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Sea food

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It’s midday at the Stena Line ferry terminal in Holyhead. Passengers are gathering to board the super-fast HSS Stena Explorer catamaran to Dun Laoghaire, but Ian Jamieson, head of on-board services for the Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire and Dublin routes, has sneaked us on board early so he can talk through the changes he has overseen in the past few years.

Our crossing will take only 99 minutes, making the Explorer one of the fastest of the 36 vessels across the 17 routes operated by Stena – the world’s biggest ferry company. But that’s not why he’s chosen this ferry. The main reason is that it has just undergone a refit.

As we walk towards the restaurant areas, which today will host about 1,200 passengers, Jamieson starts to talk about why he has increased the focus on food and beverages.

“When duty free was scrapped in 1999, Stena’s profits plummeted to zero,” he says. “A ship like this would have made £30m turnover a year without trying.”

That was a setback Stena wasn’t prepared to ignore, and so in 2000 Jamieson had to make some tough decisions.

One of the first things he did was close the food preparation kitchen in Holyhead – where Stena owns the port – and saved £350,000 a year (food is now bought in ready-prepared). Next, he changed the on-board management system, reduced the number of suppliers and increased bulk purchasing power.

Finally, he looked at ways to scrap the dated foodcourts and improve the on-board catering. This January, the company spent £2m and three weeks refurbishing the public areas on the Explorer. Jamieson has started with the Explorer because it is “the jewel in the crown”. Gradually its sister ferries will be refurbished too.

“We see F&B as the way forward now,” Jamieson says. “Six years ago it was duty-free shops.”

As he walks through the main food areas, pointing out the new brands, Jamieson explains how the carpets were ripped out and replaced with wooden flooring to recreate a cruise ship’s promenade deck. Stena is a Swedish company, so the design was created by Swedes, which Jamieson reckons gives it an edge – “We have a Swedish way of thinking.”

They also ripped out the wall of videos, the tired foodcourt, old-fashioned public bar and the fish-and-chips outlet and, as Jamieson says, “did our homework”. In their place went the Metropolitan bar and grill – fashionably long and lit from below with trendy neon-blue lights – and the centrepiece, Food City.

The latter was trialled on a sister ferry two years ago but this one – the UK’s second – is the biggest. It offers four types of cuisine presented on self-service counters – traditional, such as steak and ale pie (£6.95), authentic, including Indian and TexMex dishes (£6.95) and pizzas (£4.25), deli and a special dish of the day. Other new outlets are the Truckers Club for the “demanding” freight hauliers and Spikes sports bar for the young crowd.

“About 40% of our business comes from the South of England, so after people have been in the car for four hours [getting to Holyhead], they want to relax,” Jamieson says. “This is taking the ferry business up the ladder. These are the comfort zones.”

To make passengers feel at home, Jamieson has also brought a couple of high-street brands on board. In 2001, he developed partnerships with Irish sandwich retailer O’Brien’s – which has outlets in the terminals and on board – and Compass subsidiary Select Service Partner, which operates Burger King. It took six months to get health and safety permission for the flame grill because Stena had to prove it could close the kitchen down quickly in the event of a fire, but Jamieson reckons it was worth it – as he says, people relax when they see familiar high-street brands.

“And it means there are no staffing issues – I just collect the concession,” he adds.

Jamieson denies that budget airlines are taking a lot of Stena’s business and the figures seem to indicate that the investment is money well spent. Net profit on board has gone from zero to 28%. Spend in March was up 200% and Jamieson estimates that hot food sales will bring in £300,000 a year. On-board F&B as a whole will turn over £3.5m this year, and group F&B turnover is £60m a year.

By now we are at the front of the ferry. Jamieson points out where the fine-dining area used to be. In its place he has created Stena Plus, rather like a first-class airline lounge where passengers pay £10 extra to sit in a more exclusive area. He experimented initially with a small area, which attracted 75% occupancy. This gave him the confidence to invest £500,000 in creating the 180-seat lounge.

The area is divided into blue seats for the lounge, red seats for eating and drinking, and there is also a “bedroom” of reclining seats and a section where people can work. Jamieson is pleased with take-up, which is averaging 60 people a trip. The menu served here is lighter than at Food City, including bagels and wraps, sushi and Caesar salad. Prices range from £2.95 to £5.95.

Behind the small bar area there is a door that leads to the heart of the ship, the kitchen. The food for the whole ferry is bought in pre-prepped and cooked in this relatively small area, which has access to all the restaurant sections. It’s run by a senior chef, aided by one sous chef, two cooks and potwashers. Jamieson says they will produce 300,000 hot meals on the Explorer this year.

Jamieson takes us deeper into the kitchens to explain how new supplies are brought on board in containers. These double rather niftily as storerooms – either refrigerated for food or ambient for the on-board shops. The old containers are filled with rubbish and then craned off before the replacements are dropped into place. Supplies are taken on or off the ferry only at Holyhead. Orders are placed by senior cabin assistants 24 hours ahead, with supplementary orders telephoned in on the return journey from Dun Laoghaire. Fresh stores are ready to be loaded on arrival. “If we know we are picking up heavy drinkers, we’ll pick up an extra keg,” Jamieson laughs.

Back in the Stena Plus lounge, Jamieson explains how trimming suppliers since September 2001 has slashed Stena’s costs. Stena’s purchasing arm, Sundsservice AB, has consolidated his purchasing power and enabled him to perform pan-European purchasing rather than simply buy for each route.

The results are clear. Jamieson discovered, for instance, that there were 27 different types of paper cup, but by consolidating and purchasing in bulk, he achieved UK savings of £60,000 and global savings of £110,000. For crockery the saving was £14,000 in the UK and £36,000 altogether, and pre-prepped chips brought savings of £73,000 in the UK and £214,000 globally.

Jamieson is full of figures. As the ferry docks in Dun Laoghaire, he remarks: “By the end of today, this ferry will have made eight crossings and carried 6,500 people.” And he adds: “Over Friday, Saturday and Sunday we’ll take £30,000.”

Who needs duty-free?

Life on the ocean wave

Ian Jamieson has been catering aboard ships all his working life, but if you meet him, don’t joke about whether he has ever been shipwrecked. He has.

Back in the Falklands conflict, Jamieson was a volunteer catering manager on board the Atlantic Conveyor. The ship was hit by two Exocet missiles, sank and 13 people drowned. Jamieson managed to jump overboard and was eventually pulled out of the Atlantic by survivors on a passing lifeboat. Needless to say, it took him a long time to get over it.

He might have thought he had had his quota of disaster, but more recently he was working on a ferry that was hit by a freak wave and tipped over on to its side. Fortunately, it righted itself but Jamieson could have done without the experience. “I thought ‘Oh God, not again’.”

But surprisingly, neither incident put him off his chosen career. He stayed in ship catering, moving to the Stena Line in 1991 and worked his way up from F&B manager. But he is mostly land-based nowadays. His remit includes overseeing all the gaming and casinos, shopping, bureaux de change, guest services, F&B and “purchasing of everything”. He also co-ordinates on-board services for the Irish Sea area.

Talk of shipwrecks strikes a sour note when you are at sea, but Jamieson is reassuring. He points out that Stena’s super-fast catamaran means the journey from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire takes only 99 minutes whereas it used to take hours. “Cats cut the crossing by half,” he adds. “People love speed nowadays. And no, don’t worry, you won’t get seasick.”

And he’s right. Memories of the old-style ferries being tossed mercilessly on the Irish Sea are forgotten as the cat makes short work of rough water. But up on the bridge, Captain Simon Mills points out that the ferries are cancelled if the waves top four feet “for the comfort of the passengers”. He reckons only 2% of crossings were cancelled last year.

Jamieson hails from Glasgow but enjoys explaining that he lives in Kent and spends most of his time in Holyhead, Dublin, Malmo – you name it. The on-board staff, however are recruited locally at the ports.

“We look for staff who look smart in uniform,” Jamieson says. “We hire for attitude and train for skill.”

Staff also have to be prepared to work unusual hours at sea, because some sailings are in the small hours. Staff work 12-hour shifts for four days and then have four days off, plus 32 days annual leave. Jamieson reckons the pay is higher than on land because of the dangers of working at sea, but he cannot discuss salaries.

Rostering is a potential headache and must be flexible. The sales and marketing team give the manager the booking figures and the crew is rostered accordingly. There are usually between 19 and 50 staff on board for each crossing. Today, with 1,200 passengers booked, Jamieson says there will be about 30 staff on board – and always one manager.

This management structure is relatively new. Back in 1999 in the days of duty free, there were 19 managers per ship. Following a shake-up to increase profitability, Jamieson reduced this number to four, with only one manager on board at any one time.

As part of the shake-up, the sailing crew was also reduced and now consists of a captain, navigator and two engineers instead of three engineers and 15 sailors. Many of the jobs, such as embarking the cars, have been taken over by catering staff.

And there’s scope for more jobs. A new ship, HSS Stena Adventurer, will be launched in June. “A lot of people will be appointed from within the company,” says Jamieson. But there may be opportunities.

For job enquiries with Stena Line, call 01407 606631

All aboard

Stena Line
Swedish-owned company with head office in Gothenburg, founded by Sten Allan Olsson in 1962

Routes: 17 routes to Europe between Britain and Ireland, Holland and England, Norway and Denmark, Sweden and Germany, and Sweden and Poland

Fleet: 36 vessels (fast ferries, traditional multi-purpose, RoPax for freight and passengers and RoRo for freight)

HSS Stena Explorer

On-board services staff: between 19 and 50 (30 staff for 1,200 staff)

Sailing crew: captain, navigator and two engineers, compared with conventional sailings with three engineers and 15 sailors

Passengers: 1,500 full capacity

Propelled: Sea jet using 120 tonnes of water a second

Cancelled crossings: 2% last year in the Irish Sea, owing to bad weather

Fuel: £30,000 a day, “so we have to sell a lot of Stella”

Games machines: £1.25m profit

Food and beverages: £3.5m turnover this year

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