Five years after Mitie Group’s catering arm transformed into Gather & Gather, the catering company has its eye on the next chapter, collaborating with chefs and industry specialists to create Gather & Gather 2.0, its expert-led approach to workplace dining. Managing director Allister Richards explains all to Janie Manzoori-Stamford
“We’re not going to create a rule book and say this is the way we do business,” says Allister Richards. “We want a much more flexible and innovative model.”
The managing director of caterer Gather & Gather is describing the way his company seeks to recruit talented individuals for the enthusiasm and change they can bring to the business. But it’s also a fair summary of the way the company has developed. Richards took the helm in 2011 while the foodservice arm of Mitie Group was still Mitie Catering Services and his remit was to reinvent it. “Call it what you want, do what you want – turn the business model on its head,” he was told.
In the 12-month run-up to Gather & Gather’s launch in late spring 2013, annual turnover had already soared from £35.5m to £64.1m after remaining largely flat, thanks to a handful of bundled service deals with Mitie as well as the acquisition of 51% of exhibition and events caterer Creativevents (the balance was bought in 2015). The rebrand then saw this momentum continue by successfully amplifying the company’s standalone catering offer and firm food focus.
And for a corporate-owned entity, there was an unexpected level of charm and whimsy. For example, the company bought cricketer Freddie Flintoff’s fish and chip van for a ‘giggle’ and installed it on a client site, while an ex-MOD service Land Rover called Larry was kitted out with a coffee-maker and wood-fired pizza oven as a roving pop-up offer.
But while Gather & Gather has worked hard to carve a niche for itself as an entrepreneurial innovator that just happens to be owned by a FTSE 250 plc, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. The caterer had a few years – 2015 to 2017 specifically – that were more subdued. This was in part due to difficulties at group level. Mitie issued three profit warnings in the five months to January 2017, citing “significant economic pressures” as the cause.
But as the turbulence in the Mitie engine room was felt by Gather & Gather, so too was a fresh burst of momentum from new group chief executive Phil Bentley. It is one reason why, five years after launch, Richards is spearheading the next chapter for the business, dubbed Gather & Gather 2.0.
“With all the energy going into running Mitie under a new chief executive and leadership team, we’ve needed to say, what’s our response? How are we coming back to life and putting fresh growth impetus back in?”
This impetus is already beginning to show in the numbers. The caterer reported growth of £4.9m to £102.2m in the year ended March 2017 and that 5% year-on-year increase is expected to hit double figures for the current financial year. So how has this fresh energy been achieved? In the first instance, it has come from the team. As key players involved in the first phase of Gather & Gather have moved on to their next challenge, there has been an injection of fresh talent.
Michael Namock, who previously worked at Lexington, Elior and Nomad Food Design, was an internal promotion to sales director. Alexandra Kristall came on board as regional operations director with three years’ experience spent looking after Google for Compass Group’s Restaurant Associates (RA) under her belt. And perhaps the most high-profile appointment was Jeremy Ford, who worked his way up to culinary director of RA over the course of 21 years with Compass, before joining team Gather & Gather as director of food.
Ford, who joined in April this year, has fast made an impact by being a key player in the launch of one of the caterer’s newest initiatives, the Gathered Table. Chefs Ollie Dabbous, José Pizarro, JP McMahon and Neil Rankin are among a 12-strong team that includes nutrition experts, sustainability champions, tech pioneers and suppliers [see ‘Who sits at the Gathered Table? below] with the aim of creating a “unique collaboration in workplace dining”. Caterers teaming up with chefs is nothing new, of course, but why has Gather & Gather teamed up with so many?
“You have to have amazing respect for the longevity and the genuine nature of things like the Roux partnership with RA, but we’ve neither got the depth of pocket nor the longevity as a business to try and compete on equal terms. Yet for certain aspects of our prospective client base, those relationships are of value,” Richards explains.
“We wanted to do something that felt broader than one relationship and where some of the people we work with were challengers in the world of restaurants and hospitality. Ollie is a case in point. He is very innovative and there’s something a bit rock ’n’ roll about him, but he’s very intelligent and really nice to do business with. Also, the brand was set up to have the potential for collaboration. That’s what the ‘Gather and’ bit was designed to be.”
The Gathered Table, which is designed to adapt and evolve as collaborators come and go, creates a point of difference for the company when it comes to attracting new business. At the same time, it generates valuable engagement with the caterer’s own chefs.
“They’re not getting access to just one admittedly incredible two-star stage that teaches them techniques they won’t use week in, week out. They’ve got eight different cuisines and styles to learn from,” says Richards.
“They could be at Neil Rankin’s learning to cook over open fire one day and the next they could be doing something refined with Ollie Dabbous at Hide. Those experiences give our chefs money-can’t-buy access to amazing talent.”
A different sell
The Gathered Table is the latest example of Gather & Gather striving to carve its own niche within an increasingly consolidated food- service industry, and it’s easy to see why. The sector’s big players are Compass Group, Sodexo, Aramark, Elior, WSH and CH&Co; ISS is the only direct facilities management (FM)competitor; and independents such as Bartlett Mitchell, Vacherin and Genuine Dining Co are doing good things, says Richards, but there aren’t as many as there were.
“Our view is that from a scale perspective we don’t belong in that independent piece – we’ve never claimed to be independent. And we’ve never really competed on standalone catering deals against ISS because emotionally we’re a completely different sell. We compete on integrated FM deals with ISS and to an extent with Sodexo and Compass, but if it’s a self-delivered multinational total FM contract, these companies have flags in 80 countries,” he explains.
“One of the reasons for Gather & Gather 2.0 and the rearticulation of the business is there is no point having a sub-scaled version of Compass and Sodexo’s culture and business model when we’ll never compete on scale and we’ll always lose on multinational capability.”
And that seems to be the rub: communicating the company’s message. New initiatives aside, Gather & Gather is doing what it has always done. The right systems and processes were always in place, as was everything needed to bag five out of five on a tender-scoring matrix, explains Richards.
“We were more keen on the whimsical, romantic story than we were on telling the tangible, matrix-scoring story,” he says. “It wasn’t that we didn’t do it. You can’t run a business and employ 3,000 people and not do it, because otherwise you’re not safe. But we just didn’t enjoy telling that story.”
This realisation was made crystal clear during a debrief with a client as to why Gather & Gather had won a piece of business, when Richards was told the company was ‘just a bit more Shoreditch than the competition’. It was undoubtedly meant as a compliment that in many ways rings true, but it also sparked concern. Was the perception of Gather & Gather in the marketplace taking account of everything the company has to offer?
“I laughed because we’ve been to Shoreditch but that’s about as close as it gets. We’ve never wanted to be the dad dancing at the disco about this and that made me worried. While it was really nice to hear, it felt like we were wearing someone else’s clothes. I want there to be other reasons to award us a contract.”
A changing market
That said, there remains a concerted effort to deliver a point of difference – fresh ideas, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility – that Richards says clients and consultants are crying out for, with the general message being that things are getting a bit vanilla.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people doing brilliant things,” he adds. “But the market is moving and I don’t think anyone can legitimately say they know where it’s going to land because of what’s happening with workplaces. Agile working, delivery models, wellbeing… these are all massive, strong themes but no one knows what the workplace will look like in 10 years’ time. So people are looking for ideas and innovation.”
These two qualities are vital because, according to Richards, meaningful growth in today’s foodservice industry can only come from winning new business and a share of the market. Most clients are not adding headcount and therefore not providing their caterers with new customers. Add to that the rising tide of costs, with wage price inflation failing to keep pace with labour and food cost inflation and you’ve got a perfect storm.
But Richards remains pragmatic: “We haven’t got the rent and rates double whammy that the high street has. So OK, it’s tough – it will be tough for a few years. But if you work in this industry, that’s broadly the reality at the moment. We’ve got to be disciplined in the way we operate.”
Gather & Gather 2.0 has already got off to a flying start. The company has bagged “a good slug”, or £20m, of business since April. It is beginning to see the benefit of its standalone engagement with the market during its parent company’s recent tough times, while Mitie’s return to form is generating more opportunities to be part of TFM bids. And being able to satisfy cyclical client demands as they move from single to bundled services and back again sets the company in good stead.
Yet despite all of Gather & Gather’s efforts to establish its credentials as a standalone catering force to be reckoned with, there remains some potential clients that can’t see past the association with Mitie and the unsexy connotations of cleaning and maintenance that it conjures up. So is that frustrating?
“I look at it the other way,” says Richards. “We often find ourselves in facilitated conversations with clients that we wouldn’t otherwise get on our own. There are benefits to being part of the group. As long as the group is operating well, if it’s got its mojo and its reputation is strong, there’s far more value in the associations you can form.”
Who sits at the Gathered Table?
• José Pizarro, chef-owner, José and Pizarro, London
• JP McMahon, head chef and owner, Aniar, Tartare and Cava Bodega, Galway
• Michael Rolph, co-founder and chief executive, Yoyo
• Neil Rankin, chef-owner, Temper, London
• Ollie Dabbous, head chef and collaborator, Hide, London
• Ramael Scully, head chef and co-owner, Scully, St James’s, London
• Sabrina Ghayour, chef and food writer
• Sustainable Restaurant Association
• Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia, founders, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee
• Nisha Katona, founder, Mowgli Street Food
• Dr Rupy Aujla, NHS GP and founder of the Doctor’s Kitchen
About Gather & Gather
Annual turnover £102.2m by March 2018
Number of staff 3,000
Number of sites 300 across the UK and Ireland
Daily customers 700,000
Key contracts Gather & Gather: Vodafone, Ford, Sky, Rolls-Royce, Lloyds Banking Group and DropBox. Creativeevents: RHS Chelsea Flower Show and Dulwich Picture Gallery