In the first four months of 2002, Eaton Group, the largest independent contract caterer in the City, clinched business worth £1.5m in annual turnover, moved into a £1.5m business and resource centre, launched Eaton Fine Dining Direct, and decided to go national. It was a resounding climax to a five-year plan.
But managing director Alan Walker is already talking about increasing the number of contracts from 74 to 140 and raising turnover from £18.5m to £40m over the next five years.
"We keep ahead by constantly creating initiatives," Walker says. "There is a general move by clients away from the large companies, and we are well positioned to be the successor to replace former leading independents such as Catering & Allied or High Table."
Walker joined the group as managing director in 1997 in order to reposition the company, whose focus on business and industry (B&I) had been blurred by taking on education contracts, which formed 35% of the business. Within three years, the group had doubled its turnover from £7m to £15m and the number of contracts it held from 30 to 60. This was something that Walker and his team - chef development director Chris Towler and sales director Paul Greenwood - had already done twice before, with J Lyons' contract catering division and with Summit.
When they came to Eaton, Walker and his team reduced the number of education contracts to 5% of the business, and split the B&I catering offer in two: Eaton Fine Dining, providing top restaurant standards; and Eaton Marché, offering a mix of café, deli-bar and restaurant concepts, which netted 29 contracts in its first three years.
Supporting the statement about always staying ahead, Walker and his team relaunched Eaton Marché as Café Marché in January this year. He says: "This is a bolder, more confident version, with a chic environment, new packaging, labelling and a ‘Lifestyle' theme more consistent with customers in the 21st century."
In 2000, a decision was made to move into new premises, as the company had outgrown its office space and a new central production unit (CPU) was needed to expand a small direct-delivery service, started in 1984. The search took more than a year, as Walker wanted to stay in London's E1 postcode area, and still have road access and off-road parking. A 14,000sq ft, four-storey warehouse was finally found in March 2001 and, after a £500,000 refit, including £180,000 spent on the CPU, the company moved in December.
As well as the CPU, the new premises house all the company's departments, including a large training facility. The top floor is empty, ready for expansion, and there is planning permission for a fifth storey.
The new Eaton Fine Dining Direct service is already on target to achieve turnover of just under £600,000 by the end of the year. Managing the CPU is Alastair Motion, who describes the business as "a rapid-response service to companies in London that require catering on an ad hoc basis, as opposed to an annual contractual commitment".
It is the only CPU run by contract caterers in the City, and operates a dedicated food-flow area with a hot kitchen and separate cold preparation room. Space has been allocated to allow for expansion and this includes "blank" spaces in the kitchen suitable for equipment such as ovens. It also has a room intended for a library, a tasting area and client entertainment use.
The market for Fine Dining Direct is split into five areas:
* "Niche" is for potential clients seeking a five-day-a-week service, saving money on space and labour, or where fire regulations limit a full catering operation.
* In-office entertainment, for large companies with no catering on site but which want to hold special functions, where Eaton provides food, equipment and staff.
* Delivered-in service, such as training centres, where food is delivered by Eaton but served by client staff.
* Formal, for companies with small kitchens which want a gourmet food experience.
* Bespoke Design, supplying meals to the requirements of the client's chef for small independent hotels, wine bars and companies looking to out-source catering.
Walker puts much of the company's success down to group culture, which he characterises with the following concepts and watchwords: making my day (being responsive), being present (being accessible) and being playful (having fun at work). "It's all about choosing the right attitude every day," he says, "being positive and ‘can do' rather than negative, which benefits no one. As a company, we operate an open and honest, no-blame policy. We're here to serve and support our own staff, and do the best job possible for the client."
Despite this, last year was not without its problems. The company was a victim of the Enron collapse, losing a £2.5m catering contract plus £100,000 of profit, which effectively set the company back a year. "The good news," Walker says, "is that Grosvenor Estates, which owns the building Enron used to occupy, has made us the preferred supplier of catering to new tenants."
Future plans include expanding the business outside London. The catalyst for this move was winning a £1.5m contract to manage six sites across the UK for computer software company Unisys in August 2000. With characteristic caution, Walker and his team waited to see if this worked before deciding to expand out of the City. They are targeting group contracts with multiple sites, where they can employ a dedicated Eaton group manager, and recently won the group contract for four sites for Entertainment UK.
"We set out to become London's leading independent caterer and we've done this," Walker says. "We've been approached by large companies wanting us to cater for them nationally, so now it's time to move outwards."
Other Eaton Group initiatives…
Last September, the company started the Eaton Group's Chef Scholarship, under which seven trainees from three nominated colleges are being offered work experience at Eaton sites plus funding for travel, books, uniforms and knives. If they work for the company during their holidays, they will also be paid a wage.
"Where these students go to get holiday work, such as burger bars, is often where they end up," says chef development director Chris Towler. "By giving them financial stability, we are nurturing them, giving them solid training, and hoping they will stay with us."
A new concept, Zest for Life, is being piloted in two units. This provides a detailed fact sheet for selected menu items, outlining what the ingredients do for the body. For example, teriyaki salmon with fried vegetable noodles - salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood cholesterol, protecting against heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline and skin conditions; ginger root is valued for its cleansing, warming and stimulative qualities, while it also aids digestion, helps remove gases from the stomach and intestines, and is valued for its antiseptic qualities; and olive oil is rich in cholesterol-neutralising monounsaturated fats and free-radical inhibitor vitamin E, while it also aids the digestive system and is very good for easing rheumatic conditions.
Towler says: "This is not about healthy eating, nor will it replace existing dishes. It's about giving customers information to help them choose the dish most suited to their needs.
"City people are demanding more from their bodies, but are working longer hours. They think they can sustain this with a sandwich at lunch, and then wonder why they fall asleep mid-afternoon. We aim to help them choose the right dish to increase their energy and vitality."
Eaton House, 59-66 Greenfield Road, London E1 1EJ
Tel: 020 7375 1079