The caterer with Bite

13 September 2004
The caterer with Bite

Is a Jaffa Cake a biscuit or a cake?" Petra Priest asks. Hmm… I give a rambling answer along the lines that a Jaffa Cake has a sponge part which makes it suitable for trifles, but its packaging and popularity with tea or coffee suggest it's a biscuit - but it's called a cake.

The Jaffa Cake conundrum is something Priest likes to throw at chefs at interviews. There is no right answer, but she wants to see how convincingly and passionately candidates will put their case forward.

Priest, 37, finds off-the-wall questions and role-play are useful recruitment tools. After 20 years in food service with Sutcliffe, Just Deli and Artizian, she underwent five interviews, including psychological profiling, to land her position as operations manager of Bite, a new business and industry caterer based in Acton, west London.

That was in February, and in its first six months Bite has picked up three one-year rolling contracts with an estimated combined annual turnover of £500,000. They are at training and conference organiser ETC Venues, in Mayfair, London; training organisation World Challenge Expeditions, in north-west London; and business intelligence provider Business Objects, in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

Bite is an offshoot of Bigham's, a wholesaler of global convenience foods. Entrepreneur Charlie Bigham started his company in 1996, inspired by the street food he had enjoyed while globetrotting. Bigham's now has annual sales of £9m and is a supplier to large, multi-site customers including supermarket Waitrose, rail carrier Eurostar and organic food supplier Duchy Originals. "Other contract caterers look to the high street for inspiration; Bigham's is already in the high street," Priest says. From next April, when a second production kitchen opens, it aims to triple its output.

Bite has also set itself a target to reach £3.5m turnover and 8% profit margin in its first three years, and Priest has been busy laying down the foundations for the necessary growth.

But with no proven track record, surely it's tough to get the first contracts? At Business Objects, facilities manager Peter Martire says that Bite's tender was cheaper than proposals from previous caterer Artizian, and Aramark. Its purchasing power was greater compared with other small caterers because of Bigham's central production kitchen, which buys in 247 fresh ingredients daily.

Bite also benefits from having Bigham's HR, marketing and sales resources in place. Martire says: "I was looking for better head office back-up and better financial systems. We tend to look at the financial data in more depth than other people because, as a business intelligence service provider, that's what Business Objects does."

Bite gives Martire the figures for actual sales and costs against budget on a monthly and year-to-date basis separately for the main restaurant (65% of sales), hospitality (20%) and training (15%). There are 260 employees at the Maidenhead site, of whom 85% use the catering facilities. The annual catering subsidy is £112,000, with a margin of 40% from the restaurant. Bite's management fee is £9,000 a year.

When Bite took over from Artizian in March, a whole new team was recruited. Martire also had a hand in selecting the staff. "The catering team is as much my team as Bite's," he says. "I like to know we've got the right characters - people who like to have a laugh." They take part in company parties and charity fundraising sports events.

Bite's first year comes to an end in March, and the catering is under budget for the first time in the site's three-year history. Martire puts this down to an increase from 70% to 85% in take-up, and better purchasing.

Martire was reluctant to use any branding whatsoever. The Bite name doesn't feature anywhere, but Priest persuaded Martire to convert to the Costa brand, and coffee bar sales have gone up by 30%.

Bite at Business objects
Menu: 17 August 2004

- Main dishes (£3.25)
Lamb jalfrezi, naan bread and saffron rice
Chargrilled marinated chicken with Greek or Caesar salad
Oriental vegetable strudel with plum and coriander sauce
- Jacket potato, and turkey and bacon stroganoff filling, £1.75
- Soup of the day: pumpkin and smoked paprika, 60p
- Desserts (75p)
Dark and white chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce
Fresh wild berries and cream brandy snaps

"Extra mile" ideas
Bun runs:
home-made cakes taken around the offices once a week. Seasonal variations include winter toffee apples, warm berry strudels
Exotic fruit or vegetable of the week: customers can sample, learn about, and get recipes and ideas on how to use these at home
Home replacement meals: Bigham's food available to staff
Barbecues: staff can order food for parties (instead of retail packs of four, packs of 30 are available)
Home-made gingerbread men and women: with names iced on (orders for birthday parties)

10 Commercial Way,
NW10 7XF
Tel: 020 8453 9890

Founded: 1996
Majority shareholder: Charlie Bigham
Estimated turnover for year ended 31 August: £9m

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