the building, each accommodating up to 14 diners, and caters for functions in the top-floor bar, and hires out the restaurant in the evenings and at weekends for events. It has even launched a private membership scheme for the restaurant, whereby for an annual fee of £1,175, top-flight City professionals from outside the building can use it for lunching and entertaining. "To date we have 88 members, which is ahead of our target," says Nugent.
He explains that it's very much in Searcy's interests to develop and expand the contract in these ways as, in addition to its flat fee, it also retains a percentage of turnover. "We have huge incentives with this - as with most of our contracts - to grow the business and that's the way we like it. We want to innovate and grow our contracts."
He emphasises that having a healthy relationship with the client is key, and at the Gherkin he personally meets Richard Stead, the building's property services director, about once a week. Stead and his team have remained in place and continue to manage the building despite its recent change of hands. "We brainstorm together and work as a team, as it's a win-win situation for both of us if this contract does well," says Nugent.
Partly fuelled by the burgeoning success of the 30 St Mary Axe contract, Searcy's is enjoying rapidly growing revenue, he goes on to reveal. In the financial year just ended, turnover increased by 15% to about £38.5m and for the coming year he forecasts a growth of about 20%. Looking further ahead, Nugent, who was promoted to chief executive last August, is setting even more ambitious targets for the company's growth. "I think we can double this company in the next three years in terms of turnover, so by 2010 we should be seeing turnover of £75m-£80m," he says.
With victory in the tender process for a number of high-profile catering outlets at St Pancras International station, which are due to open in mid-November, Nugent's bullish targets certainly seem achievable. And the company is also set to provide all food and beverage at the London Transport Museum when it reopens in the autumn. Furthermore, Nugent reveals that Searcy is stepping up its work pitching for leading business and industry contracts, based on the ongoing success it enjoys working for leading law firm Allen & Overy and the Inner Temple, for example.
And yet another focus is to build up a small collection of branded café-bars in London. "Certainly it's on our wish list of things to do to develop a high-street presence. We're working on two ideas and the vision is to have about four to six sites within London. We're probably about a year away from doing it, but it's very much one of our ambitions," Nugent reveals.
With this and the company's existing diverse operations in mind, how does Nugent think Searcy is best described - is it a restaurant operator or contract caterer? "To be honest, we're a bit of a hybrid. There's no other company that does exactly what we do," he grins.
Searcy: The Contracts
Searcy dates back to 1847 and was originally a specialist event and outdoor catering company. It was in the 1980s that Richard and Nigel Goodhew consolidated their equity in the company to take full ownership. Since they took over the company, it has grown hugely.
In 1990 Searcy employed a 100-strong workforce and turned over £5m a year, while in the financial year just ended, its turnover was £38.5m and it now employs more than 1,500 staff. The following are the company's current contracts.
- 30 Pavilion Road, Knightsbridge, London. Searcy owns and manages this Georgian townhouse, offering luxury bed and breakfast facilities, as well as catering for private and corporate events.
- 30 St Mary Axe, London. Since its opening in 2004, Searcy has operated the five private dining rooms, a 70-seat restaurant and the top-floor bar at this iconic building, otherwise known as the Gherkin.
- Allen & Overy, various locations, London. Searcy caters for more than 1,200 staff a day at this top law company, with the contract including everything from fine dining to prepacked sandwiches in staff restaurants.
- The Assembly Rooms, Bath. Searcy's contract here represents the largest banqueting venue in Bath and one of the leading conference operations in the South-west.
- Bank of England Club, Priory Lane, Roehampton, London. This contract comprises a members' dining room and bar, plus banqueting operations.
- The Barbican, Whitecross Street, London. Searcy has operated the restaurant, conference and banqueting facilities and four bars here since 1991, twice beating off competitors when the contract has come up for retender.
- GTC Café at The General Trading Company, Sloane Square, London. Searcy has operated the daytime restaurant at this chi-chi shop since its opening in 2001.
- The Hurlingham Club, Fulham, London. The catering contract at this exclusive private members' club comprises a conference and banqueting suite, a members' restaurant and bar, and a self-service buttery.
- The Inner Temple, City, London. Searcy has operated the members' dining room, bar and banqueting facilities since they opened in 2004.
- London Transport Museum. When it reopens this autumn, Searcy will operate a café and bar and a banqueting operation at the refurbished museum.
- Mercedes-Benz World, Weybridge, Surrey. Launched at the end of last year, the visitor attraction includes a restaurant, café and bar, and a staff canteen, all operated by Searcy.
- Museum in Docklands. The restaurant, bar and café 1802 has been run by Searcy since its launch in 2003. Searcy also operates event banqueting at the museum.
- National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Searcy's contract comprises a 140-seat restaurant, bar and casual 40-seat café.
- The National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London. This contract includes a restaurant, bar, café and banqueting operation.
- The Pump Room, Bath. Searcy operates the daytime-only restaurant in the historic Pump Room, which dates back to 1795.
- The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. The catering operation consists of two restaurants, three bars, private dining and functions. Searcy's contract has recently been extended for a further seven years.
- St Pancras International, London. Searcy has just won a 10-year contract to operate four catering outlets at the new Eurostar terminal when it reopens in November. These will be a Champagne bar, a brasserie, a casual café-bar and two exclusive private dining rooms.
- Vintner's Hall, Upper Thames Street, London. Searcy has held the catering contract for the City livery hall and its external events since 2001.