To meet the needs of News International's 2,500 staff, contract caterer Elior has to run a service 16 hours a day, seven days a week, while fending off high-street competition. Aaron Morby reports
Need to know
Elior has been delivering contract catering services to News International staff at their new London offices in Thomas More Square for nearly two years.
General manager Rachael Clarke took up the challenge of feeding the media giant's 2,500 newspaper staff after Elior wrested the five-year deal from rival operator Aramark.
It worked closely with News International to fully understand the customer needs and business demands, demonstrating best practice from its existing London accounts.
Under Clarke's leadership, News International has shifted away from a traditional canteen service to a strongly directed high street-style approach that helps it fend off competition from a host of local food chains.
Elior runs a seven-day week operation catering for The Sun, TheTimes and Sunday Times staff through the main canteen and two coffee shops.
Its contract also includes hospitality, which is billed at a cost basis, and sees a separate team handling as many as five lunch functions a day and on-site drinks and nibbles events for up to 150 people.
Elior scooped the catering contract just as News International was preparing for the phased migration from its huge Wapping site of about 2,500 staff to a smaller corporate office, near Tower Bridge.
Clarke says she knew the scale of the challenge from experience gained after working her way through the ranks at Elior over 15 years - four as general manager on Harrods' catering contract.
"The old days of an industrial-style site with big canteens full of printers were gone; we were competing with the high street in a much more corporate environment," she explains.
"We have a discerning customer and have really upped service levels with our strong retail approach."
Many of Aramark's older staff opted for redundancy, with about half choosing to transfer to Elior at the new site.
Clarke says she gained valuable support from catering agencies, which allowed workers on their books to take full-time jobs as she built up her 42-strong team.
"There was a painful redundancy period, and a big culture change for those staff that joined us. They had a new employer and a new site demanding a different approach. It gave us all a chance to start on a fresh footing," she says.
The migration from Wapping was phased in groups of several hundred from each of the news titles. This afforded valuable breathing space to adjust to the new environment and growing demand from changing customers.
The key to the successful staff transition was to keep focused on good communication, says Clarke.
"You have to set achievable goals and make sure you show the real benefits of achieving them. Many in the industry talk about this but it often gets lost in the day-to-day pressures.
"We've been through a period of training and coaching and are now enjoying the benefits of an atmosphere where you work hard and enjoy being part of a great team."
The professional atmosphere has staff developing meaningful careers and earning promotion.
News International's round-the-clock news operation demands a seven-day service, with catering staff working a 37.5-hour week on a five out of seven days hotel-style rota.
The canteen opens its doors at 7.30am and shuts up shop at 11pm, covering breakfast, lunch, evening and supper services.
Elior runs two coffee shops, one operated under the Illy brand and another offering drinks and baguettes in a similar vein to a Paul's Bakery.
Both coffee shops have fully trained baristas - one earned second place in the Art Latte contest and can bring a smile to the face of even the most grizzled news hack in the morning.
The main canteen draws inspiration from flavours found on the high street. Food concept days are an Elior signature with the Umami menu, aping Wagamama-style cuisine and Chu offering the caterer's take on Chinese and Indian street food.
A Super Food Salad menu plays to health-conscious eaters at News International, with servings of steamed chicken or grilled mackerel dished up with edamame beans and juniper berries among the ingredients.
Elior cascades its motto to strive for excellent customer service down through the business. To this end, Clarke carries out regular market testing using Retail Eye questionnaires and mystery shoppers.
Phrases from this feedback are used to generate Wordle pictograms highlighting popular adjectives describing how customers rate the service at quarterly performance reviews.
News International's canteen is even fitted with a button box, similar to those used at Waitrose, where staff can cast a token vote on simple statements to benchmark service standards and new ideas.
Much of the Elior approach hinges on promoting choice and what is on offer. Clarke says her best supplier is marketing specialist DSCM.
"David Shepherd has worked very closely with us, built our website and done loads of marketing work. He's the sort of person that can deliver anything you want."
Spotlight on Financials
Staff restaurant takings are running at about £3,000 a day, with the bigger coffee shop ringing up £1,000 and the Illy coffee bar taking in about half this sum again.
Clarke estimates her team of five chefs cater for 60% to 70% of News International's staff daily in the staff restaurant - no small feat for an operation that is located close to popular dining areas such as St Katherine's Dock by the Thames.
Rachael Clarke's revelations
Favourite hotel Hotel Du Vin
Favourite restaurant Bella Napoli
Motto With a positive attitude you can climb mountains
If you were not in catering what would you have been? Ballet dancer
What book has inspired you? How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Who do you most admire? Albert Roux
Describe your business in five words Great team, great customer experience
Facts and stats
General manager Rachael Clarke
Head chef Peter Flint
Length of contract 5 years (Running since 2010)
Annual turnover £2m