In the first of a three-part series on small independent contractors, Jane Baker looks at two companies which tackle the same market from different angles: one going for large corporate events, the other for prestigious county and agricultural shows.
When Jonathan Leigh and Richard Newall met at Blackpool catering college in 1983 they decided they'd like to set up in business together. But it was not until 17 years later that they achieved their ambition and founded Small World Catering in November 2000 with a current turnover of £500,000.
By that time, both men had started their own businesses - Leigh was a partner in a corporate events company in Bristol and Newall had a delicatessen shop in Leek, Staffordshire. "We were both looking to see how we could progress and expand our businesses," says Leigh. "Outside catering is seasonal and I was looking to make some cash throughout the year. Richard had a shop and wanted to expand and diversify."
In December 2000 they bought a second delicatessen shop in Bristol, and Leigh left his events company with an amicable split of contracts. "We were lucky that both Richard and I had a chance to develop the business which was already profitable and had a client base," says Leigh.
Small World Catering's niche market is the larger events, feeding 1,000 to 5,000 people in unusual locations, such as the Orange WOW Music Festival in the North-east, where Leigh and Newall took over an empty restaurant and fed 5,000 people over three days.
The company targets event organisers and agents rather than companies direct and, thanks to referrals, business increased by 25% in 2001. Despite the nervous economic climate, Leigh is confident that the company will see a further 10-15% growth this year.
The highlight of 2001 was feeding 2,000 people on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal when the Queen Mother visited the ship to rededicate it after a refit. "The logistics were challenging," says Leigh. "We had to serve hot canapés to 2,000 in 30 minutes. We had 120 waiting staff and 380 silver salvers. The restrictions of security and timing of access and catering areas meant that we ended up cooking the food on the quayside."
The problems facing Leigh and Newall are different for each venue and demand lateral thinking.
"For the Ark Royal, for instance, we had to work out a way of getting our people on site quickly as to go through the normal pass procedures would have taken over three hours. For the music festival, the police close the roads, so we have to make sure our suppliers are through first," says Leigh, who adds that suppliers' support is vital.
"We have to rely on them to provide goods to our standard. It's a team effort. We use PKL for our kitchens and they can get us into anywhere. The same goes for Jongor, who supply us with light equipment and furniture. We'd struggle without them."
It's show time From engineer to caterer is an unusual path, but it was the one taken by Philip Matthews, who founded Plyvine Catering in 1979. Before then, the self-taught chef ran a department in a large engineering company, catering for special events only at the weekends in order to relax.
In 1979, however, his engineering job looked uncertain so he decided to buy the bar assets of three local contracts. Plyvine was born, growing from a first-year turnover of £50,000 to £2.4m today.
With ironic timing, Matthews had no sooner set up Plyvine than he was offered a senior engineering post with a major company. He decided to take it, leaving his sister Sylvia Cowling as financial director and Stan Matthews (no relation) as director to run the fledgling catering company.
Eventually Philip Matthews' son Stuart joined as a director and executive chef.
Although he continued to work for Plyvine at the weekends it wasn't until 1994 that Matthews himself came on board full-time. "I'd had enough of engineering and Plyvine had grown significantly so I had to decide which boat to be in," he says.
The first move into food came in 1981 when the company won the catering contract at the Community Centre, Great Wyrley, Walsall, Staffordshire. "It kick-started this side of the business and we're still doing it," says Matthews. "We'd been doing a lot of bar work and it was natural to go into food."
The next milestone was winning a contract to supply the public, staff and hospitality catering at the Glades Leisure Centre, Kidderminster, Hereford & Worcester, in 1990.
Plyvine hit its first £1m turnover in 1994 and has grown steadily since. It wins business mainly through reputation and referral and has found a niche for providing bar and catering for dog shows and county shows.
"The most popular meal at these shows is always the full English breakfast and large numbers of bacon butties are served from 7am," says Matthews, who did 800 breakfasts at last year's County Women's Game Fair in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.
Agricultural shows demand some sensitivity where food is concerned. "You don't roll up with imported New Zealand butter, don't offer UHT milk, only fresh, and preferably local produce such as cheeses," says Matthews, who does 30-40 major shows and hundreds of smaller events each year.
He operates a completely self-contained service using a fleet of 10 mobile kitchens, wash-ups and fridges. "We're a very hands-on company and it's not unusual in the busy show season for us all to be driving a truck to a site one day and appear scrubbed and in our whites front of house the next."
Jonathan Leighon the record
What draws you to this kind of catering?
"Each big event is a challenge, but it's also finite. Each has its own entity, unlike a hotel or restaurant, which are going on indefinitely. At the end of the day, the sense of achievement in having successfully fed 4,500 people is fantastic."
What is the secret of your success?
"Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. You have to look at every conceivable scenario from generators packing up to food not arriving. We talk a lot with clients, discussing areas they may not have considered, such as how to get rid of rubbish, or access for delivery wagons. This amount of planning means that often bigger events run more smoothly than smaller ones."
Philip Matthews on the record
Is catering at outside shows easy? "Not always. It's a gipsy lifestyle and I adore it - except when it rains constantly and we have to have a tractor to pull our vehicles out of the mud."
How did you manage during the foot-and-mouth epidemic? "It was a testing time. There were a lot of cancellations and those shows that did run had low attendances. We called our employees together and said that we had to make an extra special effort to maximise our profits on other sites.
"They were marvellous and our profits didn't dip - which makes me wonder whether we were running the rest of our business right!"
Unit 7, Pedmore Industrial Estate, Pedmore Road, Brierley Hill, West Midlands DY5 1TJ.
Tel: 01384 263178
Staff: 35 full-time
Founded: 1979 by Philip Matthews
Initial funding: under £500 of own money
Small World Catering
34 High Street, Thornbury, Bristol BS35 2AJ
Tel: 01454 880031
Number of events: 123 from May to December
Staff: 98 full- and part-time
Founded: November 2000 by Jonathan Leigh and Richard Newall
Initial funding: £15,000 bank loan plus business brought in by both partners