Touching the sides

29 November 2002 by
Touching the sides

Q - Why did you start your own company?
A - We worked for Nelson Hind and liked the dynamism. We learnt a lot and wanted to use our experience to work for ourselves. It's more exciting to take a risk. In a big company you can't touch the sides, and we wanted to be in charge of our destinies.

Q - What difficulties did you face in the early days?
A - The usual: where was business coming from? You need a lucky break when you have no contracts, and we had this when someone I'd known for a long time asked us to do their catering. We'd planned for six contracts in our first year and we've got eight within the first 10 months.

Q - What sector are you aiming for, and why?
A -
Business and industry quality staff restaurants and private education - our culture of serving fresh, wholesome, tasty food would fit these categories. Most caterers say they serve this type of food, but it's a different matter when you see the frozen food delivery vans arrive.

Q - What gives you the edge over your competitors?
A - Carolyne has a phenomenal eye for detail and always aims to improve. When we open a new contract, she spends the first three weeks on site, training staff. They are drilled in cleaning everywhere, presentation and food control - we cut 25% off the food bill for one client. We also invest heavily in staff. We already have an area manager, are recruiting a second, and have appointed a finance director, Esther Brookes. There's only so much you can do differently. We deliver our promise; clients trust us - there's no secret weapon.

Q - Do you have staffing difficulties and, if so, how do you overcome them?
A - We have no problem getting craft people - we've got a waiting list - but finding catering assistants is difficult, even though we pay more: £6 per hour.

Q - What is your attitude towards training?
A - We spend 60% of our time coaching staff. If you do this at the outset, you quickly reap the rewards. We practise a back-to-the-floor policy whereby everyone, even office staff, spends a day a month in the kitchen to understand what the job is about.

Q - How do you view the trend towards deskilling?
A - Extremely sad. One reason people don't come into the industry is that they see no job satisfaction in opening a packet or making baguettes by numbers.

Q - What is your approach to purchasing?
A - We pay quickly, sometimes within 14 days, so we get good prices. It's not so good for our cash-flow, but we give the best service to the client. In one tender, we were told our shopping basket was the cheapest.

Q - What is your attitude towards food on the plate?
A - If you watch customers chatting in the queue, do they stop and look at the food and say, "Wow", or do they continue talking? Good food must make you notice what you're eating.

Q - What advice would you offer to those wanting to start a contract catering business?
A - Get three times as much funding as you think you need.

Q - Who in the industry has inspired you?
A - Andrew Nelson [of Nelson Hind] - he is charismatic, full of energy, with more drive than a four-wheel-drive Range Rover. And Robyn Jones [of Charlton House] - she runs a good company.

Wilsonvale Catering Management

Orchard House, Brizlincote Lane, Bretby, Burton upon Trent DE15 0PR
Tel: 01283 538815
Web site: www.wilsonvale.co.uk
Founders: Andrew Wilson and Carolyne Vale, February 2002
Contracts: six
Predicted turnover: £800,000
Staff: 32
Initial funding: £100,000 joint savings

Andrew Wilson
1977: OND, Clarendon College, Nottinghamshire
1980: Earls Court & Olympia Catering, catering supervisor
1981: Sutcliffe Midlands, assistant manager, ending up as sales manager
1991: Nelson Hind, general sales manager
1998: Nelson Hind, sales and marketing director
2000: Nelson Hind bought by Avenance
2001: Group sales and marketing director, Avenance

Carolyne Vale 1977: HND, Birmingham College of Food
1979: Aramark, trainee manager
1980: Sutcliffe, relief cook, ending up as general manager
1991: Maternity leave
1992: Nelson Hind, part-time area manager; eventually general manager
1998: Nelson Hind, operations director
2001: Regional managing director, Avenance

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