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Co-directors Dennis Blades and Keith McDonald are gaining more confidence in their 10-month-old catering business. Work has begun on making their Newcastle premises more presentable to clients and unscheduled debts are beginning to be cleared. Blades has completed an expedition to London for culinary ideas.

Keith McDonald and Dennis Blades have served 46 functions in November and 53 in December – including three jobs between Christmas and New Year.

“I wanted a break after Christmas, but we did about £1,500 worth of work in those few days,” says McDonald.

Compared with the 35 functions Premier served in September, Christmas has been a busy time. The diary has been filled with Christmas parties for local firms; associations such as Morpeth Round Table and Hamsterly Mill Ladies’ Circle; and private parties in people’s homes.

Forward bookings are looking good, too: after catering for very few weddings in 1996, Premier is starting to take advance bookings for this year. A Whitley Bay wedding, for 120 guests at £22 a head, is a useful booking for August, and McDonald expects confirmation shortly of another wedding reception, in Jesmond, on 1 March. Last week McDonald was talking with a potential customer about a christening party with a budget of £1,000.

The busy holiday period has had its particularly exciting moments. Two of the jobs between Christmas and New Year were for people connected with Newcastle United Football Club – the sort of contacts that can lead to more work.

One was a dinner given by Bruce Shepherd, at his house, Mitford Hall – he’s the son of Freddie Shepherd, number two to chairman Sir John Hall at St James’ Park.

The following day Newcastle United player Lee Clarke and his wife Lorraine gave a party – all the Magpies were there. Premier Cuisine laid on the food again.

Another business client that has proved very valuable is Platinum Holdings, a Newcastle-based finance company which is now expanding into the USA and has been holding launch parties – for which Premier has done the catering.

“We’ve done two jobs for them, one of which was for the launch of the New Hampshire operation, with a satellite link,” says McDonald. “It went well. Some other work is coming out of it – some business jobs and some family parties, with Platinum connections.”

Not everything has gone quite so smoothly, however. McDonald does virtually all the cooking for his cold buffets at Premier Cuisine’s own kitchens, and takes the food out, ready-prepared, on service flats. But the Christmas-lunch season called for a different approach. Much of the cooking could be started back at base, but had to be finished on the spot, for which purpose McDonald and Blades hired a cooker and hotplate, which they have carried round from job to job in the back of a van. “It’s exhausting,” says McDonald.

Traffic jam

One of these parties was for directors and staff – about 100 in all – at Crosslings, a local plumbing and central heating firm. McDonald and Blades set off just before 10.45am, giving plenty of time to arrive and get lunch set up by midday. But they got stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident, and they were still sitting in heavy traffic at 11.45am.

“I got a real glare from the boss when we arrived,” says McDonald. “We had to unload the equipment and the food, get it finished and serve it. We had lunch on the table at 12.15, and it was brilliant,” he recalls, modestly.

Since Christmas, Premier’s favourite customers – notably its contacts at the Tyneside Training & Enterprise Council – have kept it busy with buffet lunches for groups ranging from 10 to 22 people, at around £10 a head. There were eight jobs like this at the TEC last week.

Express Engineering, which used Premier for its managing director’s 40th birthday party, came back for a high-profile function: buffet refreshments for a group of VIP guests from Proctor & Gamble, which may buy some of its machinery from Express.

McDonald is continuing to work on ideas for new products, both to serve in Premier’s buffets and also to offer to local delicatessens and restaurants. At Newcastle’s Metro Centre, Jimmy Demetri, who is now running the Harvey’s outlet there, is interested in a salmon en croute which McDonald has been offering recently.

Inexpensive buffet dishes

“I’m now making a little game pie, with shortcrust pastry, a topping of caramelised cranberry and filled with venison, hare and pheasant. The ingredients are expensive, but if you get the size right, the cost works out at about 24p. The most expensive item I do is the salmon and lemon sole roulade, which costs about 25p. But then, lots of the small items cost only 5p or 6p each.”

With McDonald and Blades fully engaged on meeting Christmas demand, some of the ongoing projects have not moved much. They are going for lease finance for the walk-in fridge which they need to install, and the business plan for this, which the bank has approved, is now with the lease finance company. The walk-in fridge will cost about £2,200, and Premier is raising £3,000 altogether.

Structural improvements and redecoration in the kitchen area is now moving ahead: ventilation has to be installed for the new oven McDonald and Blades chose before Christmas; new flooring will shortly be laid in the area behind the food prep section, which is to be the wash-up; and the decorators will be in any day now to give the kitchen walls a few coats of white paint. The floor tiles in the kitchen will get some fresh red paint when there’s a quiet period.

Two long-awaited deliveries should be complete by the time this article appears. Premier Cuisine has had a fax number but no fax machine ever since it started trading – now the machine is installed.

And as we go to press, McDonald’s pregnant girlfriend Beverley is already a couple of days overdue: a sibling for Chelsea and Bradley should now be raising hue and cry.

Next visit to Premier Cuisine: 20 February

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