Lots of independent hotels dabble in outside catering, but how easy is it to run a full-blown business on the back of your hotel restaurant operation? Rosalind Mullen considers the logistics
In an industrial kitchen unit buried away in the narrow streets of Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, six chefs are up against the clock. One is trimming crate-loads of asparagus, another is making endless batches of scones, some are sorting a mountain of salad leaves and two are calmly preparing no less than 600 soufflés. Deeper in, the logistics guy is stacking the walls with ovens, fridges, gas rings, plates, glasses - you name it - ready to transport to various party venues later in the week.
This is the hub for William's Kitchen at Calcot, the outside catering arm of the nearby luxury Calcot Manor hotel. It's a far cry from the hotel's own kitchens where a team of 18 chefs devote their skills to just two restaurants, serving about 140 covers a day to mostly local customers.
But, then again, the Calcot is no stranger to diversity, as a quick flip through its history shows. In 1984, Ball and his father Brian opened the Cotswolds haven as a farmhouse with rooms. Ball took over as managing director in 1996 when the hotel was sold from family ownership to private investors, whose backing funded the subsequent expansion. Since then, he has created an indulgent 35-room country house hotel. Over the years he has added a spa and children's playzone, converted a barn for functions, extended the fine-dining Conservatory restaurant, launched the casual dining Gumstool Inn, and more recently acquired the boutique 18-room Barnsley House hotel and Village Pub, also in the Cotswolds.
The whole business will turn over £11m this year, with the outside catering operation, which Ball launched in 1998, contributing £1.4m and on target to hit £1.6m next year. The gross profit on food for the catering division tends to be higher than in the hotel, at about 72%, to cover the extra overheads of transporting to and cooking on site. Wine and liquor is generally lower to compete with local companies offering low-price corkage deals.
Nevertheless, the catering arm has proved to be a smart move, although perhaps Ball didn't foresee its success. He started small, operating out of a kitchen extension at the back of the hotel in response to local enquiries for buffets. The set-up costs, including the extension, storage area and van, were about £100,000.
The big leap forward came in 2004 when increased demand gave Ball the confidence to buy a respected local competitor, William's Kitchen. It came with its own staff, industrial kitchen and storage unit, vans and equipment, catapulting Calcot's outside catering business on to another level overnight and moving out of the hotel extension, which was struggling to cope. More importantly still, the new company was rebranded William's Kitchen at Calcot and became a powerful marketing tool for the hotel.
"It's not just a way of making money; it also supports the brand and makes people talk about us - people see our vans everywhere," says Ball. "There's a lot of demand because the name of the hotel helps and the two feed off each other."
It's crucial, therefore, that the quality of outside catering reflects the standards of personal service at the hotel. Ball, for instance, wouldn't consider expanding into public catering because it would undermine the core brand.
Instead, the bespoke style of catering has helped to secure preferred caterer status at prestigious venues, such as Guildhall and the American Museum in Bath, as well as catering at Highgrove and Beaufort Polo ground (see panel above). In fact, William's Kitchen has entered into a joint venture with the polo ground, whereby it is the sole caterer for events held in a standalone marquee between spring and late autumn. Both teams generate bookings, with Calcot keeping the catering profits and the polo ground taking the site fee.
"We're offering the Calcot experience at the client's own house or another venue," explains Susan Manning, director of catering.
Manning also offers an event-planning service as a natural extension of the catering business. Clients are under no obligation to use William's Kitchen for catering or the hotel as a venue, or even for the spa and accommodation, but the fact that Manning holds many of the meetings at the Calcot helps to spawn interest in the hotel and its facilities.
While the marketing overlap works well, however, Manning stresses that hotel restaurants and outside catering operations are different disciplines. Sales, laundry and human resources are handled centrally and Calcot makes the bread for the whole company in the kitchen that was freed up when William's Kitchen was bought. In general, however, the hotel team under chef director Michael Croft handles all internal weddings and events in The Barn, while the William's Kitchen team under head chef Clive Gawlick handle the high-volume weddings, private parties, hunt balls and so on off-site. That said, the hotel is able to draw on expertise or borrow equipment from the catering department.
So, while you might think the beauty of having both restaurant and catering businesses is that staff can crossover, you'd be wrong. Unlike the hotel brigade, the catering chefs have to be able to deal with unexpected challenges in the field, such as power cuts and lack of water - while somehow finishing off, perhaps, several hundred seared scallops with crispy pancetta, avocado and salad.
"Some guys relish that, but the logistical challenge means there's not much crossover between restaurant and catering," says Gawlick. "It's a different ball game. We've got to deal with the weather, the fact there might not be water or electricity. We have to cook, load up the vehicle and unload it. We're not just chefs. There's more to it than meets the eye."
He's not wrong. Before every function, the William's Kitchen team have to transport and install mobile ovens, kitchen equipment and restaurant-ware. There's no room to forget anything - which is why Gawlick, who has more than 20 years' experience at William's Kitchen, doesn't confine himself to the stove and often oversees the packing and transporting.
The brigade also needs to be flexible. For instance, they recently cooked at a private dinner for four, but in July they are catering at the Royal International Air Tattoo where they will produce dinner for 600 one night and then toss 3,500 bespoke omelettes for the pilots on the Sunday - with the help of 60 temporary chefs.
The daily pace is different to restaurant kitchens, too. Most events are at the weekend, so although the brigade have a week to prep the food, which is then kept chilled, they have to do most of the work at the last minute to maximise freshness. Working hours can, therefore, fluctuate from 7am to 4pm during the week to midnight or later on an event night. In the quiet winter months, however, the catering team often fill downtime by making jam for the two hotels.
One area where both kitchens do cross over is the philosophy of freshly cooked food. To that end, chef director Croft has weekly meetings with Gawlick to ensure the outside catering consistently reflects the quality and standards of the hotel. To get an idea, core catering menus feature starters such as Cornish crab, leek and saffron tart with a chive sauce (£9 a head), followed by new-season spring lamb with Jersey royals and spring greens (£19 a head), which Croft describes as "classic dishes cooked in a modern way". Special requests are only accommodated if they reflect Calcot's culinary standards.
Bulk buying is an obvious benefit of having several F&B businesses, but Croft has to source some ingredients for the catering operation separately as suppliers can't always cope with the volume. Croft is also trying to make use of the hotel's Aberdeen Angus beef herd. Under an exclusive agreement with a local farmer, the Calcot has initially agreed to take two animals a month, but numbers will need to be adjusted if it is to be used on the outside catering menu.
"A big part of my role is marrying up all the supplies where possible," says Croft. "We want the benefit of competitive purchasing. If we get a good price we can sell food cheaper than our competitors."
So what of the downsides of running an outside catering operation? Number one has got to be the perennial headache of rostering staff. Gawlick's permanent brigade of six chefs act as team leaders in the summer when business picks up. They are then supported by a further six chefs and a bank of casual staff to meet the needs of different-sized events.
Instead of recruitment agencies - which Gawlick says don't provide the right calibre of staff - the business has built up a loyal network of regular seasonal workers from catering backgrounds such as the military, education and even a prison lecturer.
So far so good, but as Croft points out, the Calcot is a rural business and could end up competing for staff with its own outside catering business. "It hasn't happened yet, but on a busy weekend it might," he says.
Staffing levels also dictate how many bookings can be taken. The profit margins change with the number of bookings, so it is a fine balance between taking on an extra function and offsetting employment costs, hiring extra equipment - and delivering the Calcot's personal style of service. With eight vans and a core of six chef-leaders, bookings are limited to a maximum of six events on any one day - which can still mean they serve up to 7,500 covers a month.
"The core of our business is private stuff where we can apply the values of bespoke catering," says Ball.
tips on running an outside catering business
â- Don't try to mix brigades. Outside catering teams face different demands and chefs must be able to cope with unpredictable cooking situations and a varied job description.
â- Limit your bookings to suit your resources. Costs will increase dramatically if you overstretch your business and have to hire more staff, an extra van and so on.
â- This business is unpredictable and requires flexibility, so you need to thrive on that or you will hate it
â- Be aware that recruiting good-quality temporary staff can be a headache and you might face conundrums such as not being able to afford staff when you start, but needing them in case you get a large booking.
Source: Michael Croft, chef director, Calcot; Paul Milsom, managing director, Milsom Hotels
Hospitality Action charity day, Beaufort Polo Club
You can get a taste of William's Kitchen at Calcot catering by cutting along to the Hospitality Action charity day being held at Beaufort Polo Club on Sunday 12 September 2010.
The fun starts with a Champagne reception followed by a three-course lunch with wine in the marquee. You'll then get grandstand seats at the Westonbirt Arboretum Cup polo match before finishing the day with traditional afternoon tea.
Tickets are £850 for a table of 10, or £95 per person. All funds raised from the day will go towards helping people in the hospitality industry who have fallen on hard times.
Contact Astrid Wears-Taylor on 020 3004 5503 or e-mail email@example.com
Who's doing what
The family-run Milsom Hotels & Restaurants has also diversified over the years. It started as a tea room in 1952 and now comprises four hotels, including renowned restaurant Le Talbooth, which is linked to Maison Talbooth hotel, and its spinoff Talbooth Catering, which does outside catering.
The catering, which is run from a separate kitchen using its own brigade of chefs, accounts for 50% of Le Talbooth's turnover and 15% of the £10m group turnover. Based in East Anglia, most of the outside catering business is weddings rather than corporate, which meant it was less affected by recession, although clients had lower budgets.
Managing director Paul Milsom spells out the benefits: "We can serve 500 people or more at a function and have annual contracts, such as one to feed 600 people for a company in November, which all contribute to the overheads. And because we serve such large numbers, it's a great way of sending the message out about our business."
However, he adds that the downside is that the reputation of the entire business is on the line with every event. "While it's an opportunity to sell your brand there's always the risk of the reverse happening. If you do a bad job it reflects on the restaurant," says Milsom.
For that reason, the company never compromises on quality to secure a booking. "If someone wanted paper napkins we wouldn't do it," says Milsom. "We must hit that standard because it impacts on the rest of our business."
Milsom also warns that hotels should not allow their outside catering to grow too quickly. To that end he limits Talbooth Catering to three outdoor events on a Saturday. "Even four events would change the logistics," he says. "We would have to take £3m to stand still."
Also doing outside catering
â- The Grange Hotel, Clifton, York
Outside catering complements the 2AA rosette Ivy Restaurant
â- Myhotels Group
With three boutique hotels and a clutch of trendy bars and cafes, this company also offers an outside catering service for corporate lunches, dinners or canapés