Style Services Group at Wedgwood Visitor Centre, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Taste of Staffordshire Good Food Award 2012
Style Services Group has a good mix of catering contracts, but it is at Wedgwood Visitor Centre where it is earning serious recognition. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
Need to know Style Services Group is a relatively new kid on the block. Founded in 2007 by John Rathbone and Jim Walker, it has gone on to grow its team to 88 and its annual turnover to £2.3m. The business it has picked up along the way at 14 sites across the country is a good mix too.
"We've been fortunate in that we've developed some chunky sites, including B&I catering and hospitality at a number of government departments," explains Rathbone.
We've also got the only private university in the country at Buckingham."
But it is the company's efforts at Wedgwood Visitor Centre at Barlaston, where it looks after a 200-seat restaurant and 45-seat traditional tearoom that has earned it some serious recognition. After being on site for a little over a year, the Style team at Wedgwood picked up the Taste of Staffordshire Good Food Award.
The caterer also takes care of a coffee shop in the Wedgwood retail outlet in Etruria, the staff restaurant at Barlaston and a thriving events business.
Target market As with all contract catering sites, the target market very much depends on the client. In the case of Wedgwood Visitor Centre, it is unsurprisingly made up of Wedgwood fans, who come from far and wide, frequently as far as Japan.
In addition to servicing the day trippers, there is a thriving events business. The centre's geographically central location near the M6 makes it easily accessible for nationwide organisations to convene.
"We get a lot of charities and recently we hosted the UK Junior Archery Awards night," says Rathbone. "The national organisers are looking for somewhere close to the motorway but we also get a lot of business from Staffordshire organisations because Wedgwood is an iconic local brand and employer."
How it stands out As well as sourcing ingredients locally, which played a big part in the business winning the Taste of Staffordshire award, it is Style's emphasis on getting the basics right that makes it stand out from the crowd.
The traditional dishes on the menu are a guaranteed hit with the hordes of international tourists and everything comes down to the basic principles of using fresh ingredients to provide good food.
But Rathbone is quick to admit that there is plenty of room for creative flair in his kitchens.
"We hosted the Staffordshire Tourism Exhibition for all the coach operators and booking agents. We took that opportunity to not only showcase local produce but to do it in a different and quirky sort of way," he says.
Local favourites such as savoury Staffordshire oatcakes, which traditionally would be wrapped around cheese and bacon and warmed on the potters' kilns to be eaten later, are given sweet makeovers with banana, whisky and crème fraîche to wow potential business.
"That's the sort of challenge I give our talented chefs," adds Rathbone. "I give them some free rein because it also provides job satisfaction."
Future growth "We're very much trying to make this a local destination restaurant," says Rathbone. "We're in an area with a catchment of people who will go out to lunch."
In some cases, the business has flocked to the centre rather than needing to be enticed. Fridays at the tearoom have started to attract in an impromptu mums' club, who can let their little ones play in a dedicated area in the corner, while they get on with the enjoyable task of chatting over a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
The weekend sees many retired Wedgwood staff bring their grandchildren to the restaurant for Sunday lunch and according to Rathbone, the scale of the Wedgwood operation means there aren't many local people who didn't work there themselves or know someone else that did.
Future growth opportunities are also expected to materialise in conjunction with a major refurbishment programme by Wedgwood, which is planned for the factory and visitor centre.
Favourite supplier Style Services Group makes a conscious effort to source locally at each of its sites from Manchester through to Dover, and Wedgwood is no exception. In particular, Rathbone is a huge fan of the Catering Butcher in Stoke-on-Trent, which is the trade arm of the firm's fourth generation family-run retail outlet HH Jackson, because he feels the hands-on owner operator nature of the supplier reflects Style's own values.
"Having a butcher through which we can locally source the products for our mixed grill, for example, is very good," says Rathbone. "It returns wealth to the community and that's what it should be about."
John Rathbone's Revelations
Favourite hotel Dannah Farm Country House
Favourite restaurant Scott's Mayfair
What book has inspired you? The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard
Motto It's hard to soar with the eagles when the turkeys are dragging you down
If you weren't a caterer, what would you have been? A saxophonist
Which caterer do you most admire? The late, great John Huber
Describe your business in five words Real food by real people
Facts and stats
- Owners (of Style Services Group) John Rathbone & Ruth Fenton
- Number of months open 18
- Head chef Carl Lockett
- Average weekly turnover £7,000
- General manager Sharon Goldthorpe
- Number of staff 22
Spotlight on Wedgwood tableware "Everything we dish up is served on Wedgwood tableware," says Rathbone. And why not? Connected to the museum and visitor centre is a Wedgwood retail outlet where fans of the iconic china can stock up, so its use by Style Services will enhance their experience, and quite possibly inspire more purchases.
Thankfully Wedgwood aficionados are very honest, according to Rathbone, and there has been hardly any theft.
"We've got some beautiful Wedgwood china flowers on the tables but no one has pinched one to my knowledge," he explains.
"There are beautiful displays of china all around the restaurant including a teacup and saucer that would cost you £1,500."