It is the largest single-day event in the UK. A staff of 2,500 will ensure 18,000 people are fed in the space of two hours. Marquees are scattered over 800 acres, food is stored in 40ft refrigerated trailers behind each marquee and, on the day, the caterers travel around by moped.
The event is the British Grand Prix motor race at Silverstone, Northamptonshire, and since 1976 David Pether of caterer Gilmour & Pether has been there feeding the cosmopolitan crowd that descends to watch the 10th race on the Grand Prix Formula 1 world circuit.
The event is glamorous and sexy – cars costing millions of pounds hurtle around a 3.2-mile track at speeds of up to 200mph. While a global television audience of 300 million watch Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve battle it out, 90,000 people will see the action live.
And nearly a quarter of these will be entertained in the fixed hospitality suites at the circuit, or in the marquees erected specially for the big day. So Pether and his partner Patrick Gilmour have their eyes elsewhere: the kitchens.
The pair set up Gilmour & Pether in 1983, but had catered at Silverstone with Bear Outside Catering in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, since 1976. Two years ago, Gilmour & Pether was bought by Gardner Merchant, but it continues to offer the “small caterer’s personal touch” for the event.
Gilmour & Pether is the on-site caterer at Silverstone, where permanent hospitality chalets and the British Racing Drivers’ Club are sold for the whole season. These areas, which will cater for up to 5,000 covers on the big day, are in the hands of general manager Ian Schofield.
A new kitchen for the on-site facilities opened in March. Silverstone put up the £400,000 required to build it, and Gilmour & Pether injected the £150,000 needed to pay for equipment.
Head chef David Curtis-Smith and his brother Peter Curtis-Smith head the team that will swell to 22 staff – including eight chefs – on race day.
The bulk of the feeding will be done in the hospitality marquees – totalling more than 250,000sq ft – erected for the event. Masterminding this operation are executive chefs Glen Chadwick and Mark Ellis, who head the marquee teams from the home-base in nearby Brackley. Food will be prepared by a staff of 200 before being dispatched to the 22 marquee kitchens, two days before the race, for finishing touches.
On race-day, the on-site chalets offer a choice of two buffet menus, but the marquees will all get the same buffet. This is seen as the only feasible way to provide catering for so many people.
Chalet menus cost £21.50 for duck pâté, roast beef, cured ham, chicken and pistachio pie, leaf, tomato, potato and pasta salads, dessert and coffee. For the higher price of £26, guests can munch quails’ eggs and asparagus as a starter, followed by salmon, roast beef and chicken tikka, with the same salad range as the cheaper buffet, dessert and coffee.
In the marquees, guests have a set menu of peppered salmon, chicken with apricot cream, prime beef fillet, leaf salad, and dark chocolate tart. The cost of their meal is included in the corporate hospitality packages, which are sold by Silverstone itself, not Gilmour & Pether.
A ticket for this year’s race-day in the Pits Straight Village will cost £310 a person. Of that, about £49 will go toward catering, including the premium that Gilmour & Pether pay to Silverstone, but excluding drink.
The difference in prices is accounted for by the additional costs of hiring portable kitchens and equipment for the marquees against the relatively low running costs of the permanent chalets.
Pether says the aim is a 70% gross profit on food and beverages, but labour costs, because of the length of the day, are up to 30% more than he would pay on another single-event day.
The economies of scale that some might assume would come into play when catering for 18,000 people are non-existent beyond a certain number, he says. “The more covers you do, the more it costs you. You rent in everything, and you also require more staff. Beyond 5,000 covers, it becomes difficult and economies of scale work in reverse.”
Costs are also high due to the fact that the event lasts just one day, observes Pether. It is more cost-effective to have a week-long job, where the minimum rental cost of a week is spread over four or five days.
Pether keeps tabs on the marquees, while Gilmour has the unenviable task of finding and co-ordinating the staff required for the weekend. Gilmour & Pether’s regular staff swells a thousand times on the day. Important staff such as marquee managers and chefs are housed in a temporary compound built on site, and others at two nearby schoolhouses.
Easily the worst situation Pether can imagine is a coach with staff aboard breaking down. For this reason, staff for specific marquees do not all travel on the same coach, so that in the event of a breakdown there will be some staff at each site.
Ian Schofield says another worst scenario is bad weather preventing the helicopters – which for £400 ferry guests as well as race teams and drivers into the grounds – from operating.
The circuit is built around a former World War II-bomber landing strip and becomes “the busiest airport in the world” on race day, jokes Schofield. Without flight, everyone – teams and guests – becomes reliant on the roads at an event where traffic queues are legendary.
Schofield says all vehicles must be in place by 10am, as the road providing access around the track is blocked from then onwards. To ensure mobility, the caterers use mopeds to ferry themselves around the site. Schofield tries to plan for all eventualities, and vehicle mechanics as well as refrigerator engineers are on site.
To arrive at race day with the right food and the right staff in the right place at the right time takes almost military precision (see panels). “This job is 80% logistics and 20% catering,” says Pether.
Dedication to the operation means neither Pether nor Schofield have ever seen a British Grand Prix live – they depend on videotaped highlights on television.
Next week: Letheby & Christopher feed Glyndebourne’s opera enthusiasts