Cateys 2023: Newcomer Award: Culinera

04 July 2023
Cateys 2023: Newcomer Award: Culinera

Culinera wins the Newcomer Award, sponsored by the Motion Picture Licensing Company

Over the past three years, Culinera has established itself within the education contract catering industry as one to watch. The business was the brainchild of Thomas Pass, who developed plans for the project for five years before he left WSH to begin the venture.

Aged just 27, with no backers, a mortgage and a dream of starting a catering company, Pass quit his well-paid, secure role and started teleselling in local schools. His 10 years of experience in school catering left him with no illusions that entering public procurement wouldn't be tough, but he was determined to make a success of the venture. There was also a financial risk, since Culinera was secured against Pass's home. With no family, friend or angel investor, the failure of Culinera would mean losing everything.

But launching as it did during the pandemic gave Pass an opportunity: schools were looking for something fresh, while their management teams were willing to look past the lack of references and tangible evidence of operating a company and take a chance.

Growth since the launch in 2020 has been impressive, with the business predicted to turn over £8m in 2023 from a standing start three years earlier. In that period Culinera has achieved steady contract wins, with a total of 20 schools open and operating by January 2023.

One of the reasons the business has been such a success is that it has strictly controlled its support and systems structure. It has not outsourced any back-office function, and the business handles its own accounts, procurement, health and safety and payroll. This has allowed it to develop the systems that have played a large part in its positive performance.

With the balance sheet growing in strength, Culinera has now invested in a central support team, recruiting a group executive chef, operations director and a dedicated people director.

Being self-funded, owned and operated by its founder, Culinera is able to stand out from the crowd. It has a business model that is not only financially sound, but has also developed a network of suppliers and team of chefs that deliver top-quality food to schools.

It might be suggested that the business is operating at a level beyond its years, participating as it does in multimillion-pound tender processes against the most established caterers.

The business admits that it cannot complete with the capital investment that large companies offer schools, but its overall offer makes it a compelling alternative. The judges thought Culinera's was a compelling story of commitment, dedication and risk-taking, combined with the capacity to deliver, and made it a worthy Newcomer Award winner.

What the judges said

"Tom has taken his passion for food and hospitality into the school sector with great success, risking everything to achieve his goals." William Baxter

"Both the business and founder fit the criteria perfectly. Tom has committed to a dream and ambition at personal risk and is now a pioneer within the sector." Martin Williams

The shortlist

  • Artezzan Restaurant & Bar, Chester
  • Cavita, London
  • Culinera
  • The Terrace, Isle of Wight

The judges

  • William Baxter Hospitality Action
  • Tom Brown Cornerstone
  • Jane Sunley, Korero
  • Martin Williams, Rare Restaurants
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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.


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