Winning the five-year contract to cater at Ewood Park, home of Blackburn Rovers Football Club, may be the break hotelier Craig Bancroft and chef-patron Nigel Haworth, co-owners of Northcote Manor, Langho, Lancashire, need to secure another Michelin star.
The pair, who have been running the Northcote for 16 years, believe the 14-bedroom hotel and 90-seat restaurant has gone as far as it can without further investment.
Haworth has held a Michelin star since 1995 and the hotel won the Independent Hotel of the Year Catey in 1999. But a cash injection is now necessary for any further success to be achieved.
"Northcote is a successful business from the outside looking in - annual turnover is £1.3m - but there's a small profit percentage, due to the heavy borrowing we did to buy it in the first place. That means it does not generate the funds to invest at the level we need to attain our long-term goals," explains Bancroft.
Their dream, quite simply, is having three Michelin stars. But both Haworth and Bancroft know investment is required in the hotel bedrooms and in staff training.
Northcote's kitchen has a brigade of 12, but Bancroft accepts he needs a sommelier and a sommelier commis. Training is under way among the current team members. However, this takes time, and more staff are needed, anyway.
The foundations for the Ewood Park contract were laid two years ago when the pair decided to use the Northcote Manor brand to start Northcote Offsite, an event catering company.
"We could cherry-pick quality business when we could do it, and on two occasions we closed Northcote Manor to do a function," says Bancroft.
The success of Northcote Offsite prompted the pair to consider building a production kitchen, along with staff accommodation, on site at Northcote Manor. However, when the contract at Ewood Park came up, Bancroft and Haworth knew it was a far better option (Caterer, 26 April, page 10).
Ewood Park gives Northcote Offsite its own home, and the company can use the venue to offer corporate hospitality. Best of all, the 23 match days guarantee a turnover of £500,000. As Bancroft points out: "There are few new businesses that come with a guaranteed income on day one."
The surety of income has allowed the pair to borrow £275,000 from the bank to invest in Ewood Park. The investment required meant that the pair could negotiate to extend the original two-year contract to five years. Blackburn Rovers FC has also agreed to invest £200,000 over five years, with £150,000 of that at the beginning to help with the kitchen fit-out.
"I want our team to feel they had the financial backing to be the best, and they were given all the necessary tools to succeed," says Bancroft.
While Bancroft and Haworth are the names behind the Northcote brand, they are adamant that they will not be abandoning Northcote Manor. Instead, the day-to-day running of Northcote Offsite will fall to operations director Martin Jones, head chef Simon Bower and general manager Stuart Farnello.
Jones and Farnello joined from Millennium & Copthorne in Manchester, while Bower spent seven years working at Northcote Manor with Haworth. He returned to run Northcote Offsite in August 2000 and, along with sous chef Lee Canning, is now in charge of the kitchens at Ewood Park.
This weekend Bower, Jones and Farnello (with Haworth and Bancroft overseeing) will get their first taste of catering for large numbers. Blackburn is playing Barcelona at home, and Northcote Offsite is expecting to feed 700 guests.
From the redesigned production kitchen and five satellite kitchens the team will cater for 15 corporate boxes and 11 suites which, at full capacity, can seat 1,400 people. There are 14 full-time staff and a brigade of 120 regular casuals. Northcote Offsite will not be providing the catering at the concourse stands or the Blues Bar and Café.
The team expects to be catering at full capacity when the season kicks off 10 days later with a home match against Manchester United. Plated service will be offered in the 15 corporate boxes, as well as the Red Rose Room, which seats 30, and the Premier Suite, which can take 400 guests.
The Centenary Suite will offer a carvery to the 250-300 guests present on match day, with an average spend of £25, which is included in the package sold to corporate guests.
Four rooms link up to make the International Suite, where loyal supporters of the 100 Club and 500 Club meet. Here there will be a buffet offering Lancashire hotpot, hot pork sandwiches and fish and chips, with an average spend of £4-£6 (see menu panel).
Haworth says that in the early days of the contract he will be playing the role of overseer at Ewood Park - on match days, in particular. "I've always been at Ewood Park on match days as a supporter, so the only thing suffering will be my football viewing," he says, with a wry smile.
"The kitchen at Northcote needs the attention to detail that Ewood Park does not. The staff there have systems that allow them to serve quality food, and they know what is expected of them.
"I'm going to be in Northcote's kitchen with my chef whites on," he says.
The pair acknowledge that there will be those who say they are doing too much and question how they will be able to keep control of the original property. "We are building on a brand that is rock-solid. We have established Northcote over 16 years and to take it on further we need to grow," says Bancroft.
The potential turnover at Ewood Park (including non-match day functions) is estimated at £1.6m in year one and more than £2m by year five. The expectation is that profit will amount to 10% of turnover before financing.
Bancroft is adamant that the contract was hard-won. He strongly denies any accusations of favouritism. (Bancroft's uncle, William, is president of Blackburn Rovers, but does not have a seat on the board that chose Northcote Offsite from five bidders, including the incumbent, Sodexho.)
Bancroft admits, though, that he turned to long-time friend Mike Smith, of contract caterers BaxterSmith, for some advice on the tendering process.
"Mike showed us how to bid, and we put together a professional contract bid, addressing all the issues. We spent weeks and about £5,000 putting it together, and I'm confident that is what won us the deal," says Bancroft.
He wasn't so sure about the outcome halfway through the process, having given two presentations to the board, headed by chief executive John Williams, himself an ex-Granada man. However, the decision went their way, and on 1 July Northcote Offsite got the keys.
On match days the club buys the catering outright from Northcote Offsite at an agreed price. The club then sells that on to its clients as part of a whole package.
Blackburn's re-entry to the Premiership football division after a two-year absence should help to sell the venue on non-match days. Northcote Offsite has taken over the sales and marketing function, which was previously run separately.
Now the sales team and the catering team are under one operator with one ethos. Bancroft believes that this and the kudos that the Premiership venue brings will help sell it on the 342 days it isn't in use for football.
In addition, Northcote Offsite will take on events away from Ewood Park, using its kitchens to prepare the food. Bancroft is being cautious and estimates the external business in the first year will bring in only £150,000 in revenue. This will allow the team to concentrate on Ewood Park.
Northcote Offsite with Ewood Park and other outside events is not the partners' only route to growth (see "What's next?" panel). But they are careful to return to the theme that Northcote is their first love and to abandon it would be folly.
From Michelin star to mass production
For a one-Michelin-starred chef to turn his hand to catering en masse was not necessarily an easy task. "I'd never done anything in institutional or contract catering. But I believe if you want to do something, you put a game plan together and attack it actively," says Northcote Manor chef-patron Nigel Haworth.
That game plan included visiting the banqueting operations at other football clubs, including Chelsea, Newcastle, Stockport and Wigan. In addition, Haworth went behind the scenes at Claridge's, courtesy of executive chef John Williams.
Haworth quickly realised that the key challenge was the short space of time available to serve guests.
"People don't want to be kept waiting - they are there to watch the football and enjoy the social side of it," he says.
He was initially sceptical of the plated hot-regeneration concept, but he tested half-a-dozen dishes and quickly realised the results were favourable, offering him control and flexibility.
"It's about keeping the options open - I can plate the meat and two veg and roast the potatoes off fresh, or do the veg and the potatoes and finish the meat to order. I'm sure that in 12 months we will have a different view on how things are done," says Haworth.
With the contract won, Haworth set about redesigning the kitchens. "The kitchens did not work ergonomically - the flow of waiters in and out was all wrong, as was the space for chefs to move from the oven to plating," he explains.
An extra satellite kitchen was put into the International Suite, which is furthest away from the main production kitchen, and the remaining four satellite kitchens were redesigned. Blackburn Rovers put up the £150,000 for the kitchen.
Haworth believes the investment is needed, as people will see the branding and expect Northcote quality, although not necessarily the Northcote product.
He says: "I don't believe that people will expect Michelin-starred food here, but they will expect quality, and that is what we will deliver."
Ewood Park, Blackburn, Lancashire
Tel: 01254 691919
Investment: Northcote Manor - £275,000, Blackburn Rovers Football Club - £200,000, over five years
Turnover: year one £1.6m; year five £2m plus
External catering revenue: year one £150,000
Rental: 10% of turnover
Wages: 29% of turnover
Profit: 10% of turnover before financing
Head chef: Simon Bower
Operations director: Martin Jones
General manager: Stuart Farnello
Contract: five years at Ewood Park
Full-time staff: 14
Match days: 23
Covers (match days): 1,200-1,400, 15 boxes, 11 suites
Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth have decided the Northcote brand can expand beyond Ewood Park and Northcote Offsite. The events company has been chosen as the preferred caterer at Samlesbury Hall, near Preston, a venue that can hold 90 inside and has space for a marquee on its grounds.
The pair have also taken on a restaurant known as the Pavilion buildings in Blackburn following the contract win at Ewood Park. The 100-cover restaurant and bar is scheduled to open in October 2002, giving the pair a year to consolidate at Ewood Park. But Haworth has also been approached to run a Northcote Café/Bar operation, and he and Bancroft are considering the proposal.
"I'm sure people will think that we're mad," says Haworth. "The proof will be in the doing."
Menus offered by Northcote Offsite
Plated three-course lunches
Starters Lancashire cheese soufflé, sweet and sour cherry tomatoes
Galia melon and Serrano ham
Filo pastry parcel of seafood, lemon and dill butter
Mains Roast strip loin of Highland beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables
Roast best end of Pendle lamb, roasting juices, boulangère potatoes, creamed leeks and carrots
Whole roast fillet of beef Wellington, Madeira jus, fondant potatoes, snow peas and glazed carrots
Desserts Bramley apple crumble
Millefeuille of fresh strawberries, shortbread biscuits and clotted cream
Examples of hot buffet items Traditional Lancashire hotpot
Sesame-cooked chicken with stir-fry rice
Tomato and roasted vegetable lasagne
Whole roast Goosnargh chicken infused with tarragon
Marmalade roast ham