The look of lunch

17 January 2003 by
The look of lunch

I'm up at 5.30am for a 7am meeting in Watford. People ask how I can be creative at this hour, but I never switch off. I'm always looking for new ideas, and this is why I visit the USA several times a year.

I'm strictly a tea man, so it's a cuppa and a piece of fruit for breakfast before I meet the catering manager of the day.

We examine our hospitality service via each stage of the customer's journey from welcome to farewell.

Presentation is paramount. Our customers do not see clingfilm - we use florists' crackle wrap, tied with ribbon or a tag. We prefer to use baskets instead of silver or disposable plates. We also use wooden bowls from Habitat, which look great filled with cherries, as "table teasers".

We also believe in the fun element of catering. For instance, our managers have a calendar with a fact or anniversary for every day of the year to help them promote dishes - 16 September is Mexican Independence Day, so we might add wraps and salsa to buffets. At one unit, we had a Jammie Dodger (biscuits) day, and a Red Planet day when we served Mars bars. In both cases, bookings increased.

We encourage our staff to come up with their own ideas. One of our porters suggested a breakfast croissant filled with bacon, brie and maple syrup, which customers love.

At Watford, we're also developing a quick order service for eleventh-hour meetings, whereby customers can collect a basket of sandwiches, fruit and fresh juice. If we can encourage people to use the hospitality service, it generates more income and reduces the client's subsidy.

Around 9am, I visit an international assurance company at Potters Bar, where the catering operation is being changed from a traditional restaurant to a more modern service. It was part of our tender bid that we work with the client to move from a £140,000-a-year subsidy to £80,000 over nine months. At the moment, I'm discussing the marketing of our new Scandinavian open sandwich range with the team, and reviewing our boxed salad choices.

After Potters Bar, I'm off to see our newest contract, the Ark in Basingstoke, which opened in September. We've introduced our Smart Cooking concept, which is an idea designed for limited space - in this case, a compact servery. By cooking one main or centrepiece dish, such as Mexican chicken with peppers, we can offer it in several different ways: a hot salad, wrap or with rice. So far, the response has been fabulous.

In general I like to meet with clients regularly to review progress and look at developing menus further. I try and visit clients at least once a fortnight, and discuss creative matters ranging from training to merchandising. I am a resource for them, and some even ask for my help with their own innovations.

Back to the office in Egham, Surrey, I check post and e-mails and go through the diary. I'm doing what we call "Training on the Move" tomorrow. This is where we take managers to Fleet Street to look at high street outlets.

By mid-afternoon, I'm on the move again. This time, I'm at Covance, Maidenhead, in Berkshire, to implement a new concept I saw in the USA recently - an action station salad bar. Customers choose a bowl of salad - mixed leaf, spinach, etc - and the assistant at the deli-bar adds whatever ingredients and dressings they want. It's brilliant.

I leave about 6.30pm and spend the evening playing with food and trying out new ideas. I find food fascinating. Even my bedside reading is food magazines. My other hobby is teaching Irish dancing. I was UK champion in 1977, 1978 and 1979. n

Interview by Jane Baker

Bartlett Mitchell

Tel: 070 7121 7121
Web site:

Founded: 1999
Contracts: 25
Turnover: predicted £3m
Staff: 110-plus

Just a minute…

Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?
Salvador Dali - now there's someone who thinks outside the box. He forces you to question things. I'd also invite Rick Stein, the thinking man's chef, and Ian Mitchell to choose the wine.

What is your favourite film?Babette's Feast.

What message do you have for Tony Blair? Promote local produce and don't play around with genetically modified foods.

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